My mother immigrated here from the Azores when she was just six-years-old. I don’t know if she carried her paperwork all that way (how old is old enough to hold the difference between one life and another?). But that paperwork didn’t stop immigration from changing her name. It didn’t stop people from noticing how poor she was, or that she couldn’t speak the language. It didn’t give my mother a ticket to college. It never gave her a job. It was only ever a point of entry into what would always be a proving ground.
Sound familiar? It should. Look back far enough and you should find your great great grandparents (but will you find their paperwork?) and the indisputable fact that you, too, are only here because of immigrants; that your family didn’t just show up here, as if by magic, in a Chevy with the God-given right to say, “Keep out.” Still, we—because I’m American whether that remains a point of pride or not—put so much weight in giving permission to people that look or sound different than we do before they’ve even had a chance to ask anything of us. We aggrandize borders and walls and bans as if they’re big enough to stop a line that’s already been crossed. That this entire country was built on the bent and tired backs of others—and then held just out of their reach—seems to have been forgotten; an inconvenient fact that doesn’t fit with a few anxious narratives that start with “robbers” and end with “rapists.”
Immigration stories play out differently depending on who’s telling them. My grandfather only ever dared to help build your homes after he escaped the rubble of his own and raised his five-person family in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, heated only by the oven door they left open when the temperature fell below freezing. Turning the pages of my mother’s fading scrapbooks, I find photos of them proudly standing by their sparse refrigerator, the one and only assertion of “mine” being the hard-earned ability to keep their food as fresh as yours.
Now, it would seem, the American dream can only ever be American, that insularity is paramount even though some of us celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, or St. Joseph’s, forgetting how maligned the Irish and Italians once were in the same cities that now host parades. Even though our policymakers get their fill at Mexican restaurants and then bloat us with another reason why our lives are somehow worth more than others by virtue of a state line—or a piece of paper.
But, as Americans, we’re free to tell another story. Stop repeating the words “travel ban” as if they’re not an outright, racist refusal of Muslims. Start calling immigration detention centers what they really are—internment camps—and take another look at the tiny face behind the cage. If you see a threat, please, look again. I can only see my mother. Scared and alone without the language to say so, at the mercy of a stranger powerful enough to change her name before he’s even learned how to say it.
And just look at what a threat my family turned out to be. As I write, you in the home my grandfather built, and me, a fiercely proud immigrant’s daughter with the natural-born right to turn your pointed finger back on yourself.