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I am the grandson of a one-time illegal alien. The Batavicks (née Batovic) have been in the U.S. since 1910 when my grandfather and his brother jumped ship in Yonkers, New York, N.Y., nothing more than cannon fodder. Nicholas and his brother George hailed from Croatia, a region of Yugoslavia and then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The country's unfortunate geography had made it a welcome mat for the conqueror of the moment dating back to Alexander the Great.

In 1910, Croatia's serfs and citizens could smell gunpowder in the air as animosities sizzled and neighboring countries ramped up for what we now call World War I — hence my family's need to escape. Once here, my grandfather remained an alien for 20 years and didn't get his U.S. citizenship until 1930. He had been a subsistence farmer back home and, aside from his experience as a coal stoker on freight ships, had no marketable skills. In fact, if he were alive today, he wouldn't be able to read this column because he was illiterate and remained so for his whole life. He spoke what used to be called broken English, and my father taught him to write his name. The scrawled signature on his citizenship papers lovingly resembles that of a 5-year-old.

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Like the immigrants of today, all Nicholas wanted was a better life for himself and his eventual family. This first generation of Batavicks learned English, went to school, worked hard and served in the military. (Some wars you just can't escape.) My uncle Elias was captured by the Japanese and survived the Bataan Death March.

The second generation of Batavicks — my generation — had the opportunity to go to college and prove our worth in the world. We count teachers, accountants, an IT specialist, a TV producer and other worthy occupations among our numbers. My brother, George, rose to become the comptroller of Texaco Oil and later one of seven members of the Financial Accounting Standards Board. FASB is to accounting and financial reporting what the FCC is to communications. All of this from a grandfather who never learned to read and write.

I make note of these accomplishments not to brag about my family but about my country. We are among the many who have proven what is possible in this great, messy, expansive nation of ours. All you have to do is dream and study and work hard. It's the key to American exceptionalism that people like Sen. Marco Rubio understand.

I think about Nicholas a lot when I hear right-wing talk show hosts rail against our porous borders and all of those who immigrated illegally hiding in the shadows, though the vast majority of them lead peaceful and productive lives and pose no threat to our country. For the most part, they seek employment in areas where our own citizens don't wish to find it— agriculture, landscaping, housecleaning, some of the riskier construction trades. Nicholas found a job taking care of the horses and wagons for the Hires Root Beer Company. When it switched over to trucks for delivery, he kept the gas tanks filled and the windows clean.

History makes it clear that the U.S. needs to extend its welcoming arms and grow its vast and diverse population if we are to stay the greatest country on Earth. So why does a new immigration policy appear so out of reach for Congress?

Those hampering immigration reform are actually working against our national interests. Instead of blocking legislation like the DREAM Act designed to give permanent residency and a path to careers for the children of immigrants who arrived here as minors, obstructionists should embrace them as a valuable and untapped resource. Instead of fretting about the misuse of federal funds by freeloaders who come here for our generous social services, they should acknowledge that undocumented immigrants pay taxes. This amounted to $11.2 billion in 2010. Instead of worrying that our national identity is being diluted, they should remember that we have always been a nation of immigrants. That is our national identity. Instead of stewing about rewarding lawbreakers, they should listen to civil liberties expert Tom Head, who reminds us that amnesty "happens whenever the government repeals or revises an unnecessarily punitive law." Remember Prohibition?

When Nicholas arrived in America, he sailed by the Statue of Liberty with its inscription that includes "I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Let's not close the door and miss some golden opportunities.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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