Are We Forgetting About the Immigrants in the Immigration Battle?

My father left Panama, the country where he was born and raised, to come to the United States. He came, in 1971, to study chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. When he landed (in New York, where the school had mistakenly sent him), he had a suitcase, he spoke halting English, and he didn't know a soul.

Immigrants come to the United States for so many reasons. Some, like my father, come for an education. Some come out of necessity – they've been exiled, or they're seeking asylum, or they're looking for the medical care they couldn't find at home. Some come out of longing, a desire to find their way to that basic idea: a better life. Still others come out of love, a guileless love for a country they don't yet know but that they hope will be all they've dreamed. They come to be part of a shared experience.

It's the same thing we all want: to feel that we belong – to something, to someone, to somewhere.

But belonging – the feeling that one belongs – is a tricky thing. So much of it depends on other people. You may love a place, but if the people who inhabit that place turn their backs to you, it's hard to feel: Aha! This is where I belong! Which, of course, is what the people who turn their backs often want. They want to put up a wall, or a fence along a border, to keep themselves at a distance, or rather to keep others at a distance from them. They say they have their reasons.

And they very well might.

The reasons might be rational and carefully considered, reflecting economic, security and population concerns. But in the fraught conversation surrounding immigration, we should keep immigrants themselves – people's children, mothers, fathers – at the center. Until we think of immigration as a human issue and not a bureaucratic one, we won't get very far.

While the politics play out – while a Tea Party candidate from Virginia upsets the balance of power in Washington partly to reinforce those walls, while the House majority leader leaves office saying he "would still like to see the issue of the kids addressed" – in our own lives we should treat every immigrant with the depth of our empathy and the fullness of our humanity. We should give them a chance, at least a chance, to feel that they could belong.

Now, my father says that he has two homes – Panama and the United States. He says it with conviction, but I've seen up close the conflict within him. Even after more than 40 years here (he came to study, but he stayed because he met my mother), he still feels, sometimes painfully, that he doesn't quite fit in, that people don't understand him in an elemental way. He's still self-conscious about his accent, which persists despite his beautiful, fluent English. He still feels, to degrees that vary by situation, different from people here and, after so many years of being away, different from everyone in Panama, too.

In some ways maybe he's right: maybe American immigrants have two homes, and in some ways we still manage to make sure they have none.


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