I woke up this morning thinking about the phrase “we are a nation of immigrants”. You’ve seen it and heard it in diverse towns and from equally diverse citizens across the country. It is a simple and powerful phrase that rolls easily off our tongues, but it deserves reflection.
What does it mean?
Throughout the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform, and for broader immigrant rights I’ve heard advocates using this phrase to explain to “non-immigrants” why they should care about immigration reform. They say things like “that person in the kitchen (garden, hotel…) is an immigrant. They cook your food, cut your grass, make your bed- you should respect them – help THEM lead better lives.”
I also hear advocates use this phrase to compare today’s immigrants to immigrants of past generations saying “This nation was built by immigrants, and WE continue to benefit from THEIR migration. So we should give THEM rights in this country and keep THEM from suffering.”
Though I do not disagree with these mutations of the phrase, I do not believe that they truly reach the heart of its meaning. Rather, they manipulate the phrase to fit a narrow and stifling world view: US vs. THEM – OURS vs. THEIRS. This worldview is the opposite of everything that human rights and other struggles for rights in this country stand for.
The fight for immigrant rights and for immigration reform is deeply linked to the struggle for human rights- which is ultimately a struggle for human dignity. That is NOT a struggle for OTHER people’s human dignity. It is a deep and urgent struggle for our own collective human dignity.
When I think of the phrase “we are a nation of immigrants” I am compelled to feel that I myself am implicated in the immigration movement. I feel that the deep divisions that folks (often, but not always of the right) try to impress upon me – citizen vs. immigrant – is a false dichotomy and my well-being, my human dignity, is deeply comingled with the lives of everyone else around me, including immigrants.
The fight for immigrant rights is the fight for my rights.
That quiet reflection this morning led me to another thought: How am I apart of a nation of immigrants? What is my immigration story?
When you meet me, I’m a thoroughbred Chicagoan with a nice midwestern accent. When I travel abroad I am often described by those natives dearest to me as “quite American” (or perhaps insufferably so).
But beyond those labels and categories lies the center of the phrase “we are a nation of immigrants”. My immigrant story begins with my father immigrating here from India almost thirty years ago. It continues in the streets of Chicago where I grew up among Polish immigrants and descendants of Irish and German immigrants.
My story came into full bloom as a volunteer in a shelter for migrants in Tijuana where I lived, cooked and ate with over 150 men in a constant period of transition. A few years later, as an immigrant in France, I was an outsider pushing myself to make life work in another country… and slowly I began to understand the phrase “we are a nation of immigrants”.
I would love to hear other immigration stories. I’d really like to know yours, because it is in sharing those stories that we infuse the immigrant rights movement with it’s core of human dignity that will carry us through the continuing struggles ahead of us.
And ultimately sharing our stories will allow others in our country to really understand why we must all stand firm for immigrant rights.
What is your immigration story?