I love the 4th of July. Growing up as an undocumented immigrant, I had a conflicted relationship with it. On the one hand, I loved everything about it – the flags, the red, white and blue on everything, the fireworks and, of course, the story. On the other hand, I knew that it was just a borrowed story, one which was not meant to encompass my own dreams for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But, hey, guess what? Now I’m an American and the holiday is as much mine as anyone else’s.
The United States was founded as an amazing but complicated experiment: people from all lands coming together to form one. Of course it ignored several key facts, like that the land was already inhabited. Do you remember being taught in school that the land was really vacant because the native Americans weren’t using it to its potential? That it was just open land? (What? No malls? Savages!). Or do you remember the old cowboys and Indians movies in which the “bloodthirsty natives” were the bad guys? If not, congratulations, you’re young enough to have missed that nonsense.
But, bad news: You’re being fed other nonsense.
Like, have you heard politicians say things about undocumented immigrants like, “I’m not against immigration. I’m against illegal immigration.” Or, “Why can’t they just do it like our grandparents?”
Which always makes me think of an analogy: do you remember playing tag, having someone take a break on base, then, after they were rested up and they were It, saying, “No more base!” That’s kind of how a lot of U.S. born people (again, mostly of the politician variety) tend to look at immigration. They’re in, so it’s time to change the rules and keep others out.
And they’ve been super-successful at influencing public opinion. For example, the average person doesn’t know that “they way our grandparents did it” is closed as an option. Ellis Island is closed. And “our” grandparents (well, not mine, obviously, but the proverbial grandparents) just had to book passage and prove a passable level of health, nothing like the complicated and unfair laws that today’s immigrants have to navigate.
Even the most fair-minded person can feel a little bad supporting people labeled as “illegal” immigrants, because, hey, if people are illegal they must be bad, right? Most people are not aware that it’s a label that’s been used (successfully and fairly recently) to muddy the issue. The fact is “our” grandparents benefited from more lenient immigration laws (well, if they were of a certain race, anyway. Immigration laws have always been blatantly racist against many, especially Asians). The children and grandchildren of immigrants then changed the laws to exclude the next wave of people who wanted their shot at the American Dream. Just because you wrote the rules and get to disrespect people by calling them “illegal,” it doesn’t mean that you’re better or more worthy than anybody else.
The good news is that, in large part, the American experiment has worked. We are a nation filled with hope and ingenuity, tolerance and kindness. Those of us who want to INclude just need to get louder than those of us who want to EXclude.
As Independence Day approaches, I wonder what it means to the millions of people currently living in the U.S. undocumented and what they will be feeling as the rest of us celebrate independence. Independence Day looks bittersweet to many of them, I bet. Maybe, like I did, they feel that it doesn’t belong to them. I wish I could hug all 11+ million of them and tell them it does. Because Independence Day honors the spirit of people who took great chances to travel long distances, often in dangerous conditions. People who came to a land they didn’t know and carved out a place for themselves. People who worked hard, built things with their hands, stayed out of trouble and created a nation. People who finally took a stand against unfair rules and demanded representation. So, really, the 4th of July is tailor-made for them and for anyone who has ever yearned to breathe free. America welcomes you. Happy Independence Day.
Read a great (and brief) history of U.S. immigration at The Immigration Policy Center website.
See a quick timeline of immigration, including information on the Chinese Exclusion Act. Click here.