Sunday, March 13, 2016

I am an immigrant

My naturalization photo.
In this current moment of American political life, when immigration is the definitive topic of the presidential election, I feel increasingly compelled to state boldly, in the belief that it may do some good among my friends, family, and acquaintances: I am an immigrant. I was born outside the United States and became a citizen only as a child. As such, my sympathies and principles are on the side of American immigrants of all kinds, and my allegiance is owed both to the United States and to the many Americans who have chosen to become its citizens during the course of their lifetimes.

International adoption is a form of immigration, although it is not always recognized as such. But the facts are indisputable. International adoptees are born in one country, and adopted into another. The word "immigration" tends to bring to mind acts of will—we visualize adults moving from one place to another. But immigration laws directly affect adoption policies. From the very beginning of mass international adoption, American immigration law had to be rewritten in order to accommodate adopted children. The historian Arissa Oh explains that in order for adoption from Korea to become possible, the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act had to be passed, overcoming 75 years of legislative bans on immigration from Asian countries, and more than a century of discrimination against Asians. Cases like Adam Crapser's—an adult Korean-American adoptee who is at risk of deportation to South Korea because his parents never finalized his naturalization, despite the fact that he was adopted when he was three years old and speaks no Korean—show that all international adoptees depend on the grace and good will of functioning immigration laws for their legal presence as citizens in this country.

Consequently, when people speak out against immigration and immigrants, in any form, it affects me and the reasons why I am an American. Policies that restrict immigration have the potential to make international adoption harder, or end it. And every time someone contributes to the anti-immigrant side of American political dialogue, they add to an environment that questions whether I am welcome as a citizen in this country. This takes many forms. It can take—and has taken—the shape of a complaint about the accents of the people at McDonalds or 7-11. It can consist of claims, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that "immigrants" take away jobs, use up social welfare benefits, commit crimes, and fail to integrate into American life. (See thisthis, and this, from ideologically diverse sources.) And it has certainly been incarnated in claims that Mexican immigrants are rapists and thieves (untrue); that all Muslim immigrants pose a threat to the nation (untrue); that only Christian refugees should be allowed to enter the country. (One wonders: can a 3-month-old baby, as I was on entering the country, be tested for Christianity?)

The hostility toward immigrants, much of it racially charged, affects me. It makes me feel unwelcome, questioned, and untrusted. Many people now think of Asians as a "safe" ethnicity—but that is an extremely recent change—until the 1950s, there was a widespread distrust and loathing of Asian immigrants (think of the Japanese internment camps), and all the things that are now said of Latino immigrants—job-stealing, free-loading, indolent criminals—were once said of Asians. As an Asian immigrant, I am obligated to not let the same lies be said about others now—and I am as targeted by those remarks as any other minority.

Some will object that I was a legal immigrant, and they are concerned about illegal immigration. My answer is that the current unfettered, violent speech about undocumented migrants builds an environment in which anyone who might be suspected of having migrated without approval—in essence, the conditions for racial profiling, in which simply being Latino is grounds for suspicion. And as a minority, I cannot stand for the rise of any kind of racial profiling, even when not directed at me. The current terms of the conversation about undocumented migrants needs to be toned down dramatically before it can be separated from its risk of racial discrimination. And any kind of racial discrimination poses an eventual risk to people like me, "safely Asian," naturalized, and adopted though we may be. There is a slippery slope that being a member of any minority in America obliges you to be aware of, and I am unwilling to let my country slide down it.

I have had the good fortune to live a life blessedly free of racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination—all issues tied up in our current violent political debate about immigration. For a long time, I admit, the fact that I experienced so little discrimination muted the personal impact of others' stories of facing discrimination or hatred, because I knew so little about it. What I have come to realize as I have grown up is that my stroke of luck was produced by the conditions brought about by generations of others who have worked to make the world a little more free of the grip of the evils of intolerance. The fact that I have been able to live a life where I have felt free to make decisions based on some concept of myself that is not bounded by race, faith, or immigration status is due the tireless fight on the part of others to improve the world—and our country—as they found it on behalf of countless others, many (like me) still unborn.

Now that I have reached adulthood happy and intact, the happiness that has been given to me obliges me to do what I can on behalf of others to make sure that their lives are not marred by discrimination, hatred, and ostracism. I believe that being brought to this remarkable, beautiful country was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and that in turn requires me to believe that we should be expanding, not decreasing, the opportunities for others to build new lives here, from infants like me to adults fleeing wars to ambitious students looking to make a difference in the world. And it means that I have to stand up to those who claim that immigration is destroying America, that immigrants are untrustworthy, that it would all be better if we threw them all out, and say: You're wrong.

Once an immigrant, always an immigrant. I'm proud to call myself one. 

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