Fall has arrived in Seattle, and I’m back in the classroom: my microcosm of immigration. I’ve been following the story of Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist whose article in the New York Times Magazine on June 22, 2011 told of his illegal immigration to the United States at age 12. Despite telling his truth – a decision made because living the lie became harder than facing the consequences of telling the truth – Vargas has yet to be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As he waits for ICE to knock down his door, he has dedicated himself to building a conversation around immigration reform in the United States. And as the Dream Act continues to flounder, Vargas asks us what it means to be American on his website: www.defineamerican.org. I’ve asked my student to read Vargas’s story and to meet his challenge by writing their own definitions of “American.” This is not an easy assignment. I decided I should try it myself…
I am not one who believes much in national borders: artificial lines drawn and redrawn in the dirt by warring parties throughout the ages. The word “American” is equally problematic. Used to define those holding the coveted U.S. passport, it is a misnomer I have struggled with since my early years in high school geography class when I questioned if Canadians and Mexicans were also called Americans. Later, during my ex-pat years in Latin America, I struggled to get my tongue around Estadunidense because I quickly learned that use of the word Americana was offensive to some. In Mexico, when still others reminded me that they too were Estadunidenses given that the legal name of Mexico is the Estados Unidos Mexicanos, I would smile and quote Gertrude Stein: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” At times I claimed Canadian citizenship just to avoid conflict as I continued to work both with and without documents on the southern side of the U.S. border.
In today’s world of political and economic crisis, of failed immigration reform, child deportations and apples rotting in the vast orchards of Eastern Washington, use of the word American becomes more than a mere question of semantics. Jose Antonio Vargas defines American “…as someone who works really hard. Someone who’s proud to be in this country and wants to contribute to society.” I am comfortable with this definition. This land that we claim as the United States of America was taken from the native people by hordes of immigrants from around the globe. What right do any of us children of immigrants have to slam the immigration door behind us? The reasons for immigrating to this land given by our parents, grandparents or the ancestors before them are no more valid than those given by today’s immigrants.
I know those reasons. I work with immigrants – both documented and undocumented. I listen to their stories, and I am present in their pain. Few immigrants leave home and loved ones, culture and language to face an uncertain future in a foreign land unless under extreme duress. There are no easy solutions to the huge immigration mess this country is experiencing, but building a wall won’t work and ripping families apart is immoral. Undocumented immigrants come from around the world, and yet the target continues to be on the backs of those from Mexico, and by extension all Latin Americans because we seem unable to distinguish between Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans. Interesting how easily we distinguish between Latinos and Canadians.