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Immigration speech hit all the right notes

I don’t know if President Obama’s sweeping actions on immigration will be ruled legal or not, or will even work in the end.

But the speech he gave was the high point of his presidency — by far. When he said about America that “We know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too,” I got a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. That hasn’t happened to me during a political speech in, well, forever.

I admit, though, that my reaction wasn’t rational. It’s because of what I’ve learned in recent years about my own grandfather.

My late grandfather came to America from Australia. The reason he was Down Under in the first place was because one of his ancestors, my crazy great-great-uncle Ephraim, had been convicted of embezzlement and shipped to Australia in the 1800s when it was England’s penal colony.

So that’s revelation No. 1: When my grandfather stepped onto Ellis Island in 1908, he was from a family with some criminal history.

The second thing I’ve recently learned is that my grandfather had been a homeless teen runaway. His father was abusive, so he took off when he was 14 and lived for a time on the streets around Melbourne.

Later, his name showed up on the roster of a home for vagrant youth called the “Try Society.” It was a place for “street-corner boys” to get meals, a job and some moral redemption, away from city slums.

It was there he probably found his life’s work: religion. He started roving around lumber camps on horseback, preaching to the workers. He was too poor to qualify for the elites-only college system at that time in Australia. So like a gazillion dreamers before and since, he eventually set his sights on America.

When my grandfather came through Ellis Island, he was poor, single and from a sketchy family in a country that most Americans knew as a haven for criminals. Luckily for me, there weren’t many immigration rules or watch lists back then, so they waved him through.

Would someone like him be allowed into the country today? Maybe temporarily, to go to school. But after that?

“We were strangers once, too,” Obama said. He was talking about his own father, from Africa. But that stranger was also my grandfather. He was as strange as strangers can get, twice — first when he was homeless, and then when he got off a boat more than 10,000 miles from home. Both times someone gambled and let him in.

He went on to get a doctorate in theology and become a Baptist minister.

Now, I know it doesn’t follow logically from my anecdote that we necessarily have to let 4 million undocumented immigrants stay in the country, as Obama is ordering. My story also won’t sway you if you feel the real problem is that Obama is ruling like a monarch, or that there’s too much immigration already, or that people living here illegally broke the law and should be punished for it.

Mine isn’t, as I said, a rational argument.

But it is why Obama is going to win on immigration, and the Republicans, ultimately, will lose. Because he nailed it about the heart of a stranger. Everybody’s got some version of a roots story like mine, even if they don’t know the specifics (I’ve only been learning mine in the past few years). It’s who we are at the core.

“Whether your forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in,” Obama closed.

Dreams of his father, of my grandfather plus millions more dreams echoed and foretold. Obama’s first story was always his best.

Danny Westneat is a staff columnist for The Seattle Times.

©2014 The Seattle Times

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