Time Machine

TIME MACHINE - An immigrant's story: In 1930s, a Syrian-born boy fought to stay with his mother in Cedar Rapids

Fred Abdnour, at age 11, is shown with the Rev. Joseph Kacere of the St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in Cedar Rapids. Kacere was instrumental is organizing the effort to allow the child, an illegal immigrant, to remain in the United States. (Gazette clipping)
Fred Abdnour, at age 11, is shown with the Rev. Joseph Kacere of the St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in Cedar Rapids. Kacere was instrumental is organizing the effort to allow the child, an illegal immigrant, to remain in the United States. (Gazette clipping)
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Immigration struggles are nothing new.

Take the case of Fred Abdnour, born in Syria in 1923, and 8 years old when he illegally crossed the border from Mexico into the United States.

Fred’s father had died when he was a toddler. After Fred’s Syrian grandmother attempted to kidnap the child several times, his mother, Rachel, took Fred to Mexico. She had wanted to come to the United States but didn’t have the right papers — a necessity since the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 — and the two settled in Tampico, Mexico.

When Rachel became ill and was hospitalized, she left Fred in the care of a Mexican family that became the target of Mexican revolutionaries. The family fled with Fred to Texas. An uncle retrieved Fred from a Texas village and brought him to Cedar Rapids, where he was united with his maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Nassif.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, Rachel married Fred Shada, a U.S. citizen, thereby becoming a U.S. citizen, though her citizenship did not extend to Fred. Rachel and her husband moved to Cedar Rapids and reclaimed Fred.

In October 1932, someone reported the family to immigration authorities. The investigation found 10-year-old Fred was in the country illegally, and he was ordered to go to El Paso, Texas, where immigration officials would escort him across the border — even though the child didn’t know anyone in that country.

Rachel, frantic that her son was about to be deported, turned for help to her pastor, the Rev. Joseph Kacere of St. George Syrian Orthodox Church in Cedar Rapids. They had little success.

With little time left and even less hope, Kacere made plans to escort Fred to the border. But first, Kacere took the story to The Gazette, where a reporter wrote about the family’s dilemma.

To Court

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Alerted to the problem, state Sen. Frank C. Byers of Linn County and John B. Finney, a Cedar Rapids real estate broker, joined Kacere in petitioning the district court in Cedar Rapids to allow Fred to remain with his family.

They also took the problem to U.S. Rep. Cyrenus Cole, a Republican who represented Iowa’s 5th Congressional District. Cole convinced the Bureau of Immigration to cancel its deportation order and “parole” Fred to his mother for one year.

At the end of that time, the permission to stay could be extended “until such time as it will be convenient for him to make a legal entry,” according to Cole.

In order to acquire citizenship, Fred eventually would have to leave the country and get a visa from an American consul to re-enter.

To Congress

Fred’s fate was laid before Congress on June 15, 1934, along with that of Thomas Wuriu, the 7-year-old son of a Japanese woman in Spencer, Iowa. Fred and Thomas were the only Iowans scheduled to be deported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor on July 1.

Rep. Samuel Dickstein, D-N.Y., presented a bill that would give the secretary of labor discretionary powers in deportation cases.

“Unless this bill passes Congress,” Dickstein said, “the Abdnour boy will be deported on July 1 to Syria, land of his birth, although his mother, now remarried to an American, will be allowed to remain.”

The House Immigration Committee advised suspending the impending deportations until the next session of Congress to avoid separating families.

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Rachel then applied for citizenship on her own. When it was granted by Judge Thomas B. Powell on Sept. 25, 1934, Fred automatically became a citizen, too, according to the Chicago naturalization office.

The family thought the matter was settled. It wasn’t.

Deportation

On Dec. 21, 1938, Rachel received a letter from the Department of Labor’s Immigration Service saying Fred, now 16, had until March 22, 1939, to leave the United States before he would be deported.

Fred was a sophomore at McKinley High School. He was a good student who worked in a barbershop after school. His whole family lived in Cedar Rapids, and they again contacted The Gazette, which contacted immigration authorities in Chicago.

The department’s records from 1933 showed that once Fred had outgrown his “tender years,” he had to leave the United States and return legally.

Judge Powell, however, laid the issue to rest when he declared that Fred was and had been a citizen of the United States since Sept. 25, 1934, when his mother’s citizenship petition was approved, “and there is nothing the Department of Labor or anyone else can do about it.”

Trip to Canada

The only obstacle at that point was Fred’s illegal entry into the United States.

To resolve that, on Aug. 28, 1939, Fred went to the French consulate in Chicago with attorney B.D. Silliman to get a passport that would allow him back into the United States. (Syria, where Fred was born, was under the control of France.)

Fred and Silliman crossed the border into Windsor, Ontario, Canada, where the French Consul approved Fred’s re-entry into the United States on Aug. 30.

Fred sent a telegram to The Gazette: “Application for immigration visa formally approved. Happy to say I am now in the United States legally. Cannot express in words my appreciation to you for your kind support. ...”

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Fred attended one year of college at Iowa State University before enlisting in 1943 in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

He returned to Cedar Rapids, became a master carpenter and a mason. He changed the spelling of his last name to Abdnor and died — a U.S. citizen — in 2005 at age 83.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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