Because of the way I talk and the color of my skin, I have never been burdened by a negative connotation to the word immigrant. However, in recent months my president has allocated a tone to this word that demeans and derides the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
While my English accent has had some of the edges knocked off during the past four decades, there is enough of it there to define me as a “Brit” in the nation where I have chosen to belong. In fact, my accent sometimes gives me privilege. It has been thought positively exotic in some of the small towns my husband and I have passed through on our long roadtrips, and I am certain some people think I am much more intelligent than I really am — just because of the way I speak.
But I am an immigrant. On the day in 1993 when my husband and I became American citizens inside the federal building in Los Angeles, we were relieved to have arrived at the final administrative step. No longer would we need green cards when returning home from our travels abroad.
The ceremony began with someone making a speech congratulating each of the hundreds of new citizens on becoming an American. I thought, “When is this going to be over?” There followed short film clips of American flags and fighter jets flying in blue skies as a Marine Corps choir sang “America the Beautiful.” I thought, “When is this going to be over?” Then it was time to pledge allegiance to my new country, and I felt awkward putting my hand over my heart, because English people don’t use such brazen patriotic body language. I thought, “Finally, it’s going to be over.”
But then I looked at the people around me and heard them saying, “I pledge allegiance … ” with many, many different accents. Nearly everyone else had beaming smiles and tears on their faces, and I felt like a fraud. I had had no struggle. I was not tired. I was not poor — those very facts had probably put me ahead in line of many of these people’s relatives who were also yearning to come to America. I had not sat for days in a truck taking me (and perhaps some non-human contraband) from the country of my birth through life-threatening danger to get here. Nor had I sat in an over-full, tempest-tossed boat straining my eyes to see the coastline of the land of the free. I looked at all those passionate patriotic faces and knew that for many that was how they had arrived — not on an American Airlines jet from Vancouver, Canada.
I was changed that day. I became an American. By that I mean I felt American not because I had finally signed the papers, not because I was given a patriotic speech, not because I saw American flags and fighter jets, and not because I heard Marines singing “America the Beautiful.” I felt American because I would be united forever with the mass of new citizens who out of many, had become one. Even though I had never been tired, nor poor, wretched, homeless, or tempest-tossed, I was one of them. It was my fellow immigrants who changed me. I exited the building and immediately registered to vote.
My feelings of belonging to this particular in-group has only intensified during the last 25 years, especially since I began teaching at Santa Barbara City College more than a decade ago. I have met, and admired, many Dreamers, immigrants, and wannabe Americans who believe the promise of worldwide welcome written on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. In many ways they have taught me more than I have taught them, and they prove their love for America with hard work and determination every day.
My president is visiting my home state of California this week, and it pains me to acknowledge his lack of understanding about what truly makes America great.
And what pains me the most is my knowledge that I am probably the kind of immigrant Mr. Trump prefers.