I am married to an immigrant who also happens to have the same last name as one of the most despised men in modern history. After 9/11, some immigrants were rounded up and thrown into jail without being charged or given access to lawyers. I worried that my husband was going to become a victim of this anti-immigrant fervor.
My husband, Mario Milosevic, was born in a Yugoslavian refugee camp in Italy. His father was Serbian, his mother Croatian. Before Mario was two years old, he and his young mother left Italy on a ship headed for Canada. Twenty years later, Mario traveled to the U.S. for the first time to attend a writing workshop in Michigan where he met me.
We fell in love and decided Mario would come and live with me in the United States. I was appalled at the questions he was obligated to answer on the many forms he had to fill out in order to become a legal U.S. resident.
"Are you a homosexual?" was one question.
"So what if you were?" I said. "That's not against the law."
"Are you a communist?" was another question.
"So what if you were!" I said. "This is the United State of America. It's not against the law to be a communist!"
"Are you planning on overthrowing the government of the United States?"
What kind of fool would answer "yes" to that question? Of course my husband was not planning on overthrowing anything. He was Canadian, for goodness sake, and he was not political. I was incensed over the questions; Mario answered them without comment. He did not want to call attention to himself.
As a young man, Mario's father had been a loyal communist in Yugoslavia where he worked as a police office. Someone who wanted his job accused him of being disloyal to Tito, and he was put into jail without being charged or given legal representation. After many months, no evidence was discovered against him, so the government released him. Enough time had passed, however, for Mr. Milosevic to become disillusioned with communism. Soon after he got out of jail, he found a boat and rowed himself across the Adriatic Sea to Italy.
Mario grew up hearing this story often, so he understood terrible things could happen if the authorities decided you were trouble. While applying for entry to this country, Mario did everything he was asked to do, and soon, he got his green card, and we were married.
Twenty years later, 9/11 happened. Suddenly even normally liberal people were talking about how the United State had to clamp down on the influx of certain kinds of immigrants. (I suppose they had forgotten 55 million immigrants have settled these shores since the United State began.) On an NPR call-in show where they were discussing the "detainees," most callers said the detainees should be proud to be in jail if it was for the good of the country. I wondered how long the callers would be "proud" if they were thrown into jail without committing any crime.
I recalled the story of Eugenia Ginzberg, a loyal communist in Stalin's Soviet Union. In her memoirs Ginzberg said she was vaguely aware people were being shipped off to the Gulag while she taught at university, but she assumed they had done something wrong to warrant such treatment. Then one day she was sitting on a train on her way to the Gulag. She knew the government had made a mistake in her case, but she was certain everyone else on the train was guilty of some transgression. Then she looked around and realized everyone on that train was thinking the same thing.
When my husband and I visited Canada recently, I worried we might have trouble getting back into the United States because of Mario's last name: Milosevic, the Butcher of the Balkans. Even though we had been told the name Milosevic in Serbia was as common as Smith was here, I was afraid the name might be on a list somewhere: beware the butcher of the Balkans. My mother even said to my husband, "Shave your beard. You look like a terrorist."
Fortunately, nothing happened. The border guards let us come and go after only a question or two. I was relieved.
Several times since 9/11, I have been present when someone starts a harangue about the "problem with immigrants." Once I was in the Southwest, and someone said, "They aren't like us, and they take our jobs." I pointed out that Mexicans had been in the Southwest for hundreds of years before Anglos, if that was the "they" this person was talking about, and the jobs they "took" were often jobs no one else would do. Plus, "I'm married to an immigrant."
"Oh, well, I didn't mean immigrants like him," she said.
"Why? Because he's European?"
A great deal of stammering ensued.
Another time someone said we "really need to be wary of immigrants. They come from different cultures, and they don't understand our culture." Again I said, "My husband is an immigrant."
"Oh, I didn't mean him."
"Why? Because he's white?"
"Well, he's...Actually, I didn't know he was an immigrant."
I always end these conversations with, "All of us are immigrants on this continent or descendants, with the possible exception of Native Americans."
That particular argument never wins me any points. We are here now, people say; so they need to adapt to our ways. Whoever "they" are.
I am glad that so far my husband has not experienced any ill effects of the current anti-immigrant backlash. I often think of the nearly 800 people who were "detained" after 9/11, sometimes for months without access to lawyers or contact with their families. Nearly 500 of them have apparently been deported. How many are still detained? How do they feel about the United States now?
Kim Antieau's latest published novel, Coyote Cowgirl, came out last summer. http://www.kimantieau.com/