A new moral imagination on immigration

New US citizens hold American flags during a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park, Jersey City, NJ, Oct 2, 2018. (photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
In our country’s history, immigration has never been just about policy. It has always been about who we are and what we are willing to stand up for.

By Pramila Jayapal | The New York Review of Books | Dec 3, 2018

Now it’s more important than ever that Democrats — and any remaining willing Republicans — recapture America’s moral imagination on immigration. Our job is to tell the truth about immigration instead of cowering before falsehoods.

When my parents used all their savings to send me across the oceans from India at the age of sixteen, they made the ultimate sacrifice of separating from their child without knowing if we would ever live on the same continent again. They did so because they believed America was where I would get the best education and have the most opportunity. It took me seventeen years — involving an alphabet soup of visas and the abiding fear that I might not be able to stay in my new home — to get my US citizenship, in 2000. That was a teary and complex moment. Surrounded by people from all over the world, with hands over our hearts, we pledged allegiance to our new country. We knew we were the lucky ones and we were grateful, even as we felt our loss in saying good-bye to the families and countries we had left behind.

Just a year later, in the wake of September 11, I went on to found and lead what became the largest immigrant advocacy organization in Washington state. We organized tens of thousands of immigrants, faith leaders, labor unions, and businesses, engaging in a national conversation on immigration, identity, and the need to reform our outdated laws. Today, more than three decades since I arrived in America, I have the privilege of serving as the first South Asian-American woman in the House of Representatives, and I am one of only twelve members of the 115th Congress who are proud naturalized citizens.

I have become intimately familiar with the policy and the politics of immigration, and I am deeply troubled by the widening divide between the inherent complexity of immigration laws and the simplistic, generally punitive rhetoric that aims to criminalize migration. Through my work, I have met many new Americans and am constantly amazed at the sheer diversity of how they came here and what they end up doing — as farmworkers, doctors, caregivers, entrepreneurs, or researchers. Their stories add to the long tapestry of this uniquely American experience, one that is central to our national identity.

And today’s immigration stories are stitched to the stories and experiences of each successive wave of new arrivals: the Irish, Polish, Germans, Chinese, Mexicans, Jews, Greeks, Nigerians, Somalis, and many others. More than most others, America is a nation of the imagination: its imagined horizons promised our forebears the freedoms of a nobler, more resilient, more just society, one that did not exist anywhere else and would be created from whole cloth by daring trailblazers and idealists who celebrated the land of plenty. It was this imagined America that spurred people to come. In their coming, and their working here, they built America and their successors continue to do so.

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