Over the weekend, as I was working on my interview with Jose Antonio Vargas for this week’s cover story, my nephew kept popping into my office to bust out new freestyle raps. It’s the sort of repeated distraction that would normally drive me over the edge but was too cute and funny to do anything but fill me with uncle-ish pride.
Andrew is 12 and a first-generation American, the son of my late brother-in-law and his wife, both immigrants from Vietnam. He hasn’t known anything other than this country, a place where he’s grown up to be such a Nickelodeon and Disney-infused, slang-slinging, all-American tween that he’s started to forget how to speak the Vietnamese that his grandmother and extended family still depend on.
My husband, Cavin, is an immigrant. He came to the U.S. at 13 in the late 1980s under the nation’s family reunification immigration policies. His departure with his mother and two brothers was quiet and sudden — no goodbyes, no wrapping up loose ends, no action at all that might cause the communist bureaucracy to scuttle their emigration. They simply left, passing through a U.S. military base in the Philippines for English and citizenship lessons before heading to America, where his mother hoped to give her sons a better life.
That sharp and sudden departure is similar, in a way, to Vargas’s experience of being sent from the Philippines to America at age 12 in hopes of finding a better life. The difference being that Vargas was sent alone by a mother who stayed behind and whom he hasn’t seen since. And, of course, unknown to him at the time he was sent to America illegally.
Then there’s me, who through no effort of my own and no major sacrifice of any others was born American to parents who were born American, who were born American to my grandparents who were born American, and so on over the course of more than a century-and-a-half of generations.
So which of us deserves to be American?
That’s a question that I worry over more these days, for the obvious reasons that my own family embodies these issues in ways that I never expected. And it’s a question that Vargas has illuminated in his highly public coming out as undocumented and his co-founding of Define American.
For the record, I’m a proponent of an immigration policy that is as open and welcoming as possible. There are economic arguments for it (the pressing need to grow a shrinking ”official” population). There are fairness arguments for it (we shouldn’t expect undocumented workers to carry the load of certain industries, but demand they do it under the table).
But, really, it’s a moral issue for me. America is an experiment, an ideal, a nation that was built on the desire to come here. Those are the stories and notions we’ve been taught in schools — the melting pot, the multitude of nationalities streaming through Ellis Island, the people who’ve left behind homelands of generations because America promised something better.
In these days of anti-immigrant fervor where politicians fume about ”anchor babies” and border fences, citizenship is more than ever seen as birthright. But if being American is only about where you are born, then being American is diminished. It makes being American about location rather than inspiration.
So, who deserves to be American? None of us, really. The better question is: What have we done to earn it?
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