(MCT) — CHICAGO — For most of her 90 years, all Josephine Stout knew about her arrival in America was that she came from Ireland as a baby.
It was a minor detail, a footnote, in a hardscrabble life filled with tragedy. But she never doubted she was an American, with full rights and privileges.
That changed in 1999, when Illinois officials handling Stout’s public aid asked her to prove her citizenship.
She had no birth certificate, no passport, no voter registration card. She never even had a driver’s license. She did hold a Social Security card, but it didn’t help. She got it at age 17 when President Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act was in its infancy and anyone who applied got a card.
In an instant, she was an undocumented immigrant, desperately struggling to care for seven grandchildren but ruled ineligible for public aid.
“What did I know about being from Ireland?” said Stout. “I don’t even have an accent. I have always said, ‘I am an American, period.’”
As the country engages in a discussion about immigration reform and entitlements, Stout’s ordeal stands out as a story of vulnerability and charity. Cut off from public aid, Stout worked odd jobs, including collecting cans. Meanwhile, volunteers and government officials across two continents searched for her Irish birth certificate and the ancient ship manifest from her family’s journey to this country.
Together, Stout and those who came to her aid embarked on a 12-year odyssey to set the record straight, and to prove that she belonged.
On a recent Sunday morning, Josephine Stout, who’s petite with billowy gray hair and clear blue eyes, walked around her living room showing off a new white Christmas tree that’s decorated with ornaments she’s had for decades. Her knee sticks a bit, but she has refused to use a cane. And on the few occasions when her thoughts trailed off, she chuckled:
“I must have been getting ready to tell a lie.”
Stout lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment in an industrial section of the North Lawndale neighborhood with her granddaughter Sandi Stout and great-granddaughter. Most of the furniture, donated by an older woman who passed on, is shrouded in plastic.
She’s been in this apartment for only two years. It’s an upgrade from the four-room first-floor apartment where she lived for 47 years in the Back of the Yards community. There, rust-colored water rained down in the bathroom when the upstairs neighbors took a shower.
But the Back of the Yards/Canaryville area was the only community she’d ever really known. One of Stout’s earliest memories was the walk from her family’s apartment to St. Gabriel Catholic School a few blocks away.
The girl with auburn hair and stark blue eyes was always small for her age and had perpetually bruised knees from playground scuffles. She was in the third grade when a nun took a belt to her for the last time.
“Back then, they would hit you for sassing them,” Stout said. “I couldn’t stand being hit, so I jumped up and pulled off her habit. When my mother found out, she said that I wasn’t going back to school. I could stay home and take care of my brothers and sisters. So I didn’t have much schooling.”
By then she was the oldest of seven children. Later, six more would arrive.
Her mother took in laundry, and Stout helped with that. She also recalled the family needing milk and sneaking over to the stockyards with a bucket to milk a cow.
“Everybody talks about the bad smell” of the stockyards, she said. “You don’t think about the smell when you’re hungry and thinking about your stomach.”
At 17 she went to work at a fur company and got a Social Security card. She eventually married and quit working in 1944, when her daughter Rosemary was born. Thomas was born in 1953 and Deborah arrived in 1963.
The wall behind the sofa holds a photograph of Deborah Stout.
“When you’ve never had much in your life, you grow up thinking there isn’t much to lose,” she said, looking up at her daughter’s photo. “But there is always something more.”
On Mother’s Day in 1992, Deborah Stout left her Back of the Yards apartment to shop for herself and her seven children. When she didn’t come home, Josephine Stout began to worry. She had already lost her son in 1985. He’d been missing for two days when police found him and his girlfriend stabbed to death.
Now Stout’s daughter was missing and police officers, following up on a tip, arrived on Stout’s back porch. They asked Stout if she had a photograph of her daughter. When they looked at it, they asked her to come down to the morgue. Stout said she nearly collapsed. Husband Willie Stout went and identified his daughter’s body.
Stout said her daughter had been stabbed 38 times by a robber who got only $20.
“That night I ran and got the children, and I promised to keep them together,” Stout said. “My daughter had been getting relief checks and I sent them back because I didn’t want nobody to think I had my grandchildren just for the money. But the (caseworker) told me to come back if I ever needed help.”
Because Deborah Stout was a single parent, Stout won custody of her grandchildren, then ages 1 through 12. They crowded into their grandparents’ apartment, sleeping in beds, on a pullout sofa and on pallets made of blankets.
Willie Stout was a handyman while his wife worked part time as an office assistant for a real estate company. She also earned money at the former International Amphitheatre, charging a dollar apiece to watch customers’ parked cars. She said life continued this way until Willie Stout died four days before Christmas in 1996.
Despite Stout’s confrontations with the nuns as a child, she never lost faith in the Catholic Church. She said her husband had wanted their grandchildren raised as Protestants, but she felt differently.
“When Willie died, I made his funeral arrangements,” Stout said. “And then I marched right over to the church and made arrangements to have the kids baptized Catholic. I got them ready for their first Communions and confirmations, too.”
Stout believed it was divine intervention when Sister Mary Jane Feil was in Back of the Yards one afternoon and asked a neighbor if anyone else in the community was down and out. The neighbor sent her to Stout’s apartment.
Feil works with The Port Ministries, a non-church-affiliated group that helps the poor. She and volunteer Dorothy Balicki began visiting Stout and helping with groceries, clothes for the children and Christmas gifts. A relative of Feil’s paid the tuition for four of the children to attend Catholic school.
Feil said that when the children struggled to deal with their mother’s murder, Stout took them to counseling.
“Josephine would take the bus all over creation trying to get those kids into support groups and whatever care they needed,” Feil said.
“She couldn’t afford her medicine sometimes. She has no teeth. She needs cataract surgery. She needs hearing aids. Anybody else would be dead by now. But that’s Josephine. I think she’s only lasted this long out of grit and determination.”
Stout already was getting Medicaid, and in April 1999 she began receiving cash assistance from the Illinois Department of Human Services. She said she went to the department the next October for what was supposed to be a routine six-month evaluation.
“A new lady had my case and she said there’s no proof that you’re a U.S. citizen,” Stout said. “I said, ‘Proof? I’ve been here (in the country) since I was 6 months old? What proof?’ And she kept saying, ‘You need proof or we’ve got to cut you off.’”
Januari Smith Trader, spokeswoman for the state human services department, said federal guidelines require aid applicants to verify their citizenship or legal residency status.
Stout said she told the caseworker that she had paid taxes during years when her income was high enough to qualify. But that wasn’t proof of her legal status, and she said her food stamps and cash assistance were taken away.
“Some of the kids were older, but I still had mouths to feed, so I picked up cans to make money and I worked small jobs,” said Stout.
Balicki said she and Feil accompanied Stout to the public aid office.
“We kept trying to advocate for her, but they wouldn’t budge,” Balicki said. “We had pro bono lawyers who tried getting her birth certificate. For years it seemed to always go to a dead end and we were never able to get her the money she was entitled to. We knew we needed a miracle.”
That came in 2008, when one of Stout’s grandchildren was walking down the street and noticed the line of people waiting outside Casa Catalina, a basic needs center run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. She recommended that Stout stop by the storefront.
Sister Joellen Tumas has been the director of Casa Catalina and its predecessor since 1990. She grew up in Back of the Yards in the 1940s when the community was made up of Irish, Lithuanian, German and Polish immigrants who worked in the stockyards. The community is now predominantly Hispanic, with many recent Mexican immigrants.
Tumas said that for about a year, Stout visited Casa Catalina, mostly for food, and never mentioned her problems with immigration.
“She wasn’t one to complain about things, but she was desperate because her gas was about to be shut off and she was fighting eviction,” Tumas said.
In 2009, Stout’s last surviving child, Rosemary, died of cancer.
Tumas connected Stout to support staff at Catholic Charities who provided aid and would later assign an immigration specialist to her case. Tumas also linked Stout with Chicago Irish Immigrant Support, an organization that serves immigrants from Ireland and other countries.
Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that when Stout arrived in the 1920s, immigrants who came in through an official port — and entered before their country’s quota had been met — were considered legal permanent residents who could apply for U.S. citizenship.
Today immigration laws are much different, and foreigners often have to wait for immediate family members or employers to petition for them to come here. Or, they come as refugees.
A legal permanent resident is not a U.S. citizen and does not enjoy the same privileges. A permanent resident can’t vote in national elections, and can be deported if convicted of certain crimes.
Stout was in a particularly vulnerable position because she had no documents to clarify whether she was a citizen, a legal permanent resident or an illegal immigrant.
She did not know — and still does not know — whether her parents became citizens. If either did so when she was a minor, Stout would have derived her citizenship from one of them. Without that information, the goal was to establish whether she entered the country legally.
A ship manifest would reveal that part of the story. But Stout didn’t have a birth certificate, which was needed to prove her identity, and she didn’t know the name of the ship or the year when her family arrived.
“This made it so terribly hard for others to find information,” said Breandan Magee, executive director of Chicago Irish Immigrant Support.
Magee and his staff pressed officials at the Irish Consulate in Chicago to use their connections in Ireland’s General Register Office. Stout’s birth certificate was finally found on Oct. 27, 2010. It said she was born in March 1922, in the county of Limerick.
“Her mother gave birth in what was called a poorhouse, a religious-run institution often for women who were destitute,” Magee said.
Catholic Charities declined to give specifics about the agency’s involvement in the case, but Stout said the charity’s immigration specialist spent months searching websites and looking through microfiche before she found a copy of the ship manifest.
It showed that Stout and her parents traveled from Ireland in 1923 on the RMS Franconia, a new ocean liner with a capacity of 1,700 passengers. Stout had been told she came to America at 6 months old, but the manifest showed she was over a year-and-a-half. The family’s final destination would be Chicago.
In February 2011, the birth certificate and a copy of the ship manifest were handed over to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, where officers began their own research to certify that the manifest was authentic. That involved searching for files in the agency’s Lee’s Summit, Mo., office, which is an actual cave that holds hundreds of thousands of immigration files.
But the manifest wasn’t there.
“Keep in mind that these are incredibly complicated cases, and the burden is on the applicant to prove residency and search for documents, not on (immigration officials),” said Carlina Tapia-Ruano, a Chicago attorney and past national president of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association.
It would take seven months, but the manifest finally was located in a National Archives storage area in Pittsfield, Mass. It was certified with an official seal and ribbon.
Stout’s green card was issued in September 2011, and it says she’s been a legal permanent resident since Nov. 1, 1923.
Social workers at the Irish immigrant support agency helped Stout reapply for public aid, which was reinstated last year. The group also helped her get an Irish passport. She also applied for Social Security payments but didn’t meet the income threshold requirements.
“The sisters, and all the others, they did so much,” Stout said. “It was a lot of wear and tear, and with the state cutting me off, it was a real struggle. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m glad it’s over, but you don’t forget.”
In Stout’s apartment, seven gold Christmas angels are tacked to a wall over the sofa. She said they represent her seven grandchildren, who are doing well.
Every second Thursday, Stout waits in her living room for a social worker from the Irish immigrant organization to pick her up for a senior get-together.
“I didn’t want to go at first,” said Stout. “I didn’t want to be around a bunch of old fogeys. Now I don’t want to miss it. I really enjoy the people there. They’ve taken me to see (the singing group) Celtic Thunder. But I still like the blues, and Jerry Butler.”
On Dec. 13, executive director Magee submitted Stout’s application for full U.S. citizenship. Ordinarily a person has to wait five years after receiving a green card to apply for citizenship. Cabrera said the process for Stout should take a few months. She had her five years, decades ago.
Stout said one thing still troubles her: “I just can’t see how a piece of paper will make me feel more American than I already do.”