I was an illegal immigrant after my family moved to the United States from Greece in 1962. We came over as tourists and decided to stay. The government repeatedly tried to deport us because the United States sharply limited the number of immigrants from European countries. Eventually, with the intervention of a U.S. senator, we became legal residents and citizens.
The dispute over immigration policy has sent protesters into the streets, and led to hot debates over sealing the borders, blocking terrorists and protecting U.S. jobs.
But lost among the arguments are the personal stories of many immigrants and of what they bring to America. What kind of people leave everything they know behind and move here without money, a job or English language skills?
In my experience, it's the same type of people who colonized the New World from Europe; who made the westward expansion; who bet it all on cars, plastics or computers.
Call them risk takers, entrepreneurs, eternal optimists. The point is, they are the people any society -- but especially our diverse, capitalistic society -- needs the most.
These are the people who really believe in the American Dream.
Every family's story is different, and I certainly cannot speak for the intentions of every illegal immigrant. But I believe my own immigrant experience is typical.
My parents lived in Athens, Greece, after their marriage in 1958, and my father, Konstantinos, ran a variety of small businesses. He grew restless under the socialistic Greek society, where it was difficult to improve your lot in life.
My dad had an uncle named George Geranios who moved to Montana in the 1920s, when many young men left impoverished Greece to find their fortunes in places like the United States and Australia. He worked on the railroads.
Big George never married, but he was apparently a good businessman. He owned a ranch, a big apartment building and other property in Great Falls. When he died in 1959, he left this property to my father and my father's four younger brothers.
One by one, the brothers came over to claim their share.
My dad, my mother, my younger brother and I all flew to Great Falls in 1962. I was 3 years old. Call me a jet-back.
My parents immediately became taxpayers: My dad washed dishes at Schell's restaurant in downtown Great Falls, while my mother Dionisia was a maid at the Rainbow Hotel.
By 1965, the Geranios brothers had purchased a billiards parlor, becoming business owners. Within a few years, I was shining shoes, making sodas, brushing down the tables and cleaning the bathrooms of the pool hall.
During our early years in this country, my parents spent some of their scarce money on lawyers to fight repeated deportation attempts. Meanwhile, my mother gave birth to three more children, who all were, automatically, U.S. citizens.
Finally, U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield intervened. He sponsored a special bill in Congress giving us legal residence in the U.S. and putting us on the path to citizenship. This was a relatively common practice, especially when the people involved are productive members of society.
Eventually, both my parents became citizens, which automatically made my brother and me citizens as well. This occurred in 1973, when I was in high school.
We had a typical Greek-American immigrant upbringing. On Greek Independence Day, we dressed in pleated revolutionary war skirts and recited patriotic poems. On the Fourth of July, we set off firecrackers. On Western Easter, we went on egg hunts. On Orthodox Easter, we circled the small church while carrying candles. Name days meant gatherings at people's homes.
My parents went on to operate their own businesses, helping to keep alive the struggling economy of downtown Great Falls. They built a small real estate empire, and sent all five of their kids to college without the benefit of student loans. They were never on welfare, never signed up for reduced school lunches and paid for private health insurance -- all with only grade school educations and rudimentary English skills.
The Greek community in Montana was small but close-knit and supportive. Nearly all the families enjoyed similar successes. The children of first-generation Greeks became doctors and lawyers, businessmen and factory workers.
Eventually, all five of us kids left town for work, leaving my parents alone in Great Falls. In the spring of 2002, they reluctantly sold their apartment buildings and moved out to live with me in Spokane. Ever the businessman, my father bought a 16-unit apartment building to keep himself busy. There would be no golfing retirement for him.
He died of a heart attack suddenly at the age of 81, just before Christmas.
Of course, this country has millions of hard-working, native-born Americans. And not every immigrant is the embodiment of American industriousness. But would this nation have been better off if my parents had not moved here? I don't think so.
Nicholas Geranios is a correspondent for the Associated Press in Spokane, where he still gets to practice his Greek.