Two movies I saw recently reveal the amnesia persistent in our current discourse. The first is the movie Brooklyn, about an Irish woman who comes to the United States to build a better life for herself. She’s young and at first she’s absolutely wretched with homesickness. She’s dutiful but lackluster at work and around the boarding house where she lives. When she’s alone, she weeps. But youth will not be shackled for long, and eventually she comes out of her shell and falls in love. She and her boyfriend, an Italian immigrant, begin making plans for a new life in America. It’s easy to see in this pairing the birth of our modern culture, the blending of the hopes and dreams of immigrants who built homes and businesses and patronized movie houses and restaurants and did things that the people they left behind would never dream of doing and thereby made a world that we take for granted. A world we now want to greedily keep to ourselves.
Now, we want to lock the gates to keep out the “Barbarians.” Of course, a few sane voices keep saying over and over again, “We are a nation of immigrants.” But do we really believe it? We seem to think because we’re “American” we’re entitled to rights that no one else should have. I want to laugh when I hear someone say, “Shouldn’t we take care of our own people first?” Well, nice idea to “take care of our own people” since that implies we actually do that. But secondly there’s a fundamental flaw in this thinking. Our country was built on the principle that if you come here (or are dragged here in chains) then you are one of our own people. If the immigrants came a hundred years ago or a week ago, those immigrants are what it means to be American. It means bringing your food, your fashion, your music, and your language to this country and molding it to a new world, to a new freer sensibility. It means blending your culture with your neighbor’s, and maybe even forgetting aspects of your culture while hanging on to others. It means changing yourself and changing us, too.
The other movie is a documentary called Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth. It doesn’t have the gorgeous sheen of Brooklyn, but it tells an important story, well, several important stories, and it’s got a compelling message. The filmmakers interview five different young people who cannot obtain social security numbers because their families brought them here illegally. These young people are at the juncture between high school and the rest of their lives. But unlike their peers, they have no future. They can’t go to college. They can’t work. These are bright, productive, hard-working kids with amazing potential, but that potential has nowhere to go. Instead of become productive contributing members of society, they have no choice but to be a drain on it. They can’t understand why they’re being treated differently from their friends. As Simone, one of the participants in the documentary, says, “If you cut us, we all bleed.” Another one of the young people featured in the documentaries says, “We’re undocumented, but we’re no different from any your children.”
Fortunately, some changes have been made and with the exception of the one girl who got deported with her mother, the others managed to at least further their education. And yet we still have such an Us v. Them mentality. Most of my students who watched this film felt strongly afterwards that there should be a path to citizenship for these “undocumented Americans.” What else can we call them but Americans? They grew up here. They speak the language. They don’t know any other life, any other place. But there were some students who reacted angrily. Why should these people who came here illegally (even if they were infants and had not chosen to come here) be given a chance? Too bad if the parents get deported while you’re at school. They shouldn’t have come here illegally. They seem to think that giving these kids a chance takes something away from them. But what if one of those kids is the one who cures cancer? Or invents the next cool piece of technology as the son of a Syrian immigrant did not so long ago. My response to people who harbor a grudge against these illegal families is this: to a parent who is trying to save the lives of their children, there are higher laws than the arbitrary ones set by rich politicians who have never been hungry a day in their lives.
No one seems to ask, why do we allow some people to move here and not others? Why was it easier for my poor grandparents to move here than it is for a farmer in Mexico who has been driven out of business by NAFTA? Who is making these rules and what is the rationale? And now, why do we equate immigrants with terrorists? My father’s family came from Ireland, and yet I am not a member of the IRA. Should we shut down the pizza parlors and run out the Italians because some gangsters came from Sicily? We all come from somewhere where bad folks do bad things. And yet we aren’t suspect. In fact, we’re welcome here. As we should be. As many should be.
Sorry, I’m probably preaching to the choir. But thought I’d say something anyway.
To learn more about the documentary, see http://www.papersthemovie.com.