America’s battle for soul: Why immigration reform must be inclusive

[Editor’s note: A version of this column was previously published in the Los Angeles Asian Journal Weekend Edition on Jan. 25, 2014. We are reprinting given the current debate on immigration.]

“THERE’S a battle right now for the soul of our country. Are we going to affirm our core values of inclusion and equality? Or are we going to be controlled by fear and prejudice? The calls for closing the borders, dramatically cutting family-based immigration, and further ramping up immigration enforcement are trying to get us to an America that never existed. The reality is that we have always been a nation of immigrants. What makes America exceptional in the world is the idea that national identity can be based on a set of shared values and not blood or skin color. And that national identity is not any less valuable if it is chosen, as it has been by the millions of immigrants in our country’s history. We don’t always live up to this vision of what America can be, but the fact that we still aspire to it represents the best part of who we are.”- Hyeon-Ju Rho, former co-director of Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus

There are 12 million undocumented Americans in the United States today. They chose America to be their home but laws have yet to include them.

One million are Asian or Pacific Islanders — the majority of whom are Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans and Indians. They live in the shadows, underpaid.

They are TNTs (tago ng tago), always hiding and always fearful while driving on the streets.

In California, thanks to new laws, they can now drive in the open. In Georgia, an undocumented Latina tells herself: “When I get nervous, it’s gonna be okay, I am white.”

They work incredibly long hours as nannies, dishwashers, carwash workers, housekeepers, cleaning ladies, waitresses, chicken farm production workers, cannery workers and gardeners.

They are modern-day workers who undergird construction sites, bakeries, printing presses to large households. Undocumented immigrants are our modern-day slaving workers.

When Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas revealed that he was undocumented, he gave a face to the issue.  He believes that being an immigrant is more than just having legal status — it is about having dignity.

Define American

Being American is defined by hard work, self-responsibility, creativity and innovation. We have heard of many American dreamers who made it here.

In Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg described how half of startup tech companies are founded by immigrants. Yet, as a nation, we have yet to embrace the histories and contributions of immigrants,  of the so-called  “other, ” including giving them a pathway to citizenship.

In my four decades here in America, I witnessed the population change, with the influx of Vietnamese refugees.

By 1985, Prof. Takaki describes 643,200 Vietnamese were refugees, who fought with the U.S. during the Vietnam War, and settled in rural farms and cities of America. They sought safe borders, but were met by racial slurs and were mistakenly told to go back to China.

“It’s hard for you [Americans] to understand us, and we don’t expect you to, but we do expect you to treat us as human beings and not be prejudiced, “ writes Takaki, articulating the voice of a Vietnamese immigrant.

By the 21st century, we watched the influx of refugees from Iraq, Serbia and other troubled areas in the Middle East.

This time, being Middle–Eastern or having Sikh as a religion have become magnets for hate crimes. A San Gabriel Valley’s grocery owner lost his life recently, according to the Office of Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who received the police investigation reports.

Picture this: You want to escape war-torn places, whose civil wars got ignited by being on the wrong side, who receive the funneling of funds as the U.S. did to Saddam Hussein (once an ally of America) or to dictators in Central America, who oppressed their people and created a population of fleeing refugees from El Salvador, Honduras, even Venezuela.

Here’s the story of internationalist journalist Jesus Manuel Rojas-Torres: “Mediocrity, poverty, under development, unconsciousness are part of what some expert sociologists and anthropologists believe is the inheritance we obtained from Spain and Portugal centuries ago. Whether or not, this is true, debatable or questionable, the fact is that I trained myself to become a diplomat and represent my country, bringing new ideals and hope to a place that has been demoralized through decades of corruption and misery.

“Egotistical attitudes from every political party and the quest for power have depleted extraordinary resources that any nation on this planet would only wish of having. A spectacular small country the size of Texas, Venezuela continues to have the cheapest gasoline in the world, but is more known for beauty-queens, vanity and baseball.

“In 1995, I decided to emigrate to the United States. I stayed with a tourist visa for one year, working in odd jobs, here and there trying to understand a new language, culture and customs. Miami has been my home ever since. Some American friends have told me that this city is not the U.S. It’s the Latin America capital [of] America.

“I can only say that, this magnificent country allowed me what my own did not fully provide: personal security, jobs, businesses, college, quality of life, and spiritual transformation. When I came here, I didn’t speak fluent English, just the basic to get by. I became a waiter, dishwasher & prep cook at a family restaurant in Miami Lakes. I learned the trade so fast that within 2 years I took over the place, obtained a L-1 visa, opened a second business, became a homeowner, got married and divorced, sold my restaurants, went to School for my Master’s, opened an art gallery, worked in public opinion research, invested in 5 Real Estate properties and lost everything due to the national financial crisis.

“Unfortunately, I had to declare Bankruptcy protection in 2008. I restarted my life with zeal, emerging from the broken pieces of failure, more energetic and wise, this time as a journalist and blogger for What’s Up Miami? and La Columna de Jesus, The Spiritual Journalist and, where I blog about art, human consciousness and spirituality. This amazing country has given me medical treatments, food stamps, and the assurance that there is no other country in the world like the United States of America.”

“Immigrants like me also concur with Jose Antonio Vargas that this place is blessed for allowing regular people like him and me and the many millions of more that have come to the U.S. to work hard and to become somebody else. We feel proud that the U.S. Justice system still works and despite corners of corruption, red tape and more, we understand that with no immigration whatsoever this country could have not existed in the first place. Immigration Laws need to change in 21 century, not to accept people that do not bring anything to the table, those definitely need to be deported, those who take advantage of the US and the benefits it provides, however for those hard working-paying-taxes immigrants who came here to become somebody, doors should not be closed. I favor selective immigration, that is what makes a country great because it contributes to expand frontiers of human interaction and cooperation.”

A dynamic nation

America is a nation that has opened doors, spanning the years of 1607 founding of Jamestown, to the present, where the lives of Native Americans, African Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Korean Americans, Greek Americans, Lebanese Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Vietnamese Americans, Central Americans, and more, have contributed to the making of this dynamic nation, according to Takaki.

“Today, there are millions of Mexicans living in the United States, legally and illegally — in essence a substantial part of Mexico within American borders. Unlike the small number of Mexicans who lived in the territories announced by the United States through the treaty of 1848, these people are driven to the United States by economic needs. Americans cannot afford the luxury of denying their presence. The passage of legislation providing a route to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrants would be an excellent way to confront the sins of the past and for Mexico and the United States to mutually make their peace with it,” said Enrique Krauze.

We are now defaulting to become a nation built on skulls and bodies piled high, from 13 wars we have become embroiled in since the Revolutionary War to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom,  with casualties numbering 1,011,659, according to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. Department of Defense.

Or we can consciously choose to become a nation of compassionate folks: the white and black folks, who constituted the Underground Railroad and gave refuge to African Americans fleeing the oppressive slave-owners of the south; or today, the compassionate employer, the compassionate choir teacher or principal or editor of Jose Antonio Vargas, who gave him opportunities. He graduated from high school and got a job at the Washington Post, because it is the heart of what an American is.

We can choose to be more engaged as citizens.

Today, 1,000,000 Filipinos are eligible to register as voters in the U.S., and when they do, they can choose to be more engaged in crafting domestic policies.

The U.S. need not be a nation built on skulls and bones, just like the image of Zachary Taylor, who was hailed a national hero during the Mexican–American war and who later became one of the U.S. presidents.

America’s collective soul can be inclusive of the honest hard work and innovation of immigrants, including the undocumented, who are here and whose existence cannot be denied. They too are part of the American social fabric.

I once wrote a story about Abigail, an immigrant who is now a super lawyer. This is what she has to say about immigration reform:

“Because it means allowing families to stay together.

Because it means allowing people to dream.

Because it means giving people a chance.

Because it means giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Because it means allowing people to choose their own fate.

Because it means, without immigration reform, America would be turning away the very people who built it and make it great.

And, simply because this is my home, too.”

“If I wasn’t fortunate enough to participate in an amnesty program, I wouldn’t be able to make the contributions to society I consciously try to make in my personal and professional life every day,” said Abigail.

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.

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