One of the reasons I began to tell my story about having been an undocumented immigrant was 9/11. More specifically, the way it became acceptable to talk about immigrants following the terrorist attacks. The fear following the most horrific attacks on American soil was cultivated by some to further their own agendas. They screamed out the words “illegal” and “immigrant” and “terrorists” in the same sentence over and over again to capitalize on the vulnerability that people felt. They demonized a population that by every measure is known to be more law-abiding and aspirational than native-born Americans. It worked.
But, just as the “level red” hyper-alertness was unsustainable, so was that level of xenophobia and prejudice. Republicans learned that they could not talk that way and still hope to court the Latino vote. More sensible voices began to prevail. Finally, it became possible to discuss immigration reform again. It took more than a decade, but we began to get there.
And then the unimaginably horrible Boston marathon bombing occurred. The senselessness, the heartbreak over those killed and maimed brought back too many painful memories. Not again. Not here. None of us want to become the kind of country with a constant military presence in the streets, where things like sporting events and holiday shopping – “soft targets” – become activities tinged with fear. In the wake of things that make us feel under siege, we have been known to make some less-than-admirable decisions: the Japanese-American internment camps, warrantless wiretaps. And we have been known to scapegoat immigrants.
So it pained to me to hear some of the suspects’ story come out in the press. It sounded so much like my own. The youngest, brought here as a child, was a “regular American teenager.” The kind of kid I regularly advocate should be granted a path to citizenship. (Except that point would have been moot with him. He was granted asylum and became an American citizen on September 11, 2012). And here he was blowing off spectators’ limbs with a bomb improvised from a pressure cooker.
Terrorism is always impossible to understand for those of us who love and cherish life. But it is harder to understand when it is perpetrated by those who live among us. How could the Oklahoma City bomber do what he did? How could this young man?
I am worried that the rhetoric will turn ugly again. That this sick young man’s immigration status might be used by those who want to keep us walled off and afraid. That he’ll be used as an example of the need for less openness and more harshness. What the Boston Marathon bombers did says nothing about immigration and says everything about being disaffected and taking a very dark and wrong path. No one called for an investigation into whether Timothy McVeigh’s upbringing in Pendleton, New York means something sinister about Pendleton. These brothers’ actions mean nothing about immigration and everything about them.
Every time we’re faced with a national tragedy, our moral fiber is tested. Are we the kind of nation that turns to bigotry and fear? Or do we remain a beacon of justice and human rights? As I pray for the safety and swift recovery of everyone harmed by this horrific act, so too do I pray that we hold our ideals high and remain the latter.