Like most subjects these days being debated in Washington D.C. ad nauseum, I’m growing weary listening to and reading reports about the proposed immigration bill.
I realize that it’s important, given the increasing problems with illegal aliens within our borders. But like most proposals in Congress, it’s mired in controversy without any clear-cut resolution.
While reading the recent obituary of Mario Passaro, formerly of Farrell, who emigrated from Italy to the United States when he was 14, I realized how far different today’s immigration landscape is from conditions after the turn of the 20th Century. Mario, who was 87, was a friend of my late father, and I knew all of his children, especially his oldest daughter Colleen, with whom I graduated from Farrell High in 1970.
Mario's story -- learning our language, getting a job and soon after arriving on U.S. soil serving our country in World War II -- isn't one associated with most modern-day immigrants.
My thoughts wandered to the immigration of my grandfather, Pasquale Lenzi, who arrived at Ellis Island on May 23, 1906, as a 19-year-old looking for a better way of life that America provided. Like Mario, he was from Bagnoli Irpino, Italy, and like Mario, one of the first orders of business was to get a job.
According to records at Ellis Island, he spent a few days on Mulberry Street in the Little Italy section of New York City before heading to South Sharon (Farrell) to stay with relatives.
He had boarded the ship Indiana in the Port of Napoli in Italy, and endured the two-week trip to America on a $30 ticket in steerage paid for by his father.
Steerage was the cheapest way to travel for immigrants and the conditions were miserable for the thousands of Europeans. Bathrooms were few, privacy was negigible, and meals were skimpy. Overall, conditions were filthy.
But the sacrifices by my grandfather and others like him were worth what waited ahead in the land of opportunity.
Like other immigrants of that generation, my grandfather learned the language and became a laborer and retired from Sharon Steel Corp. I have a shoebox of keepsakes, and one of the items in it is his employee ID card from Sharon Steel.
He was check number 6689 and his employment serial number was 23722. He was listed as Peter Lenzi in Sharon Steel’s records, and listed his date of birth as March 22, 1888.
My grandfather died when I was a senior at Penn State, and his Sharon Steel ID has served as a source of inspiration throughout my life.
Every time I look at it, I don’t see a mere company ID card, but I see all of the blood and sweat, and can imagine the difficulties from all directions in getting here and becoming a naturalized citizen.
I wonder about his amazement and joy as the Indiana passed the Statue of Liberty, his eyes catching a glimpse of his new homeland for the first time.
I wonder the level of anxiety, having to leave family behind, and arriving in a strange land with an uncertain future – the only consolation having familiar faces awaiting in South Sharon.
When I was growing up, grandpa would tell me stories about the Old Country. In his family were acres of chestnut trees, apparently worth some money by standards in the early 1900s.
I often wonder what happened to the orchard, as did my grandfather many years after he had arrived in America.
On the back of his Sharon Steel ID card, it reads in all caps “This card must be surrendered upon termination of employment.” It’s really old, but I have it, and it’s still giving me goosebumps.
Jim Raykie is the executive editor of The Herald and writes this column on Mondays.