Stephen Gottlieb: My Undocumented Friend

Sep 26, 2017

A friend since my law school days knew he’d been adopted. We saw a lot of each other when we both lived in New York City, where I met his adoptive parents. In a distinguished career, he’s been president of his professional society, recipient of honorary degrees in the US, France, and Greece, an advisor to the Director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and he taught at several of this country’s finest universities and war colleges.

A few years ago, when we ran into each other at a professional meeting, he told me that he had discovered that his birth mother had tossed him out the window of a train headed for the concentration camps into the waiting arms of someone she hoped would save her infant son. He was working on trying to learn more about what happened.

My friend has been traveling in Europe but we’ve been in touch and I wrote and asked him what if anything he had found out. He wrote me back:

The short take on my background is that fortuitous circumstances produced reasonable evidence that I was born in France to a foreign family who had fled the Nazis, most likely from Germany. I was hidden in a village, smuggled out of France by the Jewish underground, entered the US as an illegal immigrant, was sent to an orphanage and adopted by an American family.

That of course is the family I knew. He adds that “I've managed to track down and interview people involved in these several steps.”

My friend was a “childhood arrival” in the language of Obama’s executive order establishing “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or DACA. It allows people who were brought here as children to stay, study and work here without being deported so long as they behaved themselves properly. That’s the order that President Trump is trying to terminate. My friend was brought here as an undocumented infant. His birth parents likely perished in the concentration camps, without knowing what became of their son.

When I asked him if I could quote him for this commentary, he expanded on the process of his becoming an American:

immigration officials [looked] the other way when the group of 100 children I was with – all older than me – were offloaded at night from our boat and entered the country as illegal immigrants. We were sent to orphanages, from which I was liberated [by] the American family who adopted me. In NYC in the 1940s adoptions took five years to become legal, so I well remember appearing in court and telling the judge, in response to his questions, that my parents loved me and treated me well. He in turn had the court issue me a birth certificate with NYC as my place of birth, thus laundering me.

Half a century later, my friend is widely admired. “Most remarkably,” he added: “my German colleagues – many of whom are former students or post-docs – took it upon themselves to do something,” even though he didn’t have his original surname or birthdate, so that, in addition to his American citizenship, “courtesy of the German parliament – I am [also] a German citizen.”

I can only thank heaven that he and his boat weren’t among those this country turned back during World War II. For me and my friend, the issue of DACA is very personal.

Stephen E. Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School emeritus and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

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