Sunday, February 5, 2017

Immigration Makes America Great

 by Jeremiah Ho


For the past 34 years, I have lived as a first-generation American immigrant.  On my own terms, I can recall the seminal moments along the path to citizenship:  arriving at age six with visa status along with my family at LAX and seeing for the first time a person with blonde hair;  at age 10 printing my name on my green card in such large capital block letters that the immigration officer wouldn’t stop teasing me; and finally, at age 17, noticing the size and layout of the INS clerk’s cubical where I would be sworn into citizenship moments later—a small, unassuming, and transactional space that looked more or less like a bank teller’s booth.

But those moments of legal transformation punctuate all the other important days of being an immigrant, which in my heart are the days that compliment and give any true meaning to my naturalization papers, my driver’s license, my passport, my voter ID registration, my Social Security card—all the documents and papers I’ve carried with me as proof of my American permanence.  What happened on those other days are the days of my immigration:  like spending the night of my first Halloween trying to make that holiday my own by reciting “Trick or treat” without knowing where the phrase came from or what it meant but only aware of its candy-lottery effect; or how an In-N-Out double-double cheeseburger always tasted more satisfying on hot Los Angeles afternoons while I sat parked behind the wheels of my Dodge Plymouth, my first car at sixteen, which had windows you had to roll down, a triangular dent on the front bumper, and a busted air conditioning unit; or slow dancing with my high school prom date in our last month of senior year and wondering if she could tell exactly how different I was from the other boys; or witnessing my first journal article being published during law school and keeping to myself the secret that it was my coming out essay; or that quiet July afternoon just weeks before I started teaching at the University of Massachusetts when I arrived in Rhode Island, where I currently call home—the farthest on this planet from central Taiwan that anyone in my family, past or present, has ever traveled to live. 

Future generations in my family will talk about us in the way that some people brag about how they have ancestors from the Mayflower.  I am lucky to have that distinction—to be that Mayflower generation for my family—and to embody the last real connection to the Old World, while embracing my present one.

Immigration is part of human rights at home.  President Trump’s order last week, suspending U.S. refugee entry for “nationals of countries of particular concern,” which applies to citizens of seven specifically-named Muslim-majority countries, contradicts the spirit and concept of immigration in the U.S.  It is also a contradiction that we as a country have seen before.         

In 1882, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first law to prevent a particular ethnic group from immigrating to the U.S.  As a result, until the 1940s, persons of Asian descent were barred from becoming naturalized citizens in this country.  In addition, responding to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government, via presidential executive order, authorized the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans, including U.S.-born citizens, on a claim of national security.  On a personal note, the race-track in my hometown of Arcadia, California—the famous Santa Anita Race Track—had once been converted during WWII into the largest assembly center for Japanese Americans on their way to those internment camps.  And had Congress never dismantled the Chinese Exclusion Act, my post here and now would not be possible.   

In 2011 and 2012, Congress apologized for the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Decades after WWII, a Congressional commission deemed the Japanese-American internment an injustice that was prompted by “racial prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.”  In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act was passed to give monetary reparations and apologies to surviving Japanese-Americans who had been interned.  We have traversed so far, and yet this present state of events seems to prove otherwise.  We have made these missteps before.  Why do we succumb to fear so easily?  Last week’s executive order may harm our interests abroad by allowing terrorist groups to propagate the false impression that U.S. is at war with the Muslim world. 

In addition, a lesson from 19th-century Chinese history reminds us that in a time of globalization and exchange, nationalistic hubris that motivates a desire for isolationist behavior will eventually harm a society.  It is well known that one of the downfalls of the Ching dynasty was the psychological unwillingness of Chinese rulers to see past their own national and cultural pride in order to acknowledge the potentials of foreign powers.  Their narrowmindedness crept into policy and rule, which kept the Chinese from advancing into the 20th Century politically and economically until only the decades of recent memory.  Immigration and travel is what makes the U.S. strong and a leader in the world because the pluralism and diversity we gather from other countries keeps us current and on the cutting edge.  It’s what has always helped to make America great.      

We need real immigration reform that is in step with the spirit and tradition of the American experience and asylum.  The executive order banning immigration and travel of individuals from certain countries in the Middle East harbors inconsistency from that spirit and tradition.  We need to move beyond singling out individuals for their religion or national origin.  We must not allow ourselves as a society to live in the dangerous space between pride and fear.

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