Our Immigrant Origins

By on Monday, January 2nd, 2017 at 9:03 am

My family’s undocumented past in America wasn’t known to me until I applied for dual citizenship with Italy not long ago. The vital records I gathered in the process offered a startling new perspective on our lineage, though it didn’t seem to matter much at the time. Some relatives even chuckled over how my great grandfather could’ve spent eighteen years living and working “illegally” as an economic migrant, not becoming naturalized until the 1930s, well after my grandmother was born. No one ever questioned his, or our family’s, place in this country as Americans. After all, his story was the embodiment of the American dream, having escaped the extreme poverty that ravaged the Sicily he knew in search of a better life.

His ambitions mirrored those of other migrants and refugees that I’ve come to know through volunteering with various human rights organizations over the years, most recently with an interfaith organization based in Boston, Massachusetts. The immigrants I met sought a better existence for themselves and their families in a new country filled with promise. Most had known great suffering. Their stories are varied—a woman from Cameroon was brutally gang raped and tortured for being a lesbian. A transgender individual living in Costa Rica was exposed to years of sexual assault and physical abuse from family members. Another man witnessed the beheading of his son while living in Iraq. A mother was forced to escape from El Salvador with her children after her husband and brother was murdered for not joining a violent street gang. A Sudanese man who was forced at gunpoint to rape and kill his own mother.

Yet these same people also went on to accomplish great things and put their skills to use for the betterment of society. One man completed his medical boards and currently works in a Boston hospital. Another earned a master’s degree in trauma therapy while raising her daughter, who is now an enlisted U.S. Marine. Others finished nursing school or worked as translators and computer programmers. The fierce resiliency of their lives and ambitions remain a testament to the very best of what America is and should always be.

These were not individuals stealing jobs, committing crimes and leaching off national resources, as president-elect Donald Trump’s fear and hate-inducing rhetoric has led many to believe. Trump has said that “most illegal immigrants are lower-skilled workers with less education who compete directly against vulnerable American workers.” This view certainly fails to describe the many smart and capable people I met whose skills and language abilities serve as a unique asset to our society.

Yet the path to American citizenship has changed drastically since my great grandfather’s time. Immigration documents were not required by U.S. immigration officers until 1918. Many Italians during this time had arrived to Ellis Island on false immigration documents or without any documentation at all. Italians were not exactly welcomed with open arms during their mass immigration to this country during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many Americans resented and feared their arrival, pegging them as criminals and economic parasites. Racial slurs like “dago” and “wop” were used to remind Italian immigrants of their lesser status as Americans.

Today, the bureaucratic process involved in becoming an American citizen and obtaining permanent, legal residence is much more difficult than ever before. Immigration lawyers are expensive and the process is complicated enough to frustrate even fluent English-speaking immigrants. In some states such as Texas, it may take the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a full twenty-four months to even open one’s green card application. Aside from severe backlog, it is impossible for applicants to determine where they stand in the process. Some became stuck in an unending loop of work visa approvals and reapplications. Such confusion and endless difficulties leave many undocumented immigrants unable to navigate through the system with success.

They may also struggle to maintain a stable income, as few employers will hire someone lacking a Social Security Number. Even in Massachusetts, there remains only a limited number of programs that help fulfill basic needs such as food and shelter. Such circumstances put many at risk of homelessness and even further violence and suffering. Those seeking a U visa, which is given to survivors of violent crimes and sexual assault, face years of rejection and reapplication before an unlikely approval is given. Many individuals labeled by the media as “migrants” are actually asylum-seekers, who are seeking refuge from extreme violence. Yet such important nuance is sure to be lost. Language is changing in the Trump era as xenophobia, racism and white nationalism become normalized in favor of a post-PC society, where insensitivity and hatred outweighs morality, logic and basic human decency.

As Trump’s immigration policies unfold, they threaten not only countless lives, but also our national identity, undermining America’s rich legacy as a nation of immigrants. Trump will have power as President, in tandem with Congress, to determine the numbers of refugees the US admits each year, further justifying those Americans who argue against accepting Syrian refugees due to Islamophobia and fear of terrorism. Trump has stated that “for those here today illegally who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and only one route: to return home and apply for re-entry.” Yet mass deportations will only incite further suffering as families will be torn apart with countless people sent back to the same violent places they risked their lives escaping. Many will be killed.

As a descendent of undocumented migrant workers, I cannot ignore the blatant hypocrisy and ignorance that so often enters the current conversation surrounding immigration today. I continue to encounter Americans who fervently believe that their ancestors’ arrival to this country was without legal question, never considering the immigration laws that were set in place at the time. Given the popularity of genealogy websites, perhaps they should take a closer look at their own family histories. They might find that their ancestors had some things in common with the undocumented immigrants of today.

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This essay is part of our ongoing essays series focused on responding to the 2016 Presidential election.

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