Listening to President Obama speak yesterday on the need for comprehensive immigration reform in San Francisco’s Chinatown made me realize how my own relationship as an immigrant in this country has come full circle. I grew up in the small border town of McAllen, Texas, located in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Only eight miles from the Mexican border, it is a predominantly Mexican, Spanish-speaking, rural, farm worker community.
I was born in Mexico, but lived in McAllen since birth and did not learn English until I entered kindergarten at six years old. My older siblings and I are first generation immigrants. Our parents worked the fields and taught us to be proud of our Mexican heritage, value education, and work hard. These lessons served us well as we encountered racism, xenophobia, and discrimination mixed with poverty in a struggling border town with more than its share of problems.
Through it all, we shared its residents’ deep sense of pride in our culture and determination to persevere. It was an upbringing that was unique and difficult and beautiful all at the same time. In this setting, my psychological attachment to my Mexican identity and citizenship flourished simultaneously with a deep doubt about whether I truly belonged in this country. This sense of uncertainty only grew once I began to understand and acknowledge my queer identity.
My siblings and I took our parents’ values to heart, and we each excelled in academics. All of my siblings have higher education degrees. I left the familiar sounds, sights and smells of my hometown when I was 18 to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where I earned my college and law degrees. A successful career as a trial attorney representing poor people accused of crimes never made me forget where I came from, and I held onto my deep sense of identity grounded in my Mexican border town culture. Even though I was a legal permanent resident, I never considered naturalizing to become a United States citizen. After all, I was uncertain whether this country would really accept me even if I did.
It was only in early 2008 when everything changed for me. I was pregnant with our second son. My partner and I, together since 1998, had gotten married in San Francisco in 2004 after then-Mayor Gavin Newsom opened up City Hall to same-sex marriages. While I was working as a public defender, raising one son, and with another on the way with my partner, I still felt very much like the little girl who had been raised in South Texas—a stranger in a strange land, a visitor alienated due to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, all intersecting identities that were misunderstood and devalued by the dominant culture. So in 2008, I watched with interest and more than a little excitement as then-Senator Barack Obama gave his stirring Iowa caucus victory speech.
The moment I heard that speech, I caught the fever. Hearing his words, I felt for the first time, believed for the first time, in the promise of equality for all—even for people like me. Soon after, I walked down to the immigration office in San Francisco and filed my naturalization papers so that I could vote for Obama in the November 2008 election. I was sworn in as a United States citizen in August of 2008, with both my 4 month-old and 2 year old sons in tow. And three months later, I became part of the largest voter turn-out in United States history.
Yesterday, as I stood only a few feet away from President Obama and watched him speak on the need for comprehensive immigration reform, I was reminded of the reasons why he won my vote. I remembered how I watched the 2008 election results with my two sons, tears streaming down my face at the promise of what his election held for the futures of my children of African-American, Mexican, and Caribbean backgrounds. President Obama’s words resonated with me in a deep and moving sense:
“It’s fitting that we’re here in Chinatown, just a few miles away from Angel Island. In the early 1900s, about 300,000 people—maybe some of your ancestors—passed through on their way to a new life in America. And for many, it represented the end of a long and arduous journey— they’d finally arrived in a place where they believed anything was possible.
And for some, it also represented the beginning of a new struggle against prejudice in a country that didn’t always treat its immigrants fairly or afford them the same rights as everybody else. Obviously, Asians faced this, but so did the Irish. So did Italians. So did Jews. And many groups still do today.
That didn’t stop those brave men and women from coming. They were drawn by a belief in the power of opportunity; in a belief that says: ‘Maybe I never had a chance at a good education, but this is a place where my daughter can go to college. Maybe I started out washing dishes, but this is a place where my son can become mayor of San Francisco. Maybe I have to make sacrifices today, but those sacrifices are worth it if it means a better life for my family.’
And that’s a family story that will be shared by millions of Americans around the table on Thursday. It’s the story that drew my great-great-great-great-grandfather from a small village in Ireland, and drew my father from a small village in Kenya. It’s the story that drew so many of your ancestors here—that America is a place where you can make it if you try.”
I agree with the President that it’s time to get immigration reform across the finish line, not only because the majority of Americans now support it, but because it is the right thing to do. As we enter the holiday season, we also have to remember who is missing at the table. As the President spoke, a group of young Dreamers in the audience reminded him of just that. A young man said “Mr. President, my family has been separated for 19 months now. I’ve not seen my family … I need your help.”
Even as we push for core progressive values in any immigration reform package that is ultimately passed, we must not forget that the number of deportations is about to reach a high water mark of 2 million by 2014. And the people being deported matter. They have families and lives and hopes and dreams. Many will not be at the table this holiday season. So as the President said, as he turned towards the Dreamers who reminded him of that:
“What I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve. But it won’t be as easy as just shouting. It requires us lobbying and getting it done.
So for those of you who are committed to getting this done, I am going to march with you and fight with you every step of the way to make sure that we are welcoming every striving, hardworking immigrant who sees America the same way we do—as a country where no matter who you are or what you look like or where you come from, you can make it if you try.”
This promise is one that I have to believe in, for my own children, for the children coming after them, and for our collective future as caring citizens of this country.