Proving My Kids Belong Here

Nearly a decade ago, I flew from Guatemala City to Houston, with my seven-month-old son swaddled to my chest the entire way. When we landed at Bush Airport, we had to hurriedly find the basement of the airport, so my son could take the oath of citizenship (with me as his proxy). Within an hour of being on U.S. soil for the first time, my son was a naturalized U.S. citizen.

I repeated the process almost two years later, when my then 13-month-old daughter visited the same tunnels of that same airport in Texas.

Since those days, my children have been U.S. citizens. They have certificates of citizenship. They now hold U.S. birth certificates. They have traveled out of the country on their U.S. passports. It is only now that I am grateful my wife ordered the passport ID cards from the U.S. government when we had the passports processed.

Parents of internationally adopted children live in a constant sense of worry, particularly these days. Despite doing everything correctly during the adoption process, we always worry that someone may come back and say an error was made, even years later. We worry about losing original documentation from both the adoption and the citizenship. We worry about the birth mothers. And we worry about how we openly discuss adoption with our children, children who may not look a thing like us.

But it wasn’t until the past week that I honestly worried about my children, my children of U.S. citizenship, being stopped by law enforcement and taken away because they couldn’t prove they were citizens. Last week, The Washington Post ran a piece stating that U.S. Border Patrol could stop any person within 100 miles of a U.S. border for any reason, and ask for proof citizenship. That means, because of our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, my children can be stopped anywhere in their home state of New Jersey and prove they belong in our country.

Defenders of the policy are quick to point out that many of the laws allowing the federal government to do what it is doing on immigration are laws that have been on the books for decades, many of them established during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Others will say that by using the stories featured in The Washington Post or some of the child photos taken at our southern border, we are simply demonizing who want stronger borders, making highly charged emotional appeals at a time when facts, reason, and law should rein supreme.

It may be demonizing. But for parents of children adopted from countries like Guatemala, it is a very real fear. Whether it is a law that dates back to the 1930s and an era of internment camps for Japanese Americans or a new executive order coming from the Trump Administration, the federal government is now stopping kids who look just like mine, demanding proof of citizenship. My children, both very proud Americans, may need to start carrying their passport cards at all times to prove they are allowed to be in this country. Whether new or old case law, immigration policies are now being applied in ways today that we have not seen in decades, or may have actually never seen in practice.

Whether they be naturalized citizens like my children, undocumented immigrants, or asylum seekers, we are now encouraging a society where people think ill of those who look like my children simply because of their skin color. We are now brewing a community where people see my kids, and immediately believe they snuck in here to take advantage of welfare benefits, to ultimately take jobs from real “Americans,” or to join a gang and reek havoc on our nation.

I see photos of kids at the border and I see my own children, particularly my son (perhaps because we don’t seem to see any photos of young girls held in detention. I hear the audio tapes and I can hear my own daughter, when she was a toddler, crying for her mother. I see friends of mine parroting President Trump’s words that asylum is a scam offered by those looking to take advantage of our country, and I think of the extreme poverty and violence I’ve seen firsthand in Guatemala. And I hear accusations that undocumented citizens are looking to take “our jobs” from us, and I see the sort of jobs so many hard-working immigrants do or I think of the sort of jobs that Guatemalans are doing when they illegally enter Mexico for work along Mexico’s southern border.

We are better than this. We are better than having my 12-year-old son fearful that at any time, law enforcement can stop him for proof of citizenship because of his brown skin and Mayan features, and then detain him if he can’t offer it. We are better than seeking to deny due process to both those seeking sanctuary in the United States or those simply looking for better opportunities for their families. We, as a nation of immigrants, are better than using immigration to employ a campaign of “us versus them” fear in communities across the nation.

As my kids prepare for middle school this fall, I now have to accept that they will start sixth and seventh grade with both a cell phone and a passport card in their backpacks. I’m assuming their letters from then U.S. President George W. Bush, welcoming them to this country and congratulating them on citizenship will not suffice.