I am an immigrant. This condition influences everything in my life. It feels like I’ve been taken apart and put back together again. The first me becomes smaller and weaker with time, but as the second part of my life takes over, I see clearly that my birthplace will never lose its significance. Even if I tried to forget it, I could not. If I wanted to deny it, I’d be amiss. Most times I fit in perfectly in my adopted environment, yet sometimes, rarely, I don’t. After more than forty years in this country certain things are still unfamiliar to me (some humor and trivia, some sports). I will never lose my accent; it tethers me like an invisible string. I don’t feel out of place, but I sense the gap. To quote a line from a play about immigration I once saw, I’m never ‘totally in focus.’ Strangely, when I visit my country of origin I am by far less at home. “You speak Romanian with an American accent,” my former college mates tell me.
I have changed and adapted — I have made an effort at it — yet the old me still informs a lot of who I am. I live with this duality day in and day out, and I am at peace with it. Am I a better American for it? Am I worse?
I am asking these questions today because of the incredibly charged political discourse with regards to immigration. Last week I read about a medical doctor in Michigan — green card holder from Poland, in this country for four decades, married to a US citizen, with two children born in the US — who was arrested and awaits deportation. The reason? As a teenager, he had painted graffiti on a wall causing $100 worth of property damage. On Sunday I saw on TV an undocumented Mexican woman with her young daughter (one of three or four children all born in the US). She had been brought here as a child twenty years ago, and was now desperately afraid of being ripped apart from her family. A while ago, she had participated in a televised town hall meeting with Paul Ryan. She had asked the Speaker of the House if she was in danger of being deported and he had assured her that she had nothing to worry about. Now Paul Ryan appears to have changed his mind. I hope he will not forget the promise he had made. Another day I saw the heartbreaking video of another Mexican dreamer, in the States for thirty years, now being separated from his American wife and children. I understand that these people are placed on buses or planes and transported to countries they know nothing about, for the sake of…what? They are the DACA children who grew up in this country immersed in our culture, speak English, play baseball and American football, serve in the military, work, pay taxes, and some have children of their own. Are our actions sensible? Are they economically wise? Where is our compassion? Most Americans agree they should stay, yet their lives are used as bargaining chips.
I was admitted to this country from communist Romania in 1977, and I became a US citizen in 1983. (Steven Miller, who allegedly whispers anti-immigration rhetoric into the president’s ear, has been on this planet less time than I have been an American citizen. (Does this make me more of a citizen than him?) My children were born here. I worked and I contributed. If I criticize America sometimes it is because I truly care about our values and, for the sake of my children and grandchildren, would like to make things better. We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union… are words from the Preamble to the United States Constitution. They imply a continuous improvement process, and well meaning criticism as well.
Tell me, should I suddenly be afraid? Should I adopt an inconspicuous silence, like that of a friend at a party who, in seeing his drunk buddy ready to get behind the wheel, steps aside in order to avoid making a scene? Should I become an enabler? A coward? A bystander watching families being ripped apart? A witness to a human life being used as a bargaining chip?
They say that illegal immigration is a drain on the economy. It is not. It has been tacitly tolerated for decades. Why? Because businesses benefitted from it. We all benefitted, and we still do. Think of all those high level politicians who employed undocumented domestics until they were unmasked. Think of the agricultural and construction workers, and the lower prices we enjoy as a result. Think of who does your landscaping and cuts your grass.
There is a simple solution for ending new illegal immigration. Truly enforce existing laws, and stop businesses from hiring illegals (rather than build a stupendous wall), and they would stop coming, because they would have no way to make a living.
They say many immigrants are criminals. This is a lie, obviously meant to scare people and inflate xenophobic feelings. Some immigrants have broken the law, but percentagewise, I am sure they compare favorably with all other segments of our population.
They say immigrants take jobs away from hard working Americans. Again, isn’t this sour grapes? The jobs the immigrants take are those that Americans don’t want (too difficult, too unrewarding, too meager), or those for which not enough Americans are qualified for (in the medical profession or in high tech).
They say we want Norwegians, but the Norwegians don’t want to come.
They say illegal immigration is a big problem, and they make it seem that if we could only contain it, America would become ‘great again.’ But America is already great, and immigration is not the problem, illegal or otherwise, and all immigrants contribute to our success. Clearly this is fodder for the racists, the frustrated, and the uninformed.
I am writing a new novel based on my family’s history. My relatives migrated a lot: from Poland and Russia to Moldova and Romania, from Romania to France, Germany and Israel, from Israel and Romania to the United States. In my world, we all grew up bilingual or trilingual, and for a grandparent to speak with an accent was not an accident, but the norm. In fact, the movement of people from country to country is the essence of my story. But it is the essence of modern times and of America as well. While doing research for my novel I came across an August 1940 document entitled ‘Rationale for Law №2650/1940 Regulating the Legal Status of the Jewish Population in Romania.’ At the time, Romania was allied with Nazi Germany. The document ran over 12 pages and made continuous reference to a ‘Jewish problem.’ What that problem represented was not explained (it couldn’t be explained because it didn’t exist), but the document promoted the idea that only if the Jewish problem were to be solved, Romania would suddenly become strong and prosperous again. Sounds familiar? The document proceeded to include a list of interdictions for Jews. They could not be part of the government, serve in the Romanian army, buy land, participate in sporting events, sell alcoholic beverages, own movie theaters, or adopt Christian babies. What happened next to the Jews of Romania and Eastern Europe is a well-documented fact.
When did we, in America, stoop that low?
I thought our strength came from diversity. I thought we were proud for being a melting pot. That’s what people told me again and again when I lived in Manhattan in the seventies. Our exceptionalism is based on it. The entire idea of us being American, of what America stands for, comes from our inclusiveness, from us being a mixture of colors and cultures and creeds. We have this huge heart, and a warm embrace. We teach our children to respect everyone.
What is happening to us?
If we no longer yearn for the values expressed in The New Colossus (the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty) and instead, for whatever reason, want to emulate the Canadian merit system for immigration, let’s institute one. Let capable lawmakers discuss it, analyze the pros and cons, and modify the law. If we want to eliminate chain migration (be careful here, the name itself is derogatory, and I trust that Canadian citizens can still bring relatives into the country under certain conditions, just like in the US), or the H-1B visa (even though some business communities need it desperately), stop the lottery system (I am sure there was a good historical reason for instituting one), etc., etc., let’s talk about it. But let’s not punish the young people who, through no fault of theirs have grown up in America and fallen in love with her. And for that matter, we shouldn’t take our revenge on the many undocumented people who have lived and worked in this country for decades, because they broke the law at a time when doing so was tolerated. Limit the number of new arrivals if you wish (although we have a huge country and can only benefit from more immigrants), but don’t punish the ones already here for our past leniency and the mixed signals our own government and businesses have sent in the past. Live up to our humanitarian values and old commitments, and give them a path to legalization. Deporting an entire class of people to places where only misery or worse awaits, and ripping families and communities apart, is not what my America stands for.
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