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Another Immigrant Story

Sep 6, 2017

As you almost certainly know, President Donald Trump said yesterday that his administration would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Currently, the DACA program is allowing something like 800,000 young, undocumented Americans, people brought to this country as children, to stay here without fear of deportation.

Trump gave Congress six months to “fix” the program, but it isn’t clear what he will do if they don’t. Campaigning for the midterm elections will be underway six months from now, and there are certain to be some embattled GOP incumbents who don’t want the president to do anything that might further jeopardize them.

In formally announcing the President’s decision, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “failure to enforce the (immigration) laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime.”

When I heard that, however, I thought of another immigrant who certainly wouldn’t have been allowed here today, and broke the law in applying for citizenship.

The story I am about to tell you was first reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston and biographer Gwenda Blair, and it concerns a 16-year-old German boy who would later be called Fred, who ran away from home to avoid eventually being drafted. He managed to get on a packed steamship headed for America in 1885.

Though he was a minor, he wouldn’t have been eligible for the DACA program had it then existed, because he wasn’t brought here by his parents, but came on his own, lying about his age. He landed in New York, but eventually went to Seattle, where he opened a less-than-five-star restaurant with a curtained-off area that researchers say “most likely served as a low-rent” bordello.

Later, according to Johnston, Fred would build a more elaborate hotel for similar purposes north of Seattle, a building he erected on land he didn’t own.

Later, when the Klondike gold rush began, Fred went to the Yukon Territory, where, according to Johnston, “he built a sort of bar and grill, calling the joint the Arctic. It offered hard liquor and ‘sporting ladies,’ as the prostitutes were called.”

Hardly a model immigrant, you might say. But to add insult to injury, Fred, after becoming a citizen after lying about the year he came to New York, decided to go back to Germany. His wife hated this country. But though Fred went home with considerable money, Germany expelled him as an undesirable draft dodger.

So, for the rest of his life he lived in New York City. But while he had become rich, that wouldn’t buy Fred a long life. He was still in his 40s when he would become one of half a million Americans who would perish in the great flu epidemic of 1918, at the end of the First World War.

His wife and 12-year-old son, who also was named Fred, would survive. Because of his early death, that long-ago immigrant would never live to see his child grow up.

Fred had been dead, in fact, nearly 30 years before his best-known grandson was born. That descendant, by the way, is President Donald Trump.

You can read more about all this in David Cay Johnston’s book The Making of Donald Trump. Given the president’s decision, I thought you might like to know.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.