Immigration and Other Thoughts on Being American

It is Mother’s Day and I am grateful that I can celebrate it. That I am allowed to utter my gratitude. And that is the reason I decided to write today. I hope you will forgive me for stepping into the immigration fray. I swore I would never do it.

I noticed that several of my friends had responded to a statement made by John Kelly. It seems we often end up in situations in which we must defend our very core definitions–our self identity. In defending, we are compelled into defining that which we stand against.

For those who know me, this will not be a surprise. For those who don’t, bear with me. I am descended from immigrants and non-immigrants. As Mariah says in Entangled Moon, I am both conqueror and conquered. Both assimilated and not so well assimilated. My ancestors on one side came to Jamestown in 1607 (who, by the way, were hiding from the Spanish who had just kicked out the French Huguenots in St. Augustine who had also wanted in on the action) and ancestors on the other side came over on the Mayflower in 1620. Another ancestor made the horrific Middle Passage and managed to survive as a slave under very un-American conditions, but that’s another story. Both sides eventually and along the way married into the native populations. I am descended from Pamunkey, Sac and Fox, and Ho-Chunk tribes, but I most identify with Ho-Chunk because it is from this more personal sorrow that much of my understanding of the human condition derives.

When it comes to the idea of assimilation, I am always mindful of the fact that my great-grandfather to the nth degree, a non-immigrant, was shot in the back after having been placed in chains. It was one of many whoopsie moments that prickle and pickle the story of immigration and assimilation with the native populations. That story and those who are descended from him became muddled during the blood purity law years of the 1920s (ironically, all first families of Virginia are tainted, at minimum, and as defined by the one-drop rule, with Native American blood. It is useful to note that the concept was best codified and practiced in Spain with the limpieza de sangre after the expulsion of Muslims and Jews.) The non-immigrant Pamunkey tribe did not receive recognition of their existence from the immigrant federal government until 2015. While the state of Virginia did recognize and could not do otherwise due to the treaties of 1646 and 1677 that granted the Pamunkey a small reservation, the Pamunkey were required to pay something for that reservation every year. Without it, their existence as non-immigrants would’ve ceased to exist and they would’ve been required to fully assimilate into the immigrant population–and not the other way around.  No matter how hard things were, they managed to assert their right to exist on a yearly basis until their recognition in 2015.

On my Dad’s side, my grandmother was raised on a 40-acre farm in Minnesota that the family had received from the immigrant federal government who decided the family would be allowed a 40-acre parcel according to a treaty that had been previously broken during the dispersal of the Ho-Chunk and not the 160-acre parcels given to those under the Homestead Act who were predominantly white immigrants from Europe. My grandmother’s family had been chased out of or forcefully immigrated out of Wisconsin by immigrants who feared their non-immigrantness after Lincoln’s famous Dakota executions and expulsions (where many died of exposure and starvation or simply disappeared into the woods a la Nazi or Khmer Rouge style.)

As you can see, the issue of immigration and assimilation is fraught and taut with the minefield of what it is to be an American. Growing up, I was surrounded by the complexity of the issue. My family has been here for both 500+ years and for 23,000+ years (though I do not believe that exact story will ever be settled,) but I was always surrounded by an internationally complex group of people. Born in the Philippines to expat parents, I had a Sri Lankan uncle and a Thai uncle before I knew any distinctions in familial DNA. If you had told me they were not my uncles, I might’ve unfriended you. Of course they were.

Being blonde and blue-eyed was all the rage when I was young. I was not. My Dad was dark-skinned, kinky-haired, and brilliant beyond imagination (out the roof IQ score.) Education in our family was a highly eclectic and internationally flavored affair. In my life, I have had close friendships with people from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Thailand, India, Lebanon, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil, England, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Russia, Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Tibet, Armenia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Philippines, etc. My soul sister to this day is my beloved friend who was born in Cuba and lived much of her young life overseas. She is a rockin’ American.

Here’s the thing about immigration and assimilation–do we question enough what we want people to assimilate to? What is assimilation? Is it language? Is it color of skin? Of hair? What is it we want? How do we define ourselves?

I have often felt that we do not know ourselves well enough. It’s a problem that can sometimes be traced to the Doctrine of Discovery and its convoluted political wranglings and European dynastic struggles that found their way onto this continent’s soil and into our founding documents. Living in communities in which I have often been defined as an outsider, the defining features of insiders sometimes amuses me. I live now in a town where people are revered for their status of having immigrated here 15o+ years ago. They are the patriarchs. This is amusing since I have 250+ and 23,000+ years on them. Trust me, I’m still an outsider and that suits me fine. And, of course, no one has dared ask the Comanche how they feel about this. They’re hanging out where they were immigrated to in Oklahoma after the federal government slaughtered over 1,000 of their horses in Palo Duro Canyon. Between the attempts at exterminating their food source, the buffalo, and their prized possessions, horses, the federal government reconciled them to their reservation miles away from their homelands. Of course, it is not that simple either. The Comanche themselves broke off from the Shoshone when horses were immigrated to the continent by the Spanish who had first dibs at the continent thanks to said Doctrine of Discovery.

At the end of the day, I am always mindful of what it is that makes me an American. But I can assure you, the ancestral years are not what make me an American. It’s not even the fact that many of my ancestors, including James Madison and Samuel Adams to name two, were fundamental to the founding of this country. In fact, what makes me an American is what can make a new immigrant equally American. Sometimes, new immigrants understand this better than old immigrants.

It is an unfortunate reality of life today that money pervades so much of our conversations and, in so doing, clouds our understanding. Are you educated and can you contribute to the economy? Are you in the STEMs? We have lost our collective mind and collective soul with the one tool of civilization that is designed as a means of exchange–nothing more and nothing less. We collectively gravitate to and bequeath our respect to those who know how to gain it and, let’s face it, sometimes steal it. There is a reason why white collar crime is rarely punished. Don’t get me wrong. I do not abhor money. I recognize it is not inherently good or bad. It is a tool after all. I take issue with its development into a value that has taken on far more meaning than that for which it was designed.

And money cannot define who we are as Americans. While our history is full of flawed individuals, as humans we have always aspired to values more qualitative. We once had collective values that were not defined by money and what an immigrant can bring to the financial table (contributing to taxes, Social Security and Medicare solvency, feeding of STEM fueled progress, etc.) While the immigration historical narrative has been checkered by the imperatives of the Doctrine of Discovery, it has also been fueled by those who sought the intrinsic values that make us similar. Those values are contained within the founding documents. Those are the values for which we stand. Not of those we define ourselves against.

In its preamble, the Constitution declared itself as embodying what makes us American. We the People of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution… It did not define that which we stand against but rather declared our values in a constituting document that defines who we are and to what we seek to assimilate ourselves.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Justice and Liberty are those values that we seek and they are the ones that define us as American. They are intrinsic to who we all are. I can assure you that I have friends who are not yet card-carrying Americans who understand that it is justice and liberty that they seek above all else. We who live here take these two values for granted sometimes. On this Mother’s Day, let us all be grateful that we have the chance to commonly defend those virtues. And while we are at it, we can be grateful for our domestic tranquility as defined by our rule of law. There are places in this world where other humans are not sure where they will sleep tonight and if they will be able to keep their children safe. As a Mom, my heart breaks for them. They are too busy in the business of survival to aspire to those things we take for granted.

As we engage in our conflicted discourse between Conservative (without questioning what it is we seek to conserve) and Liberal (without questioning which traditional values we seek to discard,) it is helpful to remember those values to which we have all pledged ourselves.

Justice and Liberty. And the evolution into Equality. They are not sound bites.

Find me an immigrant who doesn’t get that. Chances are, they are breaking bread with someone else who gets it.

And truth be told, this land that shines from sea to sea is worthy of our gratitude. It is where we have made our homes for the moment. We cannot own it. It owns us. We have been migrating for a long time and I assume we will continue to migrate. From Africa to parts around the world, it is here that we make our home. A home where justice, liberty, and equality are, at least, aspirations and values around which we can agree are defining objectives.

So respectfully, Mr. John Kelly, no! Immigration and assimilation are historically complex processes. Your over-simplification can’t even begin to touch at the core of that truth. And just as a matter of historical record, the founding years were defined by “the noble pursuits of agriculture.” John Locke, who heavily influenced Thomas Jefferson while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence, provided much of the philosophical foundation on the ideas of property and proper pursuits. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I repeat it again, cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens.”

The founding years were about the land. The Proclamation of 1763 was one of the events that eventually touched off the American Revolution. Many of those who fought the Revolutionary War were poor, rural, and uneducated immigrant people. Sometimes, you just can’t change the narrative.

 

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