Last night I watched Jose Antonio Vargas’ film “Documented“. In the event you have been living in a personal bubble the last few years or simply don’t follow current events Vargas is a Pulitzer-prize winning American journalist who in 2011 wrote a piece for the New York Times magazine in which he revealed a huge and deeply painful secret: he was brought to the United States as a child on false papers and has lived here ever since as a highly productive member of our society without the American credentials that signify membership in the American way. He has no way to get into the process to get credentialed. He also can’t go back to his country of origin because it, honestly, is not his home. He is an undocumented American. Pundits, talking heads, politicians, and a lot of regular folks on the street would say that he’s an illegal alien. I did, too, until I saw “Documented”.
I now know just how wrong I have been.
I work with people every day who are not of American origin and a large number of them are undocumented. It’s the nature of the beast in social services and I don’t see these women and children any differently than others. They are human beings, just as I am, deserving of kindness and respect. I just never really thought about their lives, their struggle, and what it is really like to live in a weird limbo as a person without a place to rest their head and feel at home on the deepest level. I was born here. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents were all born here. My Social Security card has always been a flimsy little annoyance that I can never seem to find when I need it. I’ve never worried when being pulled over by the police or when applying for a job. I get up every day knowing that I have a right to be here and that I can see my family anytime I want, no matter where in the world they might be. I get the luxury of being able to tack my family’s pre-American heritage onto myself and be proud of my German-Americanness because I don’t have to fight for the American part of the equation. I have security in my identity, but now I understand the gaping hole that exists in those who don’t have that security. I can’t personally imagine the hell that it is to live here, grow up here, be thoroughly American, but at the same time not have that precious piece of paper that says you belong here. Being undocumented must be like living in an endlessly emotionally abusive relationship, constantly rejected and invalidated in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, trapped in a perpetual tear-down cycle that you can’t get out of because you can’t go back to where you came from and you have trouble staying here.
I cannot imagine not seeing my mom, hugging my mom, getting to be in the same room with my mom for over twenty years and I recognize now that the undocumented are a lot stronger than I could ever be.
There needs to be something done to fix the immigration issue in this country. Why, exactly, do we as Americans think it’s okay to be rude, selfish jerks about our country? Many, many many Americans came here hundreds of years ago in much the same way as our contemporary immigrants (papered or otherwise) did: on an arduous journey to an unknown land clutching desperately to the hope that this new land would offer a chance for a better life. Our forebears came here for a slender, fragile chance. It’s the exact same thing as every present immigrant that comes to our shores. It isn’t about “mooching”. It’s about hope and that chance that maybe struggling in America will be a little bit better than struggling in Venezuela, Mexico, China, Germany, wherever. We’re all the children of undocumented immigrants on some level even if we choose to call them pioneers or Pilgrims or settlers. Why are we being so greedy? I know the answer and the solution won’t be simple, but there has to be a process. No jumps in line, but at least a way to get in line. There has to be a way to be a hope-giver instead of a dream-crusher. We tell the world to give us their huddled masses; we need to open our arms to them.
This morning when I got out of bed I rummaged around and found my Social Security card. I took a moment and held it in my hand, looking it over. One little piece of blue and white paper, but it’s really a golden ticket. I will never, ever take my citizenship for granted again and I hope that, someday, the millions of people here yearning to stand where I stand will have a chance as well.