“My dear Mr. President” – My Illegal Grandfather’s Last-Hope Letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt

When my American-born mother was seven, and just becoming fluent in English, the United States government threatened her immigrant father with deportation. And for good reason.

After fighting on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – part of the Central Powers opposing the Allies during World War I – my grandfather escaped his war-torn country for a better life in America. However, he didn’t come through Ellis Island.

I have no documentation of his passage, but I do know that his ship docked in Canada and he slipped across the border.

The most likely reason for this is the Immigration Act of 1921, passed just before my grandfather crossed the Atlantic. The act sought to limit the number of post-war immigrants pouring into America by setting a quota on each nationality, based on the previous census. Without a valid visa, my grandfather could not gain entry to the country of his dreams.

Miraculously, with no English language skills whatsoever, he made his way down to New Jersey, where his brother and sister had already settled. He embraced his new life as he embraced his new country, and soon married and had a family.

My grandparents wedding, Feb. 16, 1929.

My grandparents’ wedding day, Feb. 1929.

But by 1940, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) finally caught up with him. No matter that he supported a wife and three children. His time had run out.

“We’re moving back to Hungary,” my mother told all her friends. The idea excited the rosy-cheeked girl. Her mother and father, however, were not at all happy about the prospect of about returning to Europe. Before WWI, their families had labored in Hungary’s vineyards. Quite simply, they were peasants. Now they had a neat little row house. My grandfather planted garlic, peppers and onions in his postage-stamp garden, and his wife rode the city bus. Best of all, they were working for a brighter future for their children. By 1940, the “old country” seemed far away. Going back would be like turning back the clock.

But what were they to do? The first immigration lawyer they hired was a scamming scoundrel who pocketed their money and did nothing on their behalf. After exhausting the appeals process, and spending two years under constant threat of deportation, my grandfather believed his only hope was the President himself, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“[W]hat a land this was for a man that wanted to make a living, and have the freedom that mankind should have on this earth,” my grandfather wrote to Roosevelt through his new lawyer, who he only prayed would help him.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my grandfather – and my grandmother – who sacrificed much in order to call this country their home. They, like the millions who came before and after them, fled their old homes out of desperation, but also with amazing courage and hope.

Here’s the original letter that brought my grandfather his freedom, and finally, in 1946, United States citizenship.  A typed transcription follows.nemeth 1 larger

nemeth 2 (1)

 Below is the typed transcription of the letter. Any apparent errors are as they appear in the source text.

My dear Mr. President:

I beg of you to forgive me, for taking this liberty of writing you, but my plight is one that deserves pity.

With your kind permission, I will relate my complete story to your Excellency, you have always shown interest in human need, and the pursuit of happiness of the individual, and I am one who is seeking happiness, not only for myself, but my dear wife, and three lovely children, from the age of one year to the age of seven years.

I came to America some fourteen, or fifteen years ago from a country that was completely ruined, conditions economically being at the lowest in years. As the whole world remembers the conditions all through Europe of the Great War, in my country there was nothing but starvation, hunger, and sickness. I was then a young man, recently discharged from the Army, and seeing that my country was a total loss, without any future for a man of my age, then only twenty-four years of age, I decided to make myself a home, where I could secure a future through my labor, and my efforts. I had always heard of America being a promising land. I had a brother, and a sister here in New Jersey, and they always wrote and told us what a land this was for a man that wanted to make a living, and have the freedom that mankind should have on this earth, in my country a poor man never had any freedom, particularly the working man, so I decided to come to America, which I did, and landed in Canada, there I stayed only six weeks. I had no one there, and did not know anyone. The nearest one to my family was a brother here in Trenton, New Jersey. But I tried to come over the border into the United States, and found out that it couldn’t be done, of course, I was handicapped, because I could not speak English, knowing only the Hungarian language. I was born and reared in Hungary, outside of Budapest. I couldn’t find anyone to speak for me, and I could not explain myself, anyway I managed to get into the U.S. A. illegally. My passport being valid only in Canada.

I came to Trenton, and immediately secured employment, the same job that I still hold today. I was working and still am, at the River View Cemetery. I was married a few years later and raised a family of three children, proud to say born and raised right here in Trenton, New Jersey, they go to school, all excepting the youngest, which is about eighteen months old.

Mr. President, I have never in my life been a burden to my community. I have never asked for relief or any charity at all. I have as clean a record as any man could want. I have certificates from the Budapest Police Bureau proving my records, and I also got one from the Trenton Police Dept. Never have been charged with any crime. My only crime, being my entry into the United States, and that I did merely seeking peace and happiness at the expense of no one. I have been very happy since I married and have my family. The only happiness that a poor man has, is to work for a living to support his wife and children and that I have always cheerfully done, provide for my family, as humble as I am, whatever I ever made I have always given them, and through fourteen long years, I have never missed a day’s work, and believe me, Mr. President, I work. I am a gravedigger, and my boss, Mr. Atkinson has promised me work as long as I want to work, and that will be a long time.

Now for the past two years, the Emigration Authorities have been wanting to deport me. So I have engaged lawyers, and have spent quite a sum of money, that I have to take from the mouths of my children to pay the lawyers, and until today, all I get is reprieves, and now my last reprieve is up on April 1 of this year, 1940. If I were to be deported, my family would perish, I am their only means of support, and where else could I go? I have no trade, I have no education, because my family was very poor, and we all had to work since we were big enough to walk. I was lucky enough to get the job that I now have, and kept by always reporting to work, and by complying with the order of my superior.

I want to stay in America till I die, and my children and wife want to stay here also, especially my children, having been born here. I have appealed to all source and all my friends are willing to help me, but no one can do anything, that is why I have appealed to you, and beg you to do anything in your power to keep me in this country, not for my sake, but for the sake of my wife and my three little children, Mr. President, for two years, I lived a life of hell, always in the shadow of despair, expecting any moment to be picked up and imprisoned and then deported, and I can always live with this haunting me day and nite. I presume after two years of despair, I have paid my penalty in full, and I am appealing to you, Mr. President, to please help in this matter. You have proved yourself a great humanitarian, and you understand human needs, and the struggle of men for a peaceful paradise in this world, and my paradise is my home and my family. I have put my complete history before you, every bit of it is the truth, so help me, God. I have all papers and all documents that I may need to prove my case.

I have all confidence and hopes that you will help me, in this hour of need, and I beg your, Mr. President to forgive, for taking the liberty of molesting you, but you are my last and only hope.

I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart for any courtesy that you may extend to me.  I remain your humble subject.


No matter how much, or how hard, many Americans today would like to swing the gate shut, we will always be a nation of immigrants. The notion of a minority is an illusion created by those who believe that by willing it to be so –  if they clap their hands hard enough – nothing will ever change. But they will not succeed.

Immigration doesn’t solve the world’s problems. But it offers a compassionate solution as world leaders come to grips with overwhelming problems – problems that threaten to keep innocent people enslaved to tyrants who would rather see them fearful instead of safe. Hungry instead of nourished. Ignorant instead of educated. And sometimes imprisoned, or even dead. Anything except free.

Not that we don’t have our own problems in America, but we should always be a haven for those who continue to seek refuge within our borders. Because waves of immigration are like the waves of an ocean, and each generation must go with the tide. FFG


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