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Saturday, November 22, 2014
Blue State Blues: My Immigrant Father's Warning—'When Illegality
Becomes the Law'
by Joel B. Pollak
Nov 21, 2014 8:02 PM PT
I am a legal immigrant. I did not choose to come to the United States—I was carried here, by my parents, who arrived with one suitcase and nothing else. They were not fleeing political oppression, religious persecution, or economic collapse. In fact, as white South Africans in the 1970s, they were born into a life of exclusive privilege and prosperity. My father had grown up poor but made his way to medical school. A life of wealth awaited.
Yet my parents chose to immigrate to the United States instead, living in a basement apartment with no family nearby, enduring a Chicago winter they could never possibly have imagined. My father had to redo part of his medical residency as my mother tended to an eight-week-old infant alone.
After many years and much hard work, they achieved the American dream. But they certainly would have been more comfortable in South Africa.
Years later, I asked my father why they had left South Africa. To this day, he has the same answer: "Illegality became the law."
As students, he and my mother had both volunteered in the black and "coloured" townships where whites were rarely seen. They saw, firsthand, the injustice of a regime that stripped citizens of their vote, their property, and their dignity. And at that time, they could not have foreseen Nelson Mandela's "miracle."
The problem was not just racism or discrimination. The core of apartheid South Africa's sickness was that the ruling party, once in power, steadily dismantled all legal and political obstacles to its supreme, racist rule.
When the courts struck down the government's attempts to disenfranchise black voters, the regime packed the courts. When political opponents arose, they were "banned"—forbidden to speak in public or even gather in groups.
Actions that were illegal—a violation of existing statutes, or of common law, or natural rights—were enshrined as the supreme law of the land.
And that is what bothered my father and mother as they came of age. They knew that blacks were not the only people who were threatened by apartheid's illiberal democracy—though certainly black South Africans bore the brunt of suffering.
They knew that no one, white or black, was ultimately safe.
They knew because friends who attended political rallies went missing and returned from interrogations with the security police, shaken to the core. They knew because they discovered, through their medical training and public service, that the government was hiding an entire world from the (white) electorate. They knew because they were often singled out, as Jews, by a regime that actually cared little for its professed Christian values.
When they decided to leave South Africa, they had other options: Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, and elsewhere. They chose the United States, embracing the unique kind of freedom that flourishes here precisely because of the Constitution that has remained, until now, the foundation of communal life. They immigrated legally, and we became proud citizens after ten years, taking the oath in a Chicago courtroom in July 1987.
We came to the United States because of the rule of law. America did not offer a "better" life. It offered a life of moral dignity.
Some Americans—understandably, perhaps—take that for granted.
Some argue—as President Barack Obama often does—that the process of political action does not matter, only the result. The ends justify the means.
That is when illegality can become the law.
And that is what happened in America Thursday night.