I landed in Florida with my mother on August 11, 1996 at age 18. For six years I had to carry a laminated card that read Resident Alien on me at all times. In November 2002, at age 24, I was granted US citizenship and a passport.
On the day of the oath ceremony, I went alone. I was one of few who did not have a family member with them. The ceremony took place at a high school basketball court, with a thousand immigrants in attendance and at least as many in audience.
It was one of the largest oath ceremonies since September 11, 2001. The diversity of the audience was astounding; in front of me was a family from Mexico, next to me was another Jordanian, behind me an Iraqi Chaldean woman and her daughter. Together, we all stood and performed the Oath of Allegiance and then sang the national anthem. Many of the new citizens and their families were crying–sobbing even.
In this my privilege was undeniable. I did not cry.
I immigrated to the US because my mother was going for her second doctorate and it would be cheaper to be an in-state student rather than an international one. I could join her because I was younger than 21 (the cutoff age for dependent children for immigration). Becoming a US citizen did make certain things simpler: traveling (since I would not have to stand in endless lines outside various embassies and be treated like the scum of the earth). And a US passport would allow me to visit my family’s homeland, since Israel does not permit those with an Arab passport inside Palestine.
But despite these new conveniences, I still gave up a lot to immigrate here. I am not with my parents and siblings. I’m absent as my childhood friends have children of their own. I’ve given up a social network that supports me. I’m always speaking a foreign language. I sometimes feel very lonely.
I made those sacrifices so I could have different opportunities: Being able to walk from home to the cafe or the park. Enjoying public spaces. A reliable postal service where I can send almost anything knowing that it will arrive and without it going through censors. Access to books and libraries. These things may seem trivial, but they make life a little simpler and richer.
Others immigrants I know who left everything behind to come here did so because their lives were on the line. Their’s was not an immigration of convenience, adventure and pragmatism, but one of dire necessity.
Out of that necessity, they swore allegiance, promised to carry arms, and die for their new home. They accepted that their destiny was start all over again from step one.
Immigrants leave their countries holding university degrees, working as engineers, doctors, professors, organization directors, speaking several languages fluently. Some come to the US and might have to start over as a taxi driver, a cook, or a house cleaner, while others continue with similar life styles as they had in their home country. Yet, all immigrants make life-altering decisions when they immigrate: to leave a place where they have mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, lovers, children, social connections, status and established livelihoods, all for a new and uncertain life. Whoever you are, immigrating is never an easy decision.
For the rest of us, we forget, don’t know, have no experience of, or don’t care what it must be like to just up-and-go, leave what is familiar to be engulfed in the unknown, not see your family for years, and work so much harder just to make ends meet, send money home, try to fit in, make friends, bridge cultural differences, and so on.
It is this lack of empathy that enables us to undermine immigrants. We don’t think their issues affect our lives. We accept racial profiling, detention centers, or a bill such as the National Defense Authorization Act, because we assume (often falsely) that it does not pertain to us.
Since its foundation, the US has been built on the shoulders of immigrants. Maybe if we start realizing this and acknowledging that we are all immigrants, we could transcend this us-versus-them mentality–we would not be able to turn our backs and ignore unfair immigration legislation and egregious ICE violations.
We all have an immigrant story, if not ourselves, then our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, or siblings. The only ones who don’t are Native Americans, individuals who were kidnapped, enslaved, and brought here against their will, and the original occupiers, aka pilgrims, who came to explore and conquer the existing society, not to integrate into it.
The rest of us are immigrants.