What 8 People Want You to Know About Immigration in America

On the week of the government shutdown, after Donald Trump rejected the sole bipartisan compromise presented to protect DACA, we asked our readers, “If you’re a child of immigrants, or an immigrant yourself, what’s the one thing you wish someone knew about your personal experience with immigration?” Below are eight of their responses.

Pretty much all the people I knew growing up in Northern Virginia were white, wealthy and didn’t have canned speeches prepared in their heads to explain what ethnicity they were, what country their fathers were from again and — as bullies joked — why their houses smelled so funky. It wasn’t annoying to me as much as it was a drag to watch my peers’ faces morph from incredulous to thoughtful to eventual understanding.

Born in Ethiopia, my father fled government persecution and lived in a refugee camp before being relocated to Atlanta, where he worked in an umbrella factory and lived on beans, rice and cigarettes. He then moved to Los Angeles, scraped through college, began a career and married my white mom, a social worker from San Diego.

Rather than find a job that was stable or high-paying, he decided to go into the nonprofit world assisting other refugees, eventually becoming a political appointee in the Obama administration and running the entire federal immigration office himself.

While his reputation has preceded him in many ways, it often fell on deaf ears while I was growing up — his story was just too complicated and didn’t resonate with my very whitewashed high school and university friends. That’s not to say that many of my friends did not profoundly respect him and welcome me in as their token nonwhite friend, but being the constant outlier meant those tapes in my head were ready to go whenever I needed to play them.

I was brought to the U.S. at seven years old by my immigrant parents. I’ve now lived in America for 17 years. Being an illegal immigrant means living in fear of deportation; there is no promise of security. My 19-year-old brother was deported when I was 17, and my family has never been the same since. It’s been seven years now that I haven’t seen him and don’t know if I ever will.

In 2012, I was given the opportunity to come out of the shadows as an illegal immigrant and become a “Dreamer” (under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a.k.a. DACA). Despite the displacement of my brother, I gained the peace of mind knowing that, for four years, I would be protected from deportation. DACA has given me the opportunity to work and go to school. I paid for my bachelor’s degree out of my own pocket (no student loans, no government assistance). I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to feel like the President doesn’t support the Dreamers.

My family and I have made so many sacrifices to be here in the U.S.; I deserve an opportunity to demonstrate that I can be an American citizen. I am a first-generation college graduate, currently excelling in my corporate position. I am not a criminal — I’ve never even had a traffic violation. I go through background checks, I pay my taxes and all other fees required as a DACA recipient.

Despite all my efforts to my community and to this country, the President doesn’t believe that I am up to par to be a law-abiding citizen. The U.S. is the only home I have ever known, and no DACA means losing everything I have ever worked toward.

I am proud of who I am. It’s ironic that it took me emigrating from the United States, the place where I had sown so many confused seeds as a kid, to see that.

My parents are both from El Salvador and met in New York, where I was born in 1985. Growing up was tough. I felt like a tree that got planted in someone’s backyard 10 years after the original trees had been planted. The grass around me was freshly sowed; the distinction was pointed out to me sometimes, in case I forgot.

Considering I grew up in New York, the veritable melting pot, I could have had it worse, but I grew up in Long Island, whose inhabitants engender varying levels of tolerance toward immigrants. In the midst of my teen angst, I generally accepted the conflicting duality of both feeling American and being made to feel un-American just because I couldn’t trace my roots to the Mayflower. And then I met someone who changed my life. He was a foreign student who was studying at the same college as me, and I fell in love.

Ten years later, I followed him to his country and immigrated myself. Thus, my tree was transplanted to yet another backyard, but this time with flora that had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years before me. In the middle of this new place, I reconciled with the anxious little immigrant girl I once was. Sticking out like a sore thumb again inadvertently made me realize it was my childhood struggle to fit in — and my constant self-analysis and adaptation to my environment — that made me who I am today.

I’m a child of two Haitian immigrant parents who risked everything to give me the American dream. Without their bravery in escaping a violent regime, I might not have had the opportunity to attend the schools, meet the people and work for the companies that prepared me for my journey as a designer.

I find this administration’s attack on DACA concerning to say the least. America’s most valuable asset is its diversity; this nuance allows all Americans to benefit from a unique perspective, which only serves to better American society in every way, from art to finance. To only allow certain countries to immigrate here and not others is to weaken America’s culture and reduce our advantages in consequence.

As a member of both the American and Haitian community, I am increasingly dismayed at how close in proximity the most oppressed country in the western hemisphere is to the richest and yet how far apart my two homes are socially and economically. Is it not time for America to bravely make right its past wrongs? Slamming the door on its closest neighbors is not an effective way to help that cause.

These hands have held
Three children as they breathed their last,
Before bringing her family to America,
Leaving comfort in the past.

These hands have worked steadily
Since their arrival,
For a country that now turns a blind eye
To those depending on it for survival.

These hands are my grandmother’s,
Who not too long ago was a refugee,
A person displaced by war and decisions
She didn’t make willingly.

These hands mean more to me than bans
Or detainment or laws.
They mean enough for me to stand
And fight for a greater cause.

Where is our humanity?
Have we lost it all?
Have we forgotten upon whose backs
We built this country that now
Divides with walls?

We cannot lose our benevolence,
Our will to understand, for
It is our commission as human beings
To lend a helping hand.

No one tells you how your experience as an immigrant will begin with acknowledging yourself as less. You are a brown woman waiting in line at JFK, fumbling to make sure your papers are in order, wondering whether your name is too jagged, too Muslim, that it won’t roll off their tongue. You watch as people with fairer skin pass you by. Global Entry, they will say, for the “pre-approved, low-risk.” Remember: They said global, not equal.

You will hear about how hard it can be to integrate; you will get advice on what news to watch, which to forget. You will attempt seeming familiar, attempt the humor, laugh along when you can’t. But no one will warn you of the loneliness. No one will tell you that you will want to reach into a city’s guts to find food that smells like your own, to find places that feel like your own. No one tells you that you will find comfort in shared language because sometimes you will feel your mother tongue crumbling in your memory. When you speak English, it will feel like reaching across invisible walls, your body strained from the effort. You will have crossed oceans, but these barriers will feel insurmountable.

What they won’t tell you, but you must know, is that after some time has passed, you will find people who will make you feel less foreign. You will know love, friendship and joy. And in that space between living and belonging, perhaps you will even look back at your country with its chewed-up streets, its battered landscapes, its beloved sky and want to hold it to your chest. You will realize just what it takes to build a home.

In my seat, I visualized myself getting smaller until I disappeared. I was in a room with my dad and the middle-school principal. I was sent to detention because I didn’t have my parents sign the test I failed. This would be my first and only time being picked up from detention. My dad made sure of that. He thought this would ruin my chance of going to a good college, which he believed was my only chance of a good life. He told the principal the story of how our family left the Philippines when I was five so I could benefit from growing up in America. We were here so I could get a good education and a better life, he said. The principal was moved by my dad’s explanation. He told us this would still go on my record but assured us it would not follow me into high school.

My dad often tells our story of immigrating as a rationale behind the sacrifices we make and the expectations he and my mom hold me to. I was left with the impression that my accomplishments only served to validate our place in this country. I spent so much time resisting that idea. My parents saw all of my actions as a reflection of themselves: If I was good, they were good. If I was bad, they were bad. Living under this ethos made me feel like less of my own person. I resented it. I didn’t want to be a model for “immigrant excellence.” I wanted to be given the space and understanding to be fallible.

I was bent on exerting my autonomy and stressing that my life was mine. As an adult, I know that I do not owe perfection to anyone, but whenever I enter new spaces and positions in life, I can’t help but feel like I need to prove that I have as much of a right to be here as anybody else. I am more of my own person today, but now I hope my contribution to the world will reflect my parents’ contribution to my future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about an exchange from The Good Shepherd, when Matt Damon’s character, a man of white Anglo-Saxon privilege, says to an Italian mafioso: “[My people have] the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.”

The rest of you are just visiting. How frighteningly prescient these words are: just visiting.

I think about my childhood. Of my siblings and I riding our bikes to the club to swim all day, racing back through the golf course to beat the sunset home. Or riding to theater camp on a big yellow bus. Or running across the street to play with the Irish family. It felt like a great American childhood to me. Were we visitors then?

We had barbecues in the backyard and rode our bikes for hours, we played Prince of Persia on our Apple IIGS and wore matching track suits when we traveled, like a mini Olympic team. Were we visitors?

I think about telling my class that my family was from Syria and them berating me in response: “Cereal?! Where is that?!” They were just small-town kids, I told myself. Teach them there is a world out there, then invite them to play double-dutch at recess. They’ll come around. We were a symbol of evolution and change. Were we just visitors?

I think about my parents driving us kids to the train station on mornings so dark and cold it felt impossible to get out of bed, just so we could attend the best school in the region and make something terrific of our intellects and this wonderful life. Were we visitors then?

I think of the gifts my father gets from his patients every year that my mother displays proudly at the holidays. Macaroons from the rabbi, paintings from the artist, poems from one patient that are so beautiful they make me cry. It is a remarkable thing to realize how widely admired your parents are as individuals apart from parenting you. Are they visitors too?

I think of the five children they raised — two doctors, a partner at a global law firm, a student at Stanford, and myself. Can we stay? If a visitor leaves a place better than they found it, can they?

I think of my life at this moment. Married to an American with feather-soft hair and blue eyes who grew up in an original 1810 house and accepts me for precisely the person I am. Am I a visitor still? How many roots must we set down for this to be home? How many taxes are left on our balance, how much in tuition to institutions of higher learning, how many donations to domestic causes will deem us acceptable? Should my mother remove her veil, or do her blue eyes cancel out the offense? My employer avowedly supports people of all genders, races and creeds; will they protect me if it should come to pass?

My father called me the other day and said, “I wanted you to know you shouldn’t feel badly if you want to take your husband’s name. I don’t want any of my kids to suffer for being Muslim.”

“I’m prouder of my name than I’ve ever been,” I replied.

We are not visiting.

Feature collage by Emily Zirimis.

Get more Pop Culture ?
  • Jennifer

    TEARRRRSSSS! Wow, this was beautiful. Thank you for sharing these stories MR.

    • Mo

      So many tears.

  • Doing my best to not tear up at work. INCREDIBLY moving. Thank you all for sharing.

  • Daniela

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!! It is so incredible how these 8 individuals explain what I’ve been trying to express for years. It is life changing when you realize that you are not the only one feeling this way. and going through these experiences.

  • Archana

    Thank you for this. Thank you for seeing us.

  • Emily M

    This was beautiful, but just a heads up – in the first story, you have Lucy’s father listed as fleeing from Ethiopia while her story says Eritrea!

    • Lucy Negash

      Thanks for catching that, Emily! My last name is spelled incorrectly too, unfortunately 🙂

      • Amelia Diamond

        Amended, Lucy!

    • Haley Nahman

      Before 1990, Ethiopia and Eritrea were the same country (Ethiopia), but as Lucy explained to me, Eritrea then became independent, so her father uses both. We’ve amended to avoid confusion!

      • Emily M

        Huh, learn something new everyday! I didn’t know that!

  • Suzan

    Wow, these are some incredibly moving and beautiful stories. And it is so sad that these stories have to be told in the context of the current political climate. But also wonderful that they are being told!

  • Camille M

    I don’t know if Lucy will read this, but I worked with her father in Arlington! He is the most humbling, compassionate man I have ever met.

    • Lucy Negash

      Wow, that’s incredible! What work did you do with him? And thank you for the kind words :’)

      • Camille Torres

        I was working in the Unaccompanied Minors Pro-Bono Legal Aid department! He really just mentored me and would always take time to share life advice and impart his wisdom. He is someone I can never forget when working in this field.

        • Camille Torres

          *At USCRI 🙂

  • Keisha

    Thank you for sharing this, much appreciated.

  • Amalia

    Thanks for this article! It’s very valuable!

  • Amalia Contreras Avalos

    Katherine, your poem has made me tear up at work, so beautiful.

  • Rita

    So good, so necessary

  • Katherine

    Incredibly moving! Thank you all for providing insight into something that is always talked about as a blanket topic, “immigration.”

    I do have one question about the legal side of immigration, as I didn’t see anyone mention their family’s reasons in their piece: what were the reasons behind immigrating illegally to America, if your family did? My husband’s family immigrated to America after the Vietnam War and went through all proper channels. His parents then decided to retire in Brazil, and again, went through the legal process to immigrate there. Being born in America, I have no clue as to how hard/long of a process it is and have always wondered why people immigrate illegally.

    • autillicautnullibi

      The fact is, the process can be so long and arduous, with no guarantee of getting the necessary papers. And by long, I mean, LONG. Most of the time the lower end is FIVE YEARS (on the higher end, it’s two decades). If you are fleeing a violent situation in your home country, are you really going to try to wait five to ten years or are you going to risk it for something better?

    • Regina

      Hi, I don’t know too much about this either but as a point of comparison, I graduated an elite university in the US for both my masters and undergrad in an in-demand STEM field. Four months ago, I had to return to my country in Latin America because I couldn’t find a job. Even if I was among the top candidates, it was still the last deciding point. Similarly, most of my friends couldn’t get work visas through the lottery system. Thankfully I was simply looking for the advanced technical experience and I came back to a privileged life in my country where I am comfortable. However, if with all this privilege, it was almost impossible for me, I can just imagine it is infinitely harder for people with less than high school education and means (which are the people in dire need of more opportunities.) But if you have a spare $500,000, it’s pretty easy and you can get an E visa.

  • Olivia AP

    This is so beautiful, especially the poem. What this presidency is doing is plain racist. We will let you in if you are white (even if you don’t speak the language). I’m Mexican and a lot of what I’ve been hearing about Trump’s immigration speeches are aimed at us but there is too many people in this world that have to leave their countries because of reasons that have nothing to do with them and after the shithole countries comment I think that the US and other countries need to take part of the blame. For so long many countries were exploited and yes, they may be poorer and more complicated but as it reads above, where’s our humanity and empathy? I travel a lot to the US and I have never been treated poorly except for last year. I went to northern California with my sister and she got an allergy and couldn’t breathe, we took her to ER and I went to buy the prescriptions drugs. While I was in the queue a group of people started pointing at me saying that Mexicans were invading and ruining everything, and talking how things have changed and how many of us live in their communities and that if only we could go away and they continue talking in a volume so I could hear. I felt unwelcomed, uncomfortable and sad. And I can’t imagine people that had to live without the feeling of belonging many years and they were given a promise and now they are taking it back.

  • Wow this was so moving and powerful. Thank you! Thank you! For collecting and sharing these beautiful words.

  • rolaroid

    Such different voices, such poignant stories. Ya done good, MR.

  • Ruby

    Hi Lucy, your dad was kind enough to speak with me when I had just graduated college and was trying to break into the refugee/immigration policy world. He gave me a ton of recommendations and even went so far as to send a quick note to the head of an organization I applied for after we had one conversation. Today, I work in DC advocating for Dreamers, like Camila’s story below yours 🙂 I thanked him profusely then but want you to know how incredibly kind and helpful he was to a young grad!

  • Mun

    This is just beautiful.

  • carswell676

    Thank u Lucy for sharing ur stories ith us, its really worth shaing! Others may be benefited by it…Much appeciation for you … Border Patrol Agents are not allwed to properly do their job at the Border because f ridiculous liberal (Democrate ) laws like Catch & Release. getting more dangerous ‘Caravans ‘ comning.Republlicans mut go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws Now,NO more DACA DEAL! That was declared by Donald J. Trump on 1 April ,2018… that is really sad for the immigrants….