American Dreaming

One more for today: the NYTimes has a beautiful, moving personal essay from a Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter, coming out as an undocumented immigrant (aka illegal alien).  It made me cry in public, and the only other time that’s happened was when I broke my ankle.  I still remember the moment I found my mother’s green card, buried in a box of memorabilia: I’d always known, of course, that she was an immigrant, but that was the first time I ever considered exactly what that meant. The things she’d had to prove, that would never be asked of me.


And of course, the knee-jerk response from those who talk about a ‘sensible’ immigration policy, when one brings up one’s own immigrant past, is: But, Isa, your mother came to America LEGALLY!  It’s totally different!


The truth, though, is that it’s not.  My mother and her sister were put on a plane by their mother just like the reporter was in this story, while my grandparents stayed in Cuba.  They lived with family in Miami until my grandmother came out a year later.  My grandfather, pursued by the Castro regime, came out by boat a year after that.  They had not applied for authorization or obtained proper documentation in advance: they were just, luckily, Cuban, and because of American Cold War policy, Cubans were, at that time, the ‘right’ kind of immigrant.  America welcomed Cuban exiles no matter how they landed on our shores, and even my boat-person grandfather was able to work legally until his death.


The reasons why people come to the United States have not changed much in the last two hundred years.  What’s changed is our immigration policy – from the days when Ellis Island assimilationists would anglicize last names for anyone who passed through we have arrived at a complex system of quotas and bureaucracy that does more to keep out than to welcome.  Thousands of justifications are offered for this labyrintine system, from the economic to the xenophobic, and all stand in opposition to history.


I will tell you of another time I cried: when I first moved to San Francisco, I drove from Ohio with my mother.  We stopped in St. Charles, Missouri, to visit the boarding school where she’d lived from grades five through twelve, a scholarship student supported by the Sacred Heart nuns.  She showed me classrooms and the chapel and near the main stairwell, she showed me a large wrought-iron bell, which the nuns would ring for special occasions – church holidays or graduations or the like.  When my mother was in sixth grade one day the principal pulled her out of class and told her that they’d just gotten a call; my grandfather was out of Cuba, had landed safely in Miami.  My mother ran to the bell and pulled the cord, and the entire school – following tradition – poured out of their classrooms to discover the good news.  Dozens – hundreds – of white people in rural Missouri, standing together fifty years ago and celebrating the successful immigration of a Hispanic stranger.


America is a flawed place, but also – as traveling abroad has reaffirmed – an expansive one.  We do not need to pretend otherwise.

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