Congressional proposals to limit legal immigration and the public sentiment surrounding the issue are sending a hurtful message to immigrants and citizens of color: "Go Home."
Profitability has become a criterion for citizenship. The other night a local TV news reporter asked a woman whether or not she supported immigration. "If they don't help the economy I say don't let them in," the woman said.
Her harsh voice and serious face reminded me of the documentaries my classmates and I saw in high school history class of whites in the South burning effigies of black men and screaming, "Keep them out!" Further back in American history were the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act, when people feared that little yellow men with queues would take over the economy because they were willing to work long hours for low wages. It frightens me to see history repeating itself.
Opponents of immigration who argue that immigrants are sucking up social services should take a closer look. Many immigrants would rather starve than use food stamps, and would sooner have their labor exploited than accept a welfare check.
Many immigrants sustain themselves by struggling in sweatshops and kitchens, cutting fabric and cleaning restaurants. They come here to make their children's lives better, not to make American lives worse.
I know because 13 years ago I watched my parents painstakingly spend every evening memorizing the names of presidents, the number of stars and stripes on the flag, and the details of the American Revolution and Civil War. They were preparing to become American citizens.
I would watch as they quizzed each other and even me. "How many stripes on the flag?" my mother would ask me in her broken English. "Thirteen," I said. "Why 13?" she asked. "Because the country started out with 13 colonies." And I remember their pride when the judge handed them a certificate making them official citizens of the United States.
My parents' struggle to be accepted and to be good citizens is a common struggle. They received a lot of support and encouragement from neighbors, the congregation at church, and fellow citizens.
New immigrants now get the cold shoulder more often than they get a helping hand.
For a long time my mother spent her Saturday mornings with a woman who introduced her to Hemingway and Shakespeare free of charge. My father received support and praise from his colleagues after he put in hours of exhausting labor.
Now my father is a medical professor and a consultant for a major company. My mother owns a children's clothing store. They are hard-working people who contribute to this country. But it would never have happened if they had encountered bitter people telling them, "Go to where you belong."
Most immigrants try very hard to assimilate - to get rid of their accents, to strengthen their vocabulary, to acquire a taste for hamburgers, bagels, cheese.
The true image of immigrants has been overshadowed by the headlines and hype over illegal immigrants who sneak over borders or cross the seas in homemade rafts, leaky barrels, or rusty freighters. The image of the disheveled, scrawny alien is imprinted on the American psyche while the image of proud new citizens being sworn in under an American flag has faded. But most immigrants come on 747s instead of leaky freighters.
The success of immigrants depends upon the encouragement and support they receive from the government and citizens. If nurtured and given a helping hand most immigrants will happily give back to society with their skills.
The problem with immigration is the people who take advantage of American democracy. The problem is the porous borders that allow more than 300,000 illegal immigrants to enter every year. The problem is that the lines between legal immigrants, illegals, and even citizens of color have been blurred by politicians who are hungry for votes. They have fueled a public sentiment that has dangerous consequences.
The impact of the "Go home, keep out" attitude hit me as my friends and I were rushing through the San Juan airport to catch a flight back to New York. A guard stopped me, although my Caucasion friends were allowed to pass. He asked for my passport. "We just wanted to make sure," he said as I stared at him icily. "You never know who comes over the borders these days."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration is introducing a bill that would set an annual ceiling of 330,000 family-sponsored immigrants. "What's in the best interests of the American worker and the American economy is what drives us," said Congressman Smith.
These laws would deny opportunity to both hopeful immigrants and the society to which they want to contribute. But citizens of color and new immigrants are already bearing the brunt of the anti-immigrant sentiment behind such proposals.