A stunning discovery in my family’s past stopped me in my tracks.
I grew up in a rural town in New Hampshire. Depending on the year, my home state is either the 3rd or 4th least diverse state in the US. It’s safe to say that if I hadn’t eventually moved from my small town to live in a big city, there’s a good chance I would never have met a single one of America’s estimated 11 million undocumented or “illegal” immigrants.
But a few years ago I learned that my great grandfather — an immigrant from Colombia 100 years ago — was a composer. He wrote a long lost opera that had never been performed and it was passed down in my family for generations. Despite not knowing the first thing about music, I somewhat naively decided to go on an adventure to give the show a world premiere eight decades late (incidentally I ended up making a funny documentary about the adventure).
As part of the process, I did lots and lots of family history research. One of the things that I learned made me question everything I thought I knew about the US immigration system. Although my great grandfather had emigrated to the US legally, he ran into trouble when he settled down and married an American woman he met in Chicago.
My late grandmother — the daughter of the immigrant composer — explains in an oral history tape:
“My mother married her husband from Colombia — She lost her citizenship when she did that. She was no longer a citizen of the United States.”
I wondered: Could this really be true? Did my great grandmother lose her American citizenship simply because of the man she fell in love with and married?
It turns out, Congress passed a law called the Expatriation Act of 1907 which made American women forfeit their citizenship when they married immigrants. (Naturally American men who married foreign-born women suffered no such consequences for falling in love.) The story in my family goes on to suggest that my great grandmother was unaware of this law and that she learned of her “accidentally undocumented” status when she went to vote for the first time.
That statute did eventually get changed. And just a few years ago the Senate finally apologized for its cruel, sexist stance on immigration.
But learning that my great grandmother lost her American citizenship — even though she never so much as visited Canada on a vacation — raised a lot of questions for me. It made me look into the history of America’s immigration laws. Laws like the Naturalization Act of 1790 which restricted immigration to white people only. And the Immigration Act of 1924 that limited migration from certain “undesirable” countries (a policy that lived on for decades with so-called country based quotas). Or the Chinese Exclusion Act which did… pretty much what the name suggests. The list of racially exclusionary immigration laws goes on… and on… and on.
The more I learned, the less comfortable I became with politicians who used phrases like “we are a nation of laws.”
I mean, of course we have laws. But you don’t need to be an ultra-liberal to recognize that many of our immigration laws in the 20th century were egregiously racist. We were a nation of laws back then too — just cruel ones. And who’s to say that a century from now our descendants won’t say the same thing of our laws today? You don’t have to look far: President Trump has proposed to severely cut legal immigration in half, limiting it only to well educated English speakers (that is to say, the wealthy).
The more research I did, the more I realized that immigration — whether legal or not, is a huge positive for the US economy. Hell, forecasts of American economic growth for the upcoming decades lean heavily on expected immigration — without it, we’d be stagnant or worse! (Rapidly aging societies such as Japan that have had severely restricted immigration policies in the past struggling and turning to immigration as a solution too.)
Immigrants as a whole commit fewer crimes than native born Americans, and even unauthorized immigrants also commit fewer crimes. It’s not hard to figure out why that is. After all, if you were living in constant fear of losing everything and being deported to a country you were desperate to leave behind, you’d probably stick to driving the exact speed limit perfectly too…
But it was more than just looking at raw numbers that convinced me of the positive power of immigration.
I also — and this is critical— had an opportunity that a lot of people in my home state of New Hampshire usually don’t have.
My home state of New Hampshire is estimated to have a vanishingly small number of unauthorized immigrants. We know that the places with the fewest number of immigrants are also the places where people are the most afraid of immigration.
Studies show that Americans in big diverse states like California or Texas are far more likely to say that immigration strengthens America. Meanwhile, people who live in smaller, more homogeneous states who experience less frequent and less meaningful interactions with immigrants — states like like Oklahoma and Kansas — are far more likely to believe that immigration threatens America.
Although I wouldn’t say I was particularly afraid of immigrants a few years ago, I certainly would have balked at the idea of being “pro-illegal immigration.” To tell you the truth, it just wasn’t something that I spent much time thinking about. And I think that’s true of a lot of Americans.
We can argue about numbers until we’re blue in our collective faces.
It’s a cold hard truth of American politics today: most of us won’t be magically swayed by statistics or studies from some think tank they’re not familiar with. Especially if those numbers run directly counter to their strongly held pre-existing beliefs. It can feel like any attempt at debate devolves into a tug of war between opposing statistics. We either definitely want more immigration! …Or we definitely want less! Each side accuses the other of distorting the data.
As I was making the documentary film about resurrecting my great grandfather’s music, I got to sit down with people who have struggled with the American immigration system 100 years after my great grandparents did. Learning about their profound challenges and the constantly changing landscape of laws I realized that trying to fix your status as an undocumented DREAMer can feel like trying to build a house on a shifting pile of sand. Their stories were impossible to ignore.
Many of us feel far-removed from our immigrant ancestors
Although the US has a larger share of immigrants than any other country, 85% of us were born here. And for many native-born Americans like myself, the idea of immigration becomes more theoretical with each generation that passes after their initial arrival. Especially if the immigration stories in our own family trees are vague, cloudy, and imprecise.
Learning about the struggles that my own ancestors had made me more empathetic toward people who are working hard to become Americans today, regardless of how they got here in the first place. And it made me realize that even though my American great grandmother ran into profound challenges with the US immigration system, her immigrant husband actually had it comparatively easy.
Eustasio Rosales, my great grandfather the composer came to the United States from his native Colombia aboard a banana boat in the early 20th century. According to the oral history tapes that his daughter Paula left behind: “He loved this country. It was open, it was freedom.”
For many immigrants today — either legal or otherwise— the modern US immigration system is a labyrinth of technical rules and regulations, some of which don’t make much sense. For instance the so-called “ten year bar” is one such arcane restriction that can prevent undocumented immigrants from fixing their status when it should otherwise be amendable. And it doesn’t help that each presidential administration seems to represent one side or the other of a swinging pendulum, embracing radically different stances on immigration policy and enforcement. From deportations — to DACA — to getting rid of DACA — to demanding a permanent DACA solution… (And all that shifting around is just under the current president alone, never mind his predecessors!)
Meanwhile people like my great grandfather who came here 100 years ago just hopped off a banana boat and signed a form. I guess that’s what people mean when they use the term “grandfathered in.”
Today we have an urgent crisis that cuts to the core of who we are as a country. Are we a nation of laws — or a nation of immigrants? And is it possible to be both at the same time?
I would argue that our shared history, heritage, and experience as a nation demands that we both embrace modern day immigrants, and work to make our system more humane towards people who desperately want to become Americans like us.
Watch my adventure documentary about resurrecting a long lost opera and tracing its origins at the official website for “The Way to Andina.”
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This is the second in a series of monthly video essays that I’m publishing. You can watch other video essays: