I've celebrated the Fourth of July every year since I first immigrated to the States. It's always been my favorite holiday, probably because my birthday just happens to be July first and my mother would always tell me that my birthday was special because I got presents and fireworks. The efforts made by my parents to assimilate into America were so great that to this day, I don't even know the date of The Philippines' Independence Day without Google searching it. (It was June twelfth, in case you were wondering.)
Beyond fireworks, food and pool parties, Independence Day for us had a deeper significance. For us, it was a way to celebrate our newfound American-ness with other fellow Americans. It was a way for us to show everyone how proud we were to be here and that we belonged. Citizenship status was precious to us, as it is for most immigrants, and when we finally achieved it we did everything we could to prove that we had earned it. What better way to prove you're truly an American than by helping to celebrate the United States' independence from the Brits?
But the truth was there was always a part of me that wondered if it was enough. Even after I swore my citizenship, I questioned whether or not others really believed my family had a right to be here. At times, I felt as if I was just playing a part I was instructed to play and that at any moment the tables in this game of citizenship would turn and I would be outed as some sort of impostor American.
Since Trump announced his candidacy back in 2015 to run for President, my secret fears of being seen as a fake American rather than the true, naturalized one that I am have grown exponentially. The vitriol towards immigrants - illegal and otherwise - has become so violent that I sincerely wonder at times how much longer I have before I am stripped of my legal citizenship and forced to leave. Rationally, I know that it would take a long time before such a legislation comes to pass; but rationale seems to have been failing us as of late. Every time a new legislation against immigrants of any background is passed under the radar, my insecurities as an immigrant-turned-naturalized-citizen grow just a little stronger.
Reading headlines today feels as if I’m reading all of my greatest childhood fears manifest in someone else’s life. I was afraid of a lot of things growing up, most kids are. But the one thing I feared the most was losing my parents. I immigrated to the States at a young age with just my mother. The U.S. embassy wouldn't grant a visa to my father and we were forced to immigrate without him. For the first five years of my life in America, I grew up without my papa and my mama raised me as if she were a single, immigrant mother.
When I was about six, Mama began going through the emergency protocol with me. In other words, she explained to me what I needed to do should she die or be detained by immigration. She was a legal immigrant with a work visa and steady job as a nurse, but deportation was still very much on the back of her mind.
Nearly every night for about a week or so, we would review the protocol. I still remember it to this day:
If something happens to Mama, the emergency list of numbers is on her bedroom wall next to her mirror. My daycare and school have a the list, too. If she becomes sick, I should call 9-1-1 first. If it gets worse or in any other situation, like Mama being taken away (by immigration), I should call Wendy (her closest American friend). Wendy will take me to her home until my Ninang Chito (godmother) can come and get me from New Jersey. Then, I will travel with Ninang to Toronto or wait for my Ninong Max (godfather) to come and get me. When Ninong has brought me to Canada, I will wait for Lola (grandmother) to come from Hong Kong. Together, we will fly from Canada back home to the Philippines so that I can be with Papa again.
It’s traumatizing for a six year old to have to confront the potential mortality of his or her parents. Every time we reviewed this protocol together, I realized over and over again that if I lost my mama I would be utterly alone in the States with no guarantees that I would ever see my papa again. Eventually, I began suffering from separation anxiety, though I don’t think anyone realized that’s what I was experiencing. The thought of losing my mother was so crippling that I would cry every morning whenever she dropped me off at daycare. As she disappeared from my view, I would weep uncontrollably, hyperventilating and screaming for my mother to come back, terrified that that would be the last time I'd ever see her.
It’s been difficult for me to not think about my immigrant childhood as I'm bombarded daily with news headlines reporting on current atrocities against immigrants and their children taking place at our borders. For the last month and a half, I've read and listened to stories of parents trying so desperately to reconnect with their children and of the abuse that some of them have endured. Thousands of children, who are no more at fault for being here than I was when I immigrated, are being stripped of what little rights they had to begin with and being held in concentration camps away from the only people who want to protect them. Some of them are being drugged and beaten, all of them are alone - all because a choice was made on their behalf with the hopes that the quality of their lives would be better and safer in the "Land of the Free".
I can’t help but think of the terror they're experiencing, the trauma and the lifetime of mental health issues this will inevitably cause them - just as it did me, only a hundred times worse. I think of the the fear and regret their parents must be feeling and how desperate they are to reunite with their children - just as my father had been all those years we were separated. And yes, I’ve heard the argument. “But Cori, your family immigrated legally. There’s a big difference.”
As someone who remembers how alone she felt most of her life as an immigrant child and how isolating it was to be the only kid in her social circle terrified of losing her lone guardian in a foreign country - I can honestly tell you that there is no difference. A child is a child, legal passage into this nation granted or not.
It's hard for me to reflect on my experiences as an immigrant and feel proud to be a naturalized U.S. citizen, especially today. Is this really the America of which my parents fought so hard to be legitimate citizens?
My experiences shaped me into who I am now, just as the experiences of the immigrant children being imprisoned will shape who they will become in the future. And how we move forward from here will shape what we become as a nation. It's hard to hope sometimes that we will shape ourselves into a people that is greater than the sum of their fears. But I do.
And today, on America's Independence Day, that is how I choose to celebrate. I choose to celebrate by hoping and doing everything that I can to ensure that these hopes - ones that I know are shared with other Americans - evolve into a shared reality.
I hope that one day we will live in a nation that is deserving of Lady Liberty welcoming those seeking refuge and peace on our heavily guarded shores. I hope that one day all citizens of this nation - Natives, Sons of Slaves and of Immigrants and true lovers of freedom and justice for all - will be afforded the same opportunities in education, vocation and representation as they struggle and fight in pursuit of their right to happiness. I hope that we will finally evolve into the nation we promote ourselves to be, one that fights the presence of fascist ideals and refuses to be complicit as fearmongering politicians do everything in their capacity to desperately cling to their fading power and control.
I hope with all my heart that we take this moment in history and turn it into something truly good - that we may someday be able to truthfully call ourselves one of the leaders of a free world.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
If you want to help but don’t know how, just I do sometimes, here are links to some organizations working hard to help these families reunite with their children:
- Texas Raices
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Pueblo Sin Fronteras
- The Florence Project
- Together Rising
- Border Angels
- Kids In Need of Defense
Donate! Be sure to check your local organizations for ways you can volunteer to help. Many organizations are in need of medical professionals, mental health professionals and translators. It may seem as if there is little you can do, but if we all do a little it adds to a lot.
And don't forget to VOTE: November 6, 2018!!!