“What Makes an American?”

Excellent post from Ezra on the problems of casting undocumented workers as “un-American” or “non-Americans.”

In this debate, however, the poor Mexicans who undergo a dangerous trek so they can work agonizingly hard for very little, and do all of it to guarantee their children a better life, are such quintessential expressions of American ideals that it's impossible to exclude them from the more metaphysical description of citizenship. So, instead, folks like Rohrabacher are being forced to redefine "American", making it nothing but an accident of geography, divorcing it from everything that has made our citizenship as more myth than mundane statement of birth place.
Absolutely spot-on.

In a very real way, Mr. Shakes and I are the people with whom the anti-immigration rhetoric should most resonate. We live in an economically depressed area with a not insignificant illegal and legal Mexican immigrant population, and I am unemployed and struggling mightily to get another job. And Mr. Shakes is a legal immigrant. We’ve gone through (and continue to go through) the legal channels to secure his citizenship, which is both time-consuming and costly, as he had to wait several months for a work permit after arriving, necessarily making mine our only income, and each submission of the next round of paperwork comes with another big processing fee. (We’ve done it without the assistance of an attorney; those who engage an attorney will have paid thousands more than we have.) Surely, we should be irate, or feel cheated, or something.

But the reality is that we don’t.

I feel like there’s plenty of room for me to have a job along with the nation’s undocumented workers—which, I admit, is easier for me to say since we’re not competing for the same jobs. But most Americans aren’t competing for the same jobs generally held by illegal immigrants, and not because they’re “jobs no American wants to do,” but because the employers actively seek out an exploitable workforce, a category out of which most Americans, like me, self-select, dependent as we are on healthcare benefits and interested as we are in livable wages.

As for Mr. Shakes, he came to America not because his life was dreadful or his family was starving or because he couldn’t find work. He came on a fiancée visa (a resource, btw, only available to us because we’re straight, which is a whole other post) because he fell in love with an American. He had the great fortune of being born in a country with lots of opportunity, and moving to one with the same. And a big part of his vision of America—which we talked about as we took that flight together over the ocean that once separated us, clutching hands and chattering excitedly, after an Arab-American man was nice enough to give me his seat since Mr. Shakes and I were in different rows—was this beautiful mosaic of cultures; just three generations ago, my family spoke with the same accent he has, after all. The first place he stayed after arriving on American shores was with Mr. Furious, who’s a damn Injun. His boss is a black woman; her boss is an Indian (Gandhi, not Sitting Bull—ref. Colbert). He’s just a ginger-haired Scotsman who’s woven himself into the colorful fabric that existed long before he got here—and he likes that about America. I like that about America, too.

Demonizing the people at the center of this debate as somehow less American because of geography and law doesn’t resonate with people like us. Being American is more than that, and sometimes the people who weren’t born here seem to understand that better than many of those who were.

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