Irma Cooreman’s story resonates with many immigrants today

To the editor:

Thanks to Bill Palmer for sharing the immigrant story of Irma (Cooreman) Bossuyt. While I knew about Belgian immigration to the region, I was unaware that some experienced the World War One German occupation before immigrating–Irma and her sister narrowly escaped an artillery shell in the last weeks of the war.

Irma’s story resonates with many immigrants today. This semester, I have two students who spent part of their childhoods in Thai refugee camps before coming to Minnesota. One is Hmong, from the persecuted minority in Laos that supported the U.S. during the Vietnam War–like Irma, he grew up in Tracy. The other is of Karen origin, a people in Myanmar victimized by the majority-Burman military. Many of my Somali-American students are also refugees from their country’s civil conflicts, and I have had one student from South Sudan who spent his adolescence as a guerrilla fighter before escaping war.

Irma’s father first arrived to earn enough to bring his family over, a typical plan at the time (and how my mother’s Polish father was able to immigrate in 1909 when he was four). Many of southwest Minnesota’s immigrants arrive this way today, especially those from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Like Irma’s family in Belgium, they see no economic possibilities in their home countries and come to the United States (while not a few, especially among the Hondurans and Salvadorans, are also escaping gang violence).

However, unlike Irma’s father, these Hispanic immigrants are labeled “undocumented” or “illegal.” The Independent reported recently that Marshall had officially lost population in the 2020 census, attributed to undercounting students at SMSU.

But how many undocumented immigrants were too frightened to report their whereabouts, especially given all the talk by the Trump Administration to include a question about citizenship on the census form?

This would not have been the case in 1910, when the U.S. had a much more generous concept of immigration, one which benefited the ancestors of most of those who are reading these lines today.

Dr. Thomas J. Williford


— Dr. Thomas J. Williford is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University


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