For many men drafted to serve in the U.S. Army, being rejected would be welcome news. Not so for Otto Lefkowitz, who failed an English test at the induction center. He arrived in America three years earlier, on a small freighter that left Hamburg. On the other side of the Atlantic, his heart leaped at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. At Ellis Island, he presented false papers. By the time he was successfully processed and released to a relative in New York City, Otto Lefkovitz had a new identity: Robert LeRoy. The new immigrant found his way to the Catskills, where he worked as a baker’s assistant at a resort that was New York’s version of Mar-a-Lago.
This illegal immigrant wouldn’t take no from the U.S. Army. He dictated a letter to send to President Truman demanding a second chance. Someone responded to the immigrant’s letter. He was told to report for a second test. He passed and served in an intelligence unit, where his knowledge of Eastern European languages was of value to the Army in the emerging Cold War.
Mr. LeRoy eventually left with an honorable discharge and started a construction company in Chicago, a city where he knew no one. By the time he died in 2005, Mr. LeRoy was a wealthy man who had employed hundreds of construction workers, and many other employees on his sprawling farm in the northwest suburbs.
That’s my Dad. At an early age, I knew he was different from everyone else in my life because my Dad spoke in a thick, Hungarian accent.
My Dad was also different because every day, starting when I was about eight years-old, he wrote a list of chores for me. This came naturally to my Dad because at our long breakfast table he made out work lists for his construction crews. School or summer vacation, the lists were as constant as his kisses to my cheeks. My Dad’s lists would fail an English test; and his spelling proficiency never improved in the next ten years that I would be dispatched to these mind numbing chores. If I couldn’t figure out an item on the list, I asked my Mom for help because I knew that my Dad was sensitive about his poor spelling.
These lists invariably put me in daily contact with my Dad’s immigrant workers. Like my Dad, they were not proficient in English—some knew no English. Most were from Poland and Mexico, one from Finland— a seemingly odd assortment unless you know Chicago neighborhoods like my Dad. At times, the men teased me because I knew English but no other language. They had a point.
At a recent White House event, President Trump threw his support behind the RAISE Act. It’s a bill that would require legal immigrants to pass an English test—not for citizenship, but simply to be admitted to the U.S. This law would have stopped my Dad at Ellis Island, or back in Hamburg. It would have stopped the Polish and Mexican workers who raised kids that are contributing members of our society. The RAISE Act also would have taken tens of millions of dollars every year out of the manufacturing sector that came from my Dad’s purchase orders for expensive windows and casings, steel and wood doors, insulation, siding, paint, shingles, lumber, steel, and concrete. Hopefully, we won’t pass the RAISE Act: It is certain to lower us.