A few years ago, I flew to Port-au-Prince from New York while my cousin Laris was flown in the cargo section of a jet from Miami. Once I’d slept past the initial fright of takeoff, I strapped on the free headphones and chose a song by the rock group Midnight Oil from the in-flight CD selection:
How can we dance while the world keeps turning?How can we sleep while our beds are burning?
At the same time on one of the flight’s pretaped news shows appeared a clip from an old speech by Pat Buchanan, calling for a timeout on immigration. If America is to survive as a nation, he declared, we need to bring down the curtain on hyphenated Americanism.
Across the aisle from me, a man in a wrinkled brown suit shuffled a few papers on the tray table in front of him. He had been escorted by immigration officers past the security checkpoint, right through the gate, and into his seat on the airplane. He was a deportee. While looking over at him, I thought of my cousin Laris, who, in his own way, had also been cast off. At thirty, Laris had died of a mysterious illness that he’d been too poor and too frightened to seek medical care for because he’d come to Miami by boat and was undocumented.
I’ve been thinking about Laris a lot lately as I have watched the massive protests in support of the nearly twelve million undocumented men, women, and children currently in the United States.
Already forced to live, and sometimes die, in the shadows, they could have been driven further underground by the threat of draconian measures that would criminalize not only them but those who’d attempt to help them—the doctor who tends to the sick, the teacher who educates a child, the priest who shelters the dispossessed.
Much has been made of the types of flags waved and the languages in which placards were written and slogans spoken at these demonstrations. But much more notable is the courage of such a large number of undocumented workers to leave, for a day or two, jobs at which they have no protections, to make their presence known to the rest of the country and indeed to the entire world.
In post-9/11 America, where protests are easily pegged as anti-American, more so if the participants are not U.S. born, it is truly remarkable that those whose place in our society is most precarious would gather in nearly every major city of the United States for what in some cases have been the biggest demonstrations recorded to date. These protests are bringing at least some measure of dialogue between segments of the population that would wish to deny the existence of the others. And for once the exchange is not only between pundits and politicians but involves the concerned parties themselves, those whose children would be turned away from schools, who would be denied a doctor when sick.
True to the spirit of this nation as a land of immigrants, a community that is used to finding safety in invisibility has emerged to speak in its own voice. For at the center of this debate is the redefinition of America itself—and as in decades past, with immigration at the forefront of that process.
There is perhaps more discomfort now in the fact that a large percentage of the twelve million undocumented are poor and brown and from the developing world. For years, people like Pat Buchanan have bemoaned the fact that there was no melting taking place in the pot. They consider un-American what they see as the immigrant’s backward glance at their sometimes poverty stricken and politically heated homelands. Monies sent back are equated with taxes not being paid. Newborn babies are health care thieves. And since good fences make good neighbors, especially when only one neighbor can afford to build or would seemingly benefit from the fence, images of barbed-wire topped walls with armed Minutemen on the other side dance around in wistfully nativist heads.
At the heart of these protests is also the obligation of a country that needs, yet despises, those who comprise a large percentage of its fundamental workforce. Should we desire in our midst a group of people only when they’re willing to do for less pay the work that our own citizens find too grueling, too demeaning, or too hazardous? The moral question aside, what does it say about our own societal structure that we cannot within our own borders make these jobs more appealing and more humane for our own citizens?
The bottom line is we’d like our immigrants to be disposable, to work when we need them, then disappear when we don’t.
We don’t want them to have children because we worry that their children will crowd our schools and we’d rather have them taking care of our own.
We don’t want them to get sick because we worry that they’ll fill up hospital beds alongside the other forty-five million uninsured Americans, at our expense.
We don’t want them to get old, at least not within our borders, because we don’t want them to have to touch the diminishing Social Security funds that many of them have been steadily contributing to.
But as our children have grown, so have theirs, and they see this country as their own. It was these children who were, for the most part, the ones walking out of schools with their friends, marching down the streets with the flags of their parents’ homelands, honoring the duality of their existence. These children, along with their parents, are now saying that they are tired of living in the shadows.
The immigrants who rallied are tired of losing loved ones to national tragedies such as 9/11 without receiving the comfort and compensation enjoyed by other families. Citizenship is the highest honor this country can bestow, and they know it. That’s why so many have fought and died in Iraq only to be naturalized posthumously.
I am sorry, Mr. Buchanan, but it is too late now to bring down the curtain on hyphenated Americanness. Perhaps it has always been.
For some, this is a matter of politics and rhetoric, but for many of those who marched and will perhaps continue to march in the weeks and months to come it is a matter of life and death.
My cousin Laris lived and died in the shadows. However, as these demonstrations have shown, others don’t necessarily have to. No matter where we go from here, thousands in cities throughout the United States have finally risen from their burning beds to demand not only recognition, but a fair and reasonable solution.
Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and is the author, most recently, of “The Dew Breaker.”