We are ALL Immigrants
(unless you're Native American)
By Makeda Melkie '19 and Andrew Kiama '19
Controversial 2018/2019 Issue
What does it mean to be an American? Does everyone deserve to be an American or is citizenship restricted to certain individuals based on their ethnic background, religious belief and financial status? Once a person has become an immigrant, will they get a chance to achieve the ‘American dream’, or will their progress be halted?
These are just a few of the questions that we will be shedding light on as we enter the debate of immigration in the United States. Full disclosure: we both identify as first-generation Americans; it is a part of our identities.
We recognize that immigration is a large topic covering a wide range of issues, however, in this article, we will be mainly focusing on the following: immigrants, both legal and illegal, first-generation Americans, the process to gaining citizenship, deportation, and politics.
On their website, the Center for Immigration Services (CIS) defines a legal immigrant as the following:
"Any person not a citizen of the United States who is residing in the U.S. under legally recognized and lawfully recorded permanent residence as an immigrant. Also known as "Permanent Resident Alien," "Resident Alien Permit Holder," and "Green Card Holder. A Green Card holder (permanent resident) is someone who has been granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.”
According to the CIS, there are several ways in which a person may become an immigrant, including: being sponsored by a family member or employer who already resides in the US, through a refugee or asylum status or other humanitarian programs and “ in some cases, you may be eligible to file for yourself.”
Jennifer Varghese ‘19 is a student here with two immigrant parents who were “lucky enough to get sponsorships. My dad got one from a restaurant owner and my mother got a sponsorship from a family in Oregon, but I think that it's much more difficult than people perceive it to be.”
Although the US immigration process is difficult, the Census Bureau reports that as of this year, the combined percentage of both immigrants and their children, first-generation Americans, comprise about 27 percent of the U.S. population: more than eighty-five million people, a number that has been on a steady increase over the past couple of decades.
In fact, since the 1970s, immigration has increased by more than 800 percent, most of which originates from Latin America and Asia. The Pew Research Center states, “the U.S. has more immigrants than any other country, and immigration in this country is a complex issue with a long history.” According to their research, there are nearly 34 million legal immigrants living in the United States today, making up three-quarters of the foreign-born population.
So, who is an American? Technically speaking, a person is considered to be an American if they are a US citizen. Regarding immigrants, however, although statistically speaking, most are naturalized citizens, the process to gaining citizenship is long. To become citizens, immigrants must have first lived in the U.S. as legal permanent residents for at least 5 years, 3 years if a spouse of a US citizen, and meet a list of requirements such as, be older than 18, be able to read, write, and speak basic English; and be a “person of good moral character.” If a person meets all of these requirements, then applying for citizenship can take six or more months. Therefore the total process can last anywhere between 3½ to 5½ years minimum after a person has received permanent residency; a process that could take anywhere from a few months to 10 years itself.
Mr. Humphreys, an Upper School history teacher, has created a lesson plan revolving around defining ‘What it means to be an American?’ and ‘Who gets to be an American?’. He states that “I think an American is somebody who embodies the ideals of our country and stands for them whether it be freedom, democracy [or otherwise] and I think that there is definitely a place for having many diverse opinions and many diverse people, and that's what makes our country great.” Mr. Humphreys explained that he thinks that the definitions can be subjective to individuals but, “we have to agree on certain things, we can't just say that every definition is subjective when you and I completely disagree on the [fundamentals] … so I think that we definitely need to agree somewhere and [then] we can all pull from where we agree and build off of that.”
Mr. Yee, an Upper School English teacher and the Global Studies Coordinator, who identifies as a first-generation American, said, “I’m comfortable in defining what [being an] American means to me,” but stated that he doesn’t try to define it for others. He hypothesized that the main cause of anger and fear toward the definition is when one person tries to force their definition upon others, “Some people who are first generation [may] think they have a lot of reasoning on what is means to be an American and how to succeed in this landscape, but a lot of others could say...because of the fact that they don’t have that historical legitimacy that somehow they have less of a purchase to define that.”
Earlier last month, a survey was sent out to our student body asking how people in our community perceive immigration policies and immigrants in general. Of the 73 responses we received for our survey, 63 students responded “yes” when asked if they knew an immigrant or first-generation American. Seven students responded “yes” when asked if they consider themselves an immigrant or a first-generation American.
Immigration is an integral part of the story of the students at SSSAS. It is not a distant controversy only surrounding the man-made border between the US and Mexico.
It is seven direct and 63 indirect stories of individual strife, perseverance, and hard work to come to the US as immigrants, whether legally or illegally, generations ago or very recently.
Another part of the survey asked the respondents to write the first three words that come to mind when they think of immigrants or first-generation Americans. There were two clear
categories that the responses could be divided into.
The first, positive and appreciative adjectives to describe the journey these individuals take to reach and acclimate into the US. These adjectives include: “determined, proud, hopeful, selfless, hard working, and strong-willed.” The second, a more politicized and limited view of immigration, using terms such as “Mexico, wall, refugees, outsider, Trump, Latino, can't speak English, Hispanic, jobs, illegal, documentation.”
This clear divide between the responses is perhaps the result of a strongly divided nation influencing the student body at SSSAS. A divide between students who look at the individual stories of immigration and students who view immigration as a matter of political debate only relevant at the southern border and on Capitol Hill.
The final section of the survey allowed respondents to discuss if knowing an immigrant or a first-generation American influences the way they view the issue of immigration.
A common sentiment we read through the responses was a discrepancy between the way the media portrays the issue of immigration and the way knowing an immigrant influences one’s view of immigration. One respondent wrote, “it made me see more clearly that immigrants aren't big scary criminals like portrayed in the media.”
Another respondent spoke of their nanny, saying, “my nanny who has worked with my family for 20 years, still does, and partially raised me, has shaped the person I have become. I attribute many of my virtues to her, as I have spent [the] majority of my life with her and she is like my second mother. She is illegal, but she is still a light in my life.”
Regarding illegal immigrants, the Pew Research Center (PRC) estimates that there are 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States as of 2015, some if whom were reported to have “crossed the U.S. border illegally, and others arrived on temporary legal visas but stayed past their deadlines.” Although at face value, this number seems significant, in a general scale, illegal immigrants make up less than a quarter of the immigrant population. In fact the total number of illegal immigrants has decreased since its peak of 12.2 million in 2007.
In 2017, the PRC also did a census to look at how people perceive immigrants and stated that “Americans’ views about immigrants have become more positive overall.” Specifically, the break down was that “65% of the public said immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents, compared with 26% who said they burden the country by taking jobs, housing and health care.” This was a huge shift from an earlier survey they conducted in 1994, in which a majority believed that immigrants had a more negative impact than a positive one.
On the broader topic of assimilation, the PEW survey reports that today’s immigrants are either “about as willing to adapt or more willing to adapt to the American way of life” when compared to immigrants that migrated during the early 1900s. In fact, more than 64% of the people surveyed agree with that statement.
However, for many first generation Americans, there’s a common sentiment of duality. Almost every SSSAS first generation student that we interviewed spoke about how they sometimes struggle to find a balance between their family’s culture and Western culture.
Rachel Suleymanov ’19 stated that she experiences this “all the time!” She said that there are things that she can never truly relate to with her “white American friends ... [that] ranges from clothes to family dynamics, and it's really difficult for first generation kids because they don’t really understand the difference between them and their peers. It’s like always having to choose sides.”
Lili Abizaid ’20, spoke of her experience living two lives. She states that, “I definitely experience a sort of duality in my life every single day.” This is in regards to the difficulties that she has balancing her family's culture versus the American standard, adding, “sometimes it’s really hard to bring the at-home version of me into my school life and vice versa.”
Irvine Madenga ’21, an immigrant who moved from Zimbabwe to the United States with his family in 2012, echos the same sentiment. He stated that he sometimes loses touch with his cultural roots. “When you stay in the US for a long period of time you slowly become more and more American, and when I go back to Africa to visit old friends and family they always say I’m getting more American after every time I go back.” He quotes that
“It is a bit scary how much more out of touch I’m becoming with my culture”
but also explained that his parents try and preserve the Zimbabwean culture by eating traditional food, playing Zimbabwean gospel music and speaking in their native language.”
Irvine also spoke about how he and his family have faced many challenges since moving here. “My parents especially have always had trouble adjusting to the culture of how people just interact with each other here in the US. They also have strong accents so at stores or on the phone people will have a hard time understanding them or won’t take them seriously.” He talked about how he remembers that when he first came to the US, he had a strong accent that other kids at school would make fun of and sometimes teachers treated him differently than everyone else.
Unfortunately, immigration has become a racial issue. Mr. Yee stated in his interview, “I'm not sure if there is any way that people can look at a person and determine that they are first generation or a recent immigrant.” However, we constantly hear stories of people being told to “get out of America” and “go back to your own country” plastered across social media.
Priya Katyal ’19, a first-generation American with Indian ancestry, spoke of several instances in which she was made fun because of the traditions that her family celebrates such as Diwali or her accent: “I’ve always had people try to do what they think is what is an Indian accent, which is very disturbing to hear because I personally think that Indians don't talk like that.” Another student who wishes to remain anonymous recalled a time where her sibling was referred to as a monkey while on a bus ride back home.
Vishavjit Singh, an engineer turned political cartoon artist after the 9/11 attacks, talked to us about his experiences as a minority and first-generation American. As a Sikh, Mr. Singh doesn't cut his hair and sports a beard and a turban, both of which made him a prime target for people after 9/11. We were lucky enough to interview him after his presentation at our school in early November, and he talked about how the current political climate has affected him.
Regarding the Trump administration, Mr. Singh stated that, “from what I've heard from the FBI and local authorities, as well as my experience, hate crimes have gone up in the last two years…I know in New York we have surpassed the number of hate crimes from last year.” He said he believed that “it's because of the language being used by the person sitting as the president that has brought out and made people more comfortable with their prejudices.”
Currently the immigration crisis has been highly concentrated on Mexicans crossing the border, specifically regrading the most recent political campaigns both for President Trump and election campaigns for members in the Congress.
There is a common misconception that the Trump presidency has ramped up deportation and cracked down on illegal immigration, but that is inaccurate. According to Bloomberg, “ICE arrests peaked at more than 300,000 annually in 2010 and 2011 [during the Obama presidency],” and “deportations from the American interior -- in other words, not of people apprehended near the border — surpassed 200,000 in both those years, also about twice the number reached in 2017.”
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated in an article that as of 2016, before President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy was enacted, “immigration prosecutions constituted 52 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions.” Looking at Figure 1 it is seen that the rate of immigrant prosecutions spiked during George W. Bush’s presidency and followed into Obama’s.
A large debate topic surrounding the Trump presidency has been the South American migrant caravan which started in November of 2018. According to the BBC, the caravan is a group of 7000 migrants fleeing persecution, violence, and poverty in their home countries and walking more than 2500 miles to the United States in search of a better life. These migrants are predominantly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
The migrants consisted of both young and old, male and female. The majority of these migrants walked to Tijuana, Mexico, where they camped out in shelters for some time, then attempted to seek asylum in the United States, whether by entering the united States legally, or illegally.
The Trump administration has taken a hard stance on enforcing American sovereignty and law with these migrants. The president has deployed thousands of troops, built temporary barricades, and used Mexican aide in stopping migrants before they reach the border. The US Customs and Border Protection agency has also kicked into action by closing several ports of entry between the US and Mexico.
The main difference, however, between the Obama presidency and the Trump presidency, is the rhetoric used by the two presidents about their immigration policies. Obama was relatively silent, Trump is much more vocal.
On April 6, 2018 Former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech about the ‘Immigration Enforcement Actions of the Trump Administration’ in which he announced President Trumps “zero tolerance policy.” The United States Department of Justice transcribed his speech and he is quoted to have said, “I have put in place a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple.” He also stated that “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
Since its implementation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that “Altogether, nearly 3,000 children were separated from their parents before President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 20, 2018 halting family separation.” NPR reported that “The request asks, specifically, for permission from the courts ‘to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.’”
Generally the overall trend of how immigration is viewed in politics is split between the Democrats and Republicans with Democrats increasingly having the more favorable views. In fact the PRC survey mentioned earlier stated that most of the favorable views towards immigration came from democrats or independents that leaned left. In fact they are “twice as likely as Republicans and Republican supporters to say immigrants strengthen the U.S.”
According to another survey conducted in 2018, it was seen that the public support for immigration has increased since 2001. In fact in 2018 when asked the question “should the level of legal immigration into the U.S change?” 38% of Americans in 2018 said legal immigration should be kept at its present level, while 32% said it should be increased and 24% said it should be decreased. Regarding illegal immigrants, there was more agreement and 75% of people stated that “undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country legally if certain requirements are met.”
Looking at our country’s history, every person, excluding Native Americans, either came here by choice, by force, or by the need to obtain a better life for themselves. Whether it be escaping religious persecution, the slave trade, or a pursuit of the American dream, it's safe to say that all Americans have a member or members of their family who were once immigrants to America.
As stated earlier, this is an article written for the purposes of shedding light on the immigration debate, by no means are the facts presented in this article the whole story. If you have any questions or want to discuss any of the topics regarding immigration feel free to approach Makeda Melkie ’19 and Andrew Kiama ’19