Migrations Refugees of Extraordinary Ability: A Mythology
Whether fleeing the Russian Revolution or running from martial law-era Taiwan, my families have made some narrow escapes.
Run. Just go. Burn it down, get out of here, you’re safer on the move than standing still. You’ll start over, somewhere safe, and everything will be okay. You have built everything you own with these hands, so you can build it again. Save money in strange places, squirrel it away, into a sweater lining here, or a change purse there, just in case you need to go. Run. Seek refuge.
My family is a family of runners. Whether it was fleeing a mandatory draft into the Czar’s army before the Russian Revolution, dodging the Japanese during World War II, or running from the Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist soldiers in martial law-era Taiwan, my parents’ families have made some narrow escapes.
Both of my parents are American citizens, as am I, so we have no immediate memories of having to run, having to resettle. But sometimes, I wonder if the urge to flee is an inherited trait, like my hazel eyes or my thick brown hair. I always loved storms when I was a kid, when we lost power and had to make do with flashlights and candles. Some might say I’m at my best in a crisis situation, that emergencies are when I feel most alive.
After Hurricane Sandy, when my apartment had no power, water, and heat, I made toasted pita pockets in a toaster oven filled with eight tea-light candles radiating heat throughout the metal box, and managed to boil a small metal cup of water. It was a far cry from what my ancestors had to go through, but I drank my hot water and ate my warm bread and counted myself as a lucky descendent of many survivors.
While my grandmother Anna, a half-Chinese orphan who grew up in New York’s Chinatown, holds our family’s record for the most death-defying escapes, it was my Russian-Jewish great-grandfather who was our family’s first refugee, who ran and took a flying leap toward the shores of American soil to make his life his own.
It was 1912, and the Czar was drafting peasants into his army. The man who would become Joseph Kelber grew up in a small Jewish town near Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. His name wasn’t really Joseph. According to my grandmother and great uncle, it was Herschel Madden, and he must have had a large family, from the murmurings of my grandmother, though none of them came with him. His family had already endured the “actions” taken against the Jewish settlements, burning homes and killing families, and he kept as low a profile as possible. His father had a good business building windmills, and paid the Russian soldiers regular bribes to keep them away.
But their luck ran out when his father built a faulty windmill, and the family business went bankrupt. One day, Russian soldiers pounded on the door, and said, “Come with us.” They said it was “the draft,” but nobody knew where the young Jewish men went once they were taken, and they were never seen again. In the center of town were more soldiers, and they motioned to him and his delegation to follow. But right as the group rounded a corner, Herschel fled, ducking into an abandoned building and hiding in the stairwell until the street was empty.
After that, he ran. His friend, Joseph Kelber, gave him his passport, and with that, Herschel absconded into the night, at the darkest hour when the moon retreated behind a patch of clouds. He walked through the forest for weeks, hoping he was heading north through Prussia and west toward Germany. After quickly running out of the meager food supplies he brought, and then begging or stealing a few bites here and there, he somehow arrived in Hamburg.
From the dark, cold, foggy journey of a thousand miles through the forest, the new Joseph Kelber was born, just as Herschel Madden shed the last trappings of his former self. His new alter ego was unafraid of trying anything. Once he arrived in America, he had stints selling shoes, digging and building root cellars, and attempting any number of odd jobs before he established and ran the cafeteria at the Minneapolis Municipal Auditorium.
His wife Mary was from his hometown, and as a teenager, she had heard about Joseph, and his escape to America. I’ll never know the details of her trip, but she came to Minneapolis to try to find him, a familiar face from back home. My mother once asked her grandmother why she came to America, and she said, “I don’t think you understand. There was nothing for me there.” One day, she walked into the shoe store where Joseph worked, and he sold her a pair of shoes. They were married three weeks later.
The Kelbers tried to send away for their family members to come and join them, but no one wanted to leave their homeland. Although the Americans pleaded with their sisters and brothers and uncles and cousins on the eve of World War II, the majority of their family members in the homeland placated them. It will all blow over . Those who stayed were all murdered in cold blood along with 36,000 other Jews during the massacre at Babi Yar in September of 1941, the single largest two-day massacre of the Holocaust.
No one in our family knows for sure what happened during the first twelve years of my grandmother Anna’s life. An orphan toughened on the streets of Chinatown, she came to live with a Lutheran missionary named Miss Banta at the age of twelve. But her adamant silence about those first twelve years spoke volumes. Through a series of opportunities created by the generosity of church donors and the strength of her intellect, Anna finished high school and was able to attend college at Ohio Wesleyan, where she met a dashing and rich Taiwanese man, Thomas Liao, whom she married and followed back to Taiwan.
Anna was an American citizen, and this became a liability when Japanese soldiers during World War II accused the family of being spies. But after the war, their American and international connections helped Thomas decide to launch the first opposition movement to Chiang Kai-Shek’s martial-law Kuomintang government in Taiwan in 1947.
He was on an arrest list, and soldiers came to search their apartment in Taipei, ransacking its contents as they looked for him. Anna pleaded with them to stop, but she didn’t let on that Thomas had been traveling abroad in Shanghai and had no intention of coming back. After the soldiers left, she rushed to the US Embassy, begging a consulate staffer friend to help her. He gave her a folded-up American flag, and told her to fly it over her door. A talisman of safety, the flag would protect her.
But Anna also knew the family had to get out of Taiwan. She enlisted the help of the family’s business manager to take her two older children on a boat to Hong Kong, while she traveled separately with her youngest infant son. My aunt remembers that “there was no time to pack a suitcase, my brother and I just left in the night with the manager,” and hoped for a reunion with their parents soon.
When I interviewed for my current job as a technical writer at an immigration law firm, my boss asked me, “What interests you about working here? Why immigration law?”
I gulped. I wasn’t especially interested in either immigration or law; I was trying to leave a bad job and had a friend who had worked at this firm for two years. I liked the idea of getting paid to write, and didn’t really care what I would be writing about, or for what purpose.
I reached deep into my subconscious mind and took a stab at a reasonable-sounding answer. “My family,” I said. “I have a very personal relationship to immigration because my grandmother brought her kids to America to save them from the danger they faced in Taiwan.”
As time went on, however, I accidentally found immigration law fascinating. With no knowledge of the law or intimate connections to lawyers, I had seen law as the most boring-sounding application of an English major’s liberal arts degree. But when I learned about the intricate arguments that we would have to make on behalf of our clients to establish their green card eligibility in the EB-1a and EB-1b categories —“Alien of Extraordinary Ability” and “Outstanding Researcher/Professor”—I would feel otherwise. I became their advocate, my pen full of vitriolic ink. Now I use rhetoric to slice away bureaucratic doubts as we seek to establish, by a preponderance of evidence, the substantial benefit these foreign nationals will bring to our nation.
On Friday afternoon, January 27, 2017, Donald Trump signed the first travel ban, an executive order that slammed shut America’s borders to people from seven countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen, effective immediately . I learned from a barrage of emails that weekend shared by immigration attorneys across the country that apparently the order did not clarify—to border patrol agents, customs officers, travelers, consular officers, or Department of State employees—what it means to be from somewhere .
While the most obvious victims of the ban, in transit or otherwise, were citizens of each country holding that country’s passport, customs agents also felt empowered to detain the following people for hours or even days across airports and at our nation’s borders:
US Citizens born in any of these countries;
US Legal Permanent Residents (green card holders) who were citizens of or born in these countries;
Canadian and British nationals with dual citizenship in these countries;
Foreign doctors from these countries with valid visas who were supposed to return to work;
Foreign students with valid visas who were trying to return to school;
Chinese nationals, Australian nationals (such as famed children’s author Mem Fox), and other nationals not on the list of travel banned countries with valid visas, who customs agents felt empowered to torture for their own enjoyment.
The next week at work brought a barrage of panicked phone calls and emails from clients of all nationalities. “Trump hates Mexico, do you think he’ll extend the ban to Mexico or Guatemala?” “What about Pakistan?” “I heard there’s a rumor he’ll extend it to Lebanon.” We had no choice but to respond in a careful, cautious way. We just don’t know what will happen next. Here’s what we do know. Anything could change at any time.
I read the full text of the executive order, the temporary stay to stop deportation of mid-flight freshly banned nationals—a midnight victory for the ACLU—and the full text of the Ninth Circuit Appeals decision. We cheered when the courts struck the ban down.
Less than a month later came Travel Ban 2.0. While Travel Ban 2.0 made the news, it was almost as if everyone had gotten so exhausted from the outrage over Travel Ban 1.0 that no one could get their fighting spirit back up to the same level as before. We shouted on a street corner in lower Manhattan when a federal judge from Hawaii temporarily blocked Travel Ban 2.0. But I still continue to privately mourn our country’s cyclical reluctance to take in refugees, from Jews during World War II to Syrian refugees right now.
Our borders have never been wide open. What I really want to tell people after two years of working in an immigration lawyer’s office is, America’s immigration laws are already restrictive! The visa process already requires lengthy background checks, and the green card process can take several years from start to finish. Refugees spend more than two years in a comprehensive vetting process, all while trying to survive in subhuman conditions, before a very few refugee visas are issued.
If Anna hadn’t been an American citizen, my father and his siblings would have most likely been barred from reaching American shores. While the Magnuson Act overturned the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, it only allowed for a quota of barely one hundred Chinese immigrants per year. That’s less than ten per month. My two-year-old father Richard and his siblings were effectively refugees, seeking out political asylum, and Anna couldn’t stay in Hong Kong forever, after her husband was arrested in Japan by Chiang Kai-Shek’s henchmen and threatened with extradition back to Taiwan. A return to Taiwan for any of them meant certain death.
Cut off from access to money, stability, and safety, her children’s only hope for a future was in America. Anna saved up money by selling prescription drugs she acquired in Hong Kong on the black market with her cousin, who lived in Japan—where the demand for antibiotics after World War II far outstripped the supply. Eventually she had enough for third-class tickets on a steamship bound for San Francisco, a two-week trip for the family, with an additional week of transcontinental railroad travel, to the Lutheran mission run by her adoptive mother in New York City. By the grace of Anna’s citizenship and American naturalization laws, they made it.
Every day I see the types of immigrants who are applying to live and work here legally, our aliens of extraordinary ability. The legal standard is very narrow; the threshold for excellence is extremely high. Petitioners must demonstrate that they are one of a very few at the top of their field of employment, and that their original contributions have had major significance in their field. They usually also have to demonstrate that they have received sustained national or international acclaim—all of which is extremely difficult to prove, in lieu of submitting a Nobel Prize. And yet our office is teeming with people who want to shoot for this: brain surgeons and molecular biologists and structural engineers and interventional cardiologists and award-winning journalists and anthropologists and clinical oncologists.
Immigrants and their children and grandchildren are what make the fabric of our society so rich, energizing our culture and economy. It may be mythology, but it is the American mythology. One day you arrive, the next you may start a business that benefits all Americans. After Travel Ban 1.0 was signed, Google co-founder Sergey Brin went to the airport to protest, saying , “I’m here because I’m a refugee.”
My grandmother Beatrice, Joseph’s daughter, was the first woman to attend the University of Minnesota Medical School. My father’s brothers spent their long careers as science teachers, educating thousands of students over several decades, and my father built many of the sets for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions in Central Park for many years. My mother runs her own architecture business, and was the only woman in her architecture classes in the 1970s.
Not every immigration story is one of refugees or of aliens of extraordinary ability. But I also refuse to believe that the majority of Americans are actually afraid to let people in who need so desperately to find a new home and rebuild a new life from scratch. We have all known someone or been someone who needed to start again, who felt their heart pounding in their throat, and heard in their gut, Run . Just run. Go. You’ll start over, somewhere safe, and everything will be okay.