The Gift of the Promised Land

My parents are immigrants. They were born in Taiwan, raised in Taiwan, met in Taiwan, and got married in Taiwan.

I am not an immigrant. I was born in America, raised in America, went to college in America, and now work in America. I have never been to Taiwan.

My parents came to the United States so my father could attend graduate school at the University of Virginia. (He got his MA in Chemical Engineering---what a smart papa I have!) After grad school, my parents moved to the DC area and settled down. My two siblings and I were all born in Maryland as citizens of the United States. We didn't have to go through endless paperwork to obtain our naturalized status; all we had to do was to be born at the right place.

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On Monday there was a rally at the National Mall. Because I work at the Smithsonian, the Mall is basically my front yard. I saw hundreds of people at the rally, many holding Mexican or El Salvadorean flags. I saw a few white faces mixed in with a sea of brown ones. I heard English and Spanish spoken, blending together like a creamy soup.

When I think of the term "illegal immigrant," my mind conjures an image of a Mexican family struggling across the Rio Grande in an attempt to enter the Promised Land. It's funny how a few words can conjure such a stereotypical image in my head.

In the mid 1800s, the term "immigrant" represented Chinese or Irish immigrants. Granted, these groups came to the U.S. legally, but they faced the same persecution and prejudice that illegal immigrants face today.

I don't see many Chinese or Irish-Americans speaking out for their Latino cousins. Perhaps this is because once we obtain our American status, we also obtain an elitist mentality.

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Sometimes I have this elitist mentality. I look at illegal immigrants and I only see them as a burden. They make our taxes rise; they put a strain on public schools and hospitals. They take jobs from Americans.

But when I take an honest look at these people, I see my parents. I see mothers and fathers who want to provide better opportunities for their kids. I see hard-working individuals who want to make an honest wage. I see families who want to take part in the American dream---education, jobs, safety, and a place to call home.

Yet the problem persists. Illegal immigrants are first and foremost illegal. They may have honest intentions (and many of them do indeed pay taxes and Social Security), but they are still breaking the law. The population of illegal immigrants is also on the rise and so if the government fails to do anything about this, then the problem will just continue to multiply.

I don't know what the best solution is, but I like this quote I found in Time magazine from Frank Sharry, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum:

"The only way to restore the rule of law to our immigration system is to have policies that respect the laws of supply and demand. As someone who's been debating this thing for 25 years, I can say the debate was polarized. It was an either/or debate: more visas or more enforcement. We finally came up with the answer: Yes. We should do both.

This isn't so much a policy debate. It's a battle for American identity. Are we the people already here, or are we a set of ideas and ideals that are universal, such that the people who come here and subscribe to those ideals are American? You can never become a German if you weren't born in Germany. But you can become American. America is permanently evolving. That scares some people, but that's what we're all about. Do you keep it the way it is, or do you keep re-energizing the country with fresh people and fresh ideas?"

I agree with Sharry. The American identity cannot be defined by race, religion, or sex. Instead, our identity is shaped by certain ideas and ideals that are intrisically "American." The United States was built upon a celebration of freedoms---the freedom of worship, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom from an oppressive monarch, etc. To become an American, one must embrace these freedoms in which the country was built upon. And to become a true American, one must uphold the rule of law. Thus, illegal immigrants should do whatever they can to become legal citizens. And it is up to our leaders to help them make this transition.

**Many protestors at the DC rally held up signs that said: "We are Americans." But technically they aren't. They may live in America and they may embrace the liberties we enjoy in this country, but they are not legal citizens. Thus they aren't full-blooded Americans (cousins perhaps). I'm not saying that they shouldn't be granted citizenship, but rather a certain criteria exists to be defined as an American.**