Forever Foreigners: The American Dream Shattered
I remember like it was yesterday. Every time I would act out one of my mischievous schemes, my mother and father would quickly remind me of their sacrifice. "We came here with two suitcases -- that's it, two suitcases -- and built everything from there," were words I heard throughout childhood. But it wasn't until my teen years that I began to comprehend the scope of this incessant reminder; and more importantly, the magnitude of the selfless way in which my parents left the humble but middle-class ease of their native land so that they might raise a family in a country where their children would have the opportunity to pursue the ideals that we celebrate this week. But what these immigrants from Pakistan didn't know then was that even decades later, the land of the free and home of the brave would slam the welcome door dead in their face.
Last week, the public, the media, and lobbyists on both the right and left watched as the Senate took tortured steps to pass the immigration reform bill, only to shoot it down in the end. There was anger and joy from both liberals and conservatives, for this bill would have provided a path to citizenship for some 12 million illegal immigrants, but at the cost of policy shifts that would strike at women and children the most, and decrease their chance at gaining entry into the country. Some speculate that George Bush and the Republican Party lost the Latino constituency as a result of this bill not passing -- that votes for even local and state positions will now be based on a candidate's stance on immigration. Never in recent years has the country been so galvanized by this issue -- not even during the 1986 Ronald Reagan immigration reform when some 3 million undocumented residents were granted eventual citizenship. In fact, a Gallup Poll in 2000 found that only 15 percent of those surveyed worried extensively about illegal immigration; by this year, that number jumped to 45 percent.
But while the battle continues, and the Lou Dobbs of the world blast their subliminal hatred on 24/7 news networks, there is only one consistent loser -- the immigrant. Whether it's the estimated 1.1 million legal foreign-born workers and their families, or those seeking desperate measures to escape the poverty they were born into by circumstance, or the simple family applying for citizenship the legal way, the immigrant will always be seen as the 'other.' No matter their personal achievements, the people from other lands -- especially those brown and black -- will never in their lifetime be accepted as full-blooded Americans. An immigrant who manages to attain the house with a white picket fence and 2.5 kids will constantly be reminded that she/he doesn't belong. Even those who have been lucky enough to become citizens in the United States -- like my mother and father did when I was a toddler -- will forever be "foreigners."
My parents flew into this country -- two suitcases in hand -- and raised four children who, despite their American ways, knew exactly the importance of their rich cultural heritage. It's an interesting notion to grow up with a dual identity in a country where assimilation and conformity are deemed ideal and the norm, but I'm grateful beyond words that my parents instilled in us such pride and knowledge. Taking us back home to Pakistan to visit grandparents and family as often as they could, they showed their children the best of both worlds. But what I remember almost as much as trying to educate people on my background was having to constantly defend it as well. I remember the snide or outright mocking of my father because he had a slight accent, and I remember stepping in without fail to fight those who ridiculed him. I remember the racial slurs when we moved from a diverse neighborhood to a smaller suburb -- all the arguments, fights, and anger.
In March of 2005, some 40 years after my parents came to America, my father was conducting a routine run to a grocery store in New Jersey. As the sliding doors opened and he began to walk to his car, an SUV struck him, causing his body to fly several feet back where he landed on the concrete, with the back of his head bearing the impact. He suffered massive trauma to his brain, hemorrhaging and basically lost his ability to speak. When the EMT and local police arrived at the scene, they took one look at my father and assumed this hard-working citizen could not speak English. Ignoring the possibility that the injury affected his neurological functions, they indicated "a language barrier" on their reports and sent my father to a non-trauma hospital. He wasn't transferred to a trauma facility until five hours later, at which point he was virtually comatose. Three days later, he died. And this time I could do nothing to save him from the racism and bigotry.
I'll never forget arriving first to that non-trauma hospital and my shock when the nurses asked me, "does your father speak English?" "How could he not speak English. He's been in this country for over thirty years," I yelled at them. Right then, I knew it was bad. How could he not speak English when I spoke to him 90 percent of the time in nothing other than plain English? My entire world collapsed, my family suffered immeasurable grief, and no one seemed to care about the injustice. Until this day I think about those critical few hours following the accident and wonder if he had received proper medical attention would he be alive today? What I do know for sure is that such massive negligence would never have occurred if he had been a white male. As he lay dying, my dad was what I think of as a silent victim of an environment that was biased against him from the onset and treated him like a second-class citizen. Who knows how many other silent victims there are out there across the nation?
It took a lot of time and work for me to reach the point of sharing my parents' story, and my father's ultimate sacrifice. So while the nation celebrates the Fourth, the debates continue, and politicians talk about border security and nameless "illegals," remember that the immigrants are the ones suffering in bureaucratic red tape. The phrase, "We came here with two suitcases and built everything from there," still echoes in my head. But unfortunately it's now juxtaposed with the question, "Does your father speak English?" -- just as "immigrant" and "alien" will always be juxtaposed in the fabric of our society -- legal or not.