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July 01, 2017

Immigration Through the Eyes of an Immigrant

By Stephen N. Zack
Editor’s Note: The ABA’s Spirit of Excellence Awards celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of lawyers who work to promote a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession. Awards are presented to lawyers who excel in their professional settings; who personify excellence on the national, state, or local level; and who have demonstrated a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession. In February 2017, at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Miami, four 2017 Spirit of Excellence Award honorees were named, including Stephen N. Zack, partner, Bois, Schiller & Flexner LLP, Miami, and a former president of the ABA. Zack’s remarks in accepting the award shared great insight into his family’s experience in immigrating to the United States. We are delighted to publish these remarks, edited slightly, in The Judges’ Journal.

Standing here, I can actually feel the spirit that exists in this room that comes from each of your efforts over the years—the spirit that lifts us all to strive for excellence.

You cannot turn on the television, read the newspaper or a website, or have a conversation without talking about what is going on in the United States and around the world and how it is affecting millions and millions of people.

Talking about millions of people in some ways is easier than talking about someone’s personal life experience, which I would like to do today. Sharing my own family’s experience is a way of viewing what is going on through a real and personal lens and how even a single act can affect generations of a family like mine.

I want to begin my family’s story in 1904 with my great-grandfather, who lived in a small Jewish ghetto in the Ukraine called Lekavich near Babi Yar, where tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered in World War II by the Nazis.

My great-grandfather was a rabbi, as were generations before him. This was before television and the Internet, and he had many children. The Russian army was grabbing anyone in sight to fight in World War I, particularly Jews. My grandfather’s eldest brother was able to escape to the United States, where he was welcomed. The next family members ultimately joined him. However, when my grandfather tried to join his family, the rules had changed. Almost overnight. And he was not allowed to come to the United States. Instead, he had to go to Cuba, where the rest of the family joined him and my mother was born. I liked to believe that since he couldn’t speak English or Spanish he thought he was in Detroit. By the time he realized he was in Cuba, he already had a push cart selling ice cream and neck ties. He became the first to start the long Zack tradition of getting on the wrong boat!

He was very successful and prospered and helped build a strong Jewish community in Cuba, and a synagogue that is still there today, which many of you have visited or I hope will visit. My mother was sent to college in the United States, where she and Desi Arnaz were the only two Cubans in 1945. There she met my father; they fell in love, married, and split their time between the United States and Cuba.

In Cuba, we were comfortable speaking Spanish or English and being Jewish. But then, overnight, it all changed. After Fidel’s revolution, we could no longer speak English on the streets and we knew our time there was limited. Sound familiar?

The Cuban constitution, which was very similar to the United States Constitution at that time, was supposed to protect us. But it did not. Sound familiar?

The loss of liberty in my lifetime is not a theoretical exercise, having endured it in Cuba. One morning in July 1961, when I was 14 years old, we were told that the military had confiscated my grandfather’s factories. We immediately left for the airport with only the clothes on our back, where we were forced to enter a large glass room to wait to leave the country. Since my father was American and my mom had been naturalized, and my brother and sister and I had American passports, we did not expect what happened next.

Our names were called and we were separated from one another. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us or if we were going to see our family again. Sound familiar? No one told us what the charge was or what was going to happen to us. I was placed in solitary confinement until the next morning, which felt like the longest night of my life. Each minute seemed an eternity. And I believe I decided to be a lawyer that night.

The next morning, I rejoined my family and we were taken back to our home, where we were put under house arrest. We were ultimately able to leave several weeks later.

I remember the moment I landed in Miami, with the other refugees and everyone applauding because we were in the United States.

Miami in 1961 was a sleepy southern town with southern attitudes and tensions, but it became a good example of how we can and must live together. I was privileged to speak both English and Spanish without an accent, but many of my friends had heavy accents. I personally witnessed a judge telling my good friend in court to come back when he could speak English.

The Cuban American Bar Association was later formed, and today we have one of the largest annual gatherings of our community which no judge would fail to attend, particularly because so many who have been appointed and elected were immigrants or came from immigrant families.

In 1989, I was elected president of the Florida Bar. And in 2010, I was elected president of the American Bar Association. In 1989, I established a committee to focus on equal opportunities in the legal profession. I recently read the committee’s final report, only to realize how little has changed. During my ABA presidency, I established the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities, which conducted hearings around the country and produced a report entitled Latinos in the United States: Overcoming Legal Obstacles, Engaging in Civic Life, which is available online and I encourage you to read.1

My grandfather would tell me the story with tears in his eyes of how in Cuba they could see the lights of the St. Louis, “the ship of the dammed,” from the shore. The passengers were Jews from Germany who would be killed if they returned, but the United States and Cuba refused to allow them to land. Sound familiar?

In 1964 President John F. Kennedy wrote a book, A Nation of Immigrants, where he quoted George Washington (that’s how long this discussion has been going on): “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”

In closing, I remember my grandfather and the day we left Cuba. I asked him how he was feeling. He was obviously very sad that all he had worked for was taken away. But he said he was happy about one thing, which I thought was very strange. So, I asked, “what could that be, Grandpa?” And he said to me he’d been a refugee twice. But he knew that he would not be a refugee again because, if the United States fell, there would be no other place to go. So, I dedicate my remarks to my grandfather and, in his honor, I renew my commitment to the spirit of excellence and diversity. 


1. (last visited Feb. 28, 2017).

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