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Jose Antonio Vargas

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SB 1070: How Do You Define American?

Posted: 04/25/2012 8:31 am

America, as only America can, constantly renews itself.

That was chief in my mind as the crowded ferry left Battery Park, the southern tip of Manhattan, and headed toward the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I live in New York City. My dear friends Karen and Matt, visiting from Seattle during their daughter Bridget's spring break, insisted I come along. This was Bridget's first time seeing Lady Liberty. It was a first for me, too. Though my apartment is just a few subway stops from Battery Park, it was my inaugural pilgrimage to Ellis Island, the country's first federal immigration station, the "Island of Hopes, Island of Tears" where nearly 1 in 3 Americans can trace their European ancestors during one of the largest migrations in history. In the early 1900s, some 5,000 new immigrants arrived at Ellis Island each day in search of a better life. Most didn't speak English; they needed translators to pass a basic literacy test. Many had little to no money. All told, between 1892 and 1954, about 12 million people were inspected, registered and welcomed to America.

Nearly 60 years after the island's closing, America is faced with the migration of another 12 million people -- this time immigrants without papers, not just from Europe but from all around the world, especially Mexico. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court reviews Arizona's immigration law, SB 1070, which at the time of its passing was the strictest anti-illegal immigration bill in modern U.S. history. If the high court does not strike down the controversial provisions at the heart of the Arizona law, anyone who's suspected of being undocumented can be stopped and asked for papers; police, without a warrant, can arrest anyone they believe is deportable; and immigrants without papers are guilty of a state crime.

This is more than a "show-me-your-papers" law. Within immigrant communities, not just in Arizona but across America, SB 1070 is shorthand for "They don't want us here." As the law spawned copycat legislation around the country -- five other states from Alabama to Utah passed similar bills -- SB 1070 has become synonymous with anti-immigrant fervor, with racial profiling, with being brown, with being Latino -- with being "the other" -- as a crime in a demographically changing America. The law has also galvanized the growing immigrants rights community like nothing else before it. Aside from undocumented immigrants, the American citizens who make up what I call the 21st century Underground Railroad of supporters -- people like Julie Erfle, who advocates for humane immigration policies even though her husband, a cop in Phoenix, was killed by an undocumented immigrant -- are standing up and speaking out. The case before the high court may be titled "United States v. Arizona." But more accurately, it's really "United States v. United States" because what's at stake is American identity itself -- how we define American.

Defining American, not coincidentally, has been a struggle for our country the moment it was founded. Even before America was America -- before the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was ratified, before Border Patrol and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were created -- this country has always been about the struggle between the natives and the newcomers, the old and the new. This was made abundantly clear as I visited, confronted and came to terms with Ellis Island. As one of the country's 12 million undocumented immigrants who call this country home, walking around the country's first immigration station was a deep, sobering experience. It was a reminder of why immigration must remain the purview of the federal government, not individual states like Arizona and Alabama. It was also a reminder of our country's history, of how America's immigration policies provoked a national debate during the late 19th and early 20th centuries after throngs of undocumented European immigrants were processed in Ellis Island.

On the second floor of the main building, under the exhibit "Peak Immigration Years," the public debate back then over immigration -- over "foreigners" who were crowding America, "foreigners" who were undermining American wages, "foreigners" who were taxing social service agencies -- eerily echoes our national consciousness now. Just replace "illegals" with "foreigners." Before talk radio and cable news facilitated our national conversation on immigration, the debate back then raged in editorial cartoons, "restrictionist literature" (a cover of an example from 1885 read: "Restrict All Immigration! Protect Yourself and Your Children Against Ruinous Labor") and even popular music. A song from 1923 called "O! Close the Gates" went like this:

"O, what will become of our country in a few more years to be

If foreign immigration isn't barred from the U.S.A.

Our flag they do not honor

Our rights they will betray

O! close the gates of our nation

Yes before that awful day..."

"When I give tours over at Ellis Island, I will often tell people, 'Think about how much has changed since then, but also think about how much has stayed the same,'" David Lawrence, a self-described "history geek," told me. He's a park guide and gives tours in both Ellis Island and Liberty Island. "The arguments that were going on back then, are the same arguments that we have now: who should be admitted in, who should be excluded, how do you determine that, what regulations should be in place."

History, indeed, is repeating itself. And Americans of all stripes -- from various backgrounds, undocumented and documented -- are standing together, in solidarity, to differentiate between the fair, welcoming America of Ellis Island and the unjust, un-American America of SB 1070.

Since finding out that I was undocumented when I was 16 years old, I've benefited from the kindness and generosity of American citizens. One of the earliest members of my Underground Railroad was Karen, whom I met at the local community newspaper that we both interned for in the late 1990s. Since she was older, she was in charge of me. She would tell me later that I was the very first person she was in charge of in a work setting. We became fast friends. I sang at her wedding. She and her husband Matt hosted my high school graduation on their yard. And they took me to my first trip to Ellis Island.

After telling their 8-year-old daughter about her family's immigrant roots -- Karen's grandfather came through Ellis Island from Holland, Matt's family came from Ireland and Scotland -- Bridget picked out some treats for me from a gift shop. Under the spring sun last week, the second-grader handed me an American flag, a pin that says "Ellis Island" and a golden coin that reads: "United States of America, A Nation of Immigrants."

She calls me Uncle Jose, and she says I'm her favorite immigrant.

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  • Roland Thau

    My father Roland Thau, a French Jew who escaped the Holocaust, immigrated to the U.S. after the war at the age of 14. In 1943 at age 9, he fled Nazi-occupied France for neutral Switzerland, where he spent over two years in hospitals being treated for tuberculosis of the bones, separated from his mother, my grandmother Renee Tytleman, who was hiding from the Nazi's in France. During those war years, my father, mostly bedridden and unable to walk, was schooled by a patchwork of nurses, volunteers and nuns. It was at this time that he remembers falling in love with The Three Musketeers. "I did more reading then than I ever did," he says. "That's all I could do." When the war ended, and my grandmother was reunited with her son, she, my father and my grandmother's new husband, Lucien, decided to start a new life in America. As an adolescent - an age fraught with insecurity and bewilderment for many kids -- my father was thrust into a totally different world: post-war America, Brooklyn, New York. He knew neither the language nor the culture. But he adjusted. He also walked again, and then some: He played goalie on the soccer teams of Erasmus Hall High School and Brooklyn College. My father, now 78, has spent his working life serving as an advocate for people who often don't have a voice. Since 1968, he's been an attorney with the Federal Defender of New York, an organization that represents people accused of federal crimes but can't afford to retain counsel on their own. He's received a number of honors for his work, most recently the Norman Ostrow Award from the New York Council of Defense Lawyers. Here's some of what was said about my father at that awards ceremony in 2010: "Roland Thau is an honored beacon" of the courtroom, who goes at his craft with a "verve" and "creativity" that is unrivaled. He is a "man of principle" who is a "fighter," and to watch Thau in action somehow "transforms the courtroom." "He's never been intimidated by a judge," said one. "Indeed, he's known to put them beneath a pedestal." In his personal life, in word and deed but without a lot of grandstanding, my father has stood for the dignity of all people and the rejection of classism - a mindset he's passed down to me. <em> - Barbara Thau, DailyFinance</em>

  • My Parents

    <a href=""></a><a href="">pukkita</a>:<br />My parents are my favorite immigrants because they are very hard working people. My mom had 3 jobs and so did my dad. I admire them so much because they've taught me to never give up. My father was in the military in Mexico and went off to college to become a doctor. After only completing 2 years, he emigrated to the US. Since education in Mexico is so expensive, he was not able to pursue his dream. He would spend a 2 week earnings' check on a single book. My mom always likes to help people and that makes me feel lucky to be her daughter, as well as my father's. I've learned to appreciate because of them.

  • My Wife's Grandfather, Otto Frederick Gideon Sundback

    My wife's grandfather, an engineer named Otto Frederick Gideon Sundback, stepped onto U.S. shores in Hoboken, N.J. at age 24 in 1905, having left Sweden for a more interesting life in America. Sundback was soon recommended to the head of a company called Automatic Hook and Eye Co. which needed help on making a new product more reliable and practical for consumers. The product was called C-curity, and it was supposed to replace buttons on pants, skirts, shoes and boots. It involved metal teeth locking together as the person pulled on metal "tongue." The problem is that the C-curity was prone to getting stuck, or separating as a man or woman got up from a chair. The "hookless fastener" that Sundback tackled was invented and patented by a man named Whitcomb Judson. But Judson's design did not work. Sundback worked on the problem, and changed the design to solve Judson's failure and went on to register numerous patents connected to the mass production of a reliable "hookless fastener." In 1923, an engineer from B.F. Goodrich saw the potential of the "hookless," which led to their applying it to rubber boots, subsequently named Zipper boots. Soon after, Goodrich scored a big break that led to the military adopting these boots for servicemen, popularizing Sundback's invention and the term "zipper". Every time I put my pants on in the morning, I think to myself that my son's great grandfather may just be my favorite immigrant. <em> - David Kiley, AOL Autos/HuffingtonPost Detroit</em>

  • My Inspiration, My fire, My drive: Mayra Castro

    <a href=""></a><a href="">justrandom22</a>:<br />My mother taught me not to fear challenges. Coming from the Dominican Republic and knowing no English she ended up enrolling in Hostos Community College and ultimately graduating from Lehman College with a Bachelor in Accounting. Her love of life and determination to triumph is something I have learned to cultivate. She is my inspiration. My fire. My drive.

  • Diva Mohamad-Aziz

    <a href=""><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="" /></a><a href="">NataliadelOeste</a>:<br />My very favorite immigrant--though I have many whom I love and admire--is Diva Mohamad-Aziz. Diva has been an immigrant twice. When she was very young, she moved from Afghanistan with her formidably strong mother and two sisters to Moscow, where she excelled in school and developed a love for Bollywood films; you can see this influence in here photo. She is a gorgeous lady in red! I had the privilege of meeting Diva's family shortly after they immigrated to San Diego, CA, on February 11, 2000, which happened to be Diva's birthday, and for her, the move to America was the birth of a new life. Knowing the most English, she became the de facto head of household, deciphering the bills that arrived and translating at medical appointments. Many immigrant kids navigate this "role-reversal" within their families, and I've never met someone who's managed it with as much sensitivity as Diva has done. She graduated from UCSD with honors in biochemistry, and is now about to graduate from law school, specializing in criminal defense. She always has an eye on issues of social justice, fighting the good fight while being a rabid Celtics fan, a polyglot (5 languages), a fashionista, and a true, wise friend. I adore this American citizen who is, at the same time, a citizen of the world.

  • My favorite immigrant - my wife

    <a href=""><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="" /></a><a href="">Lujza Hayes Nehrebeczky</a>:<br />My wife is my favorite immigrant. Although US law does not recognize our marriage, she has given up her homeland of Hungary to make a life here with me.

  • Mario Costantini, My Dad

    My favorite immigrant is my father, Mario Rolando Costantini. To me, my father embodies all that is great about immigrants to our country, and is the perfect example of why immigration makes our country strong. My father set out for the United States with his parents from Argentina in 1964. At the time, they were poor, they didn't speak a word of English, their country was facing a tremendous political upheaval, and they had little opportunity to climb the social ladder by staying in Latin America. The promise of the American Dream drew the Costantini's to U.S. soil, where they found that hard work and ingenuity allowed them a prosperous life and in turn allowed them to contribute to America's prosperity. After teaching himself English, my father put himself through high school and college in my hometown of Milwaukee by driving a taxi and delivering newspapers. After meeting my mother in college, they would go on to start successful furniture business and a number of arts non-profits in Wisconsin. But what makes Mario Costantini my<em> favorite </em>immigrant is that he was a great father to my two older brothers and me. As many children of immigrants do, my older brothers and I learned from our parents to value hard work and to be grateful for the opportunities we have been given here in the United States. <em>- Cristina Maria Costantini, HuffPost LatinoVoices</em>

  • My Mother

    My mother came to the United States in 1976, to her pride, during the nation's bicentennial. A woman who lived through the labor camps of communist China during the Cultural Revolution, she fought to come to a country that would give her freedom she had never known before. When I see my mother, I see a strong-willed woman who has been through things most can never dream of. Looking past her struggles, she can be defined as many people: a sister, college graduate, wife, mother of three, world traveler, translator, and a proud Chinese American. <em>- Christiana Lilly, The Huffington Post</em>

  • Carmen Anderson

    My favorite immigrant is my wife. Originally from Hong Kong, she is currently going through the greencard process after we first went through the fiance visa process last year. The U.S. government does not make it easy to get into this country. There are mounds of paperwork to go through, and it takes a large amount of patience to make it to the finish line. This is not easy. My wife is a strong willed, wonderful person that lights up the room with her smile and makes this country a better place simply by being here. <em> - Chris Anderson, The Huffington Post</em>

  • Francisco Isadore Maria

    <a href=""><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="" /></a><a href="">sunrizfav</a>:<br />My Grandpa Frank, on the far left of the picture, came over from Madeira Island as a very young boy...He traveled back and forth several times to bring other family members. He was and always will be a beautiful guide in my life (I am on the far right in this picture, as well.

  • DREAMers

    I stand in awe of their bravery and total dedication to their mission. <em> - Miguel Ferrer, HuffPost LatinoVoices</em> <br> Photo by: <a href="" target="_hplink">Paulinaclemente</a>

  • Concepcion Picciotto

    Concepcion Picciotto, a 67-year-old woman born in Spain, has lived in a peace camp across the street from the White House in protest of nuclear arms since August 1, 1981. She holds the record for the <a href="" target="_hplink">longest act of political protest in the United States</a>. During the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, leaders of that movement came to her <a href="" target="_hplink">seeking advice</a>. Her response? "Just be peaceful and stay the course." <em> - Lee Hernandez, HuffPost LatinoVoices</em>

  • Melissa Garcia Velez, New York State Youth Leadership Council

    <a href=""><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="" /></a><a href="">TheAngy</a>:<br />Melissa Garcia Velez is an undocumented student living in New York. She is a core member at the New York State Youth Leadership Council and president of the Lehman Dream Team. Melissa is a fierce advocate for equality and justice regardless of immigration status and expresses herself through dance. She brings joy and positive energy wherever she goes no matter the obstacles.

  • My Mom, Yolanda Gutierrez

    My favorite immigrant is my mother, Yolanda Gutierrez. She came from Peru in the 80's with my older sister, Yoanna, who was 8 years old at the time, and father, Jose Rodriguez. She worked very hard to put food on the table and even had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Yet while growing up, I never felt like I was missing out on anything. She sacrificed a lot to come here and give my sister and I a better life and I will always be thankful for that. My mother gave me a perfect balance of our Peruvian culture and a sincere appreciation for having been born in the U.S. She has always encouraged me to travel and see the world, laughed at my jokes and would drop whatever she was doing to help me out. <em>Cindy Y. Rodriguez, HuffPost LatinoVoices</em>

  • My wonderful Mother

    <a href=""><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="" /></a><a href="">Adriana Valdez</a>:<br />My Mother is the definition of the American dream done right, and my siblings and I couldn't be more proud and honored to have her as our Mother.

  • Junot Diaz

    Because he wrote "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" and reminded all that great storytelling can connect us deeply to people and places we never knew before. <em>- Cindy Rodriguez, HuffPost LatinoVoices</em>

  • My Grandfather, Isaac Vaynshelboym

    My favorite immigrant is my grandfather, Isaac Vaynshelboym, who turned 90 years old on March 28th, 2012. He and my grandmother followed my family and me from the Ukraine to the United States, leaving respected positions in the community to become a stranger in a strange land. Isaak was born in the Jewish settlement of Starokonstantinov, Ukraine on March 28th, 1922. He served as an officer in the Soviet Army during World War II, commanding an infantry division until he was gravely wounded on the Eastern Front. Fortunately, he recovered from his injuries, was awarded many government awards for his service, and went on to graduate from the Moscow Law Institute. He later moved to Odessa, Ukraine, where he spent more than thirty years working as a successful attorney. As the youngest member of the family, I was spoiled with his attention and relished hearing his stories, with the lines blurring between his experiences in World War II and his fictitious accounts of pirates and knights on horseback. These tales became real as he would sketch the surly faces of the characters before my eyes, as if he was both victim and sketch artist in one, masterfully drawing his assailant from memory for the world to see. <em> - Konstantin Karmazin</em>

  • My Husband, Ronmel Zavala

    <a href=""><img style="float:left;padding-right:6px !important;" src="" /></a><a href="">Nora Zavala</a>:<br />My Husband, Ronmel, came to the United States when he was 15 years old after Hurricane Mitch destroyed most of Honduras. He has worked hard to learn English and make a life for himself. He graduated from high school here in the US and works hard every day to support our family. He never complains about all the hard work that life throws at him. I love him for everything he does to make our family what it is! He is what makes my life complete!

  • Maria Peña, My Surrogate Mother

    Maria Pe&ntildea was born in Barranquilla Colombia and raised in Bogota, moving to New York at age 26 where she has lived in the same East Village apartment ever since. She's visited Colombia once in the last 30 years. Why is Maria my favorite immigrant? Because she's my home away from home. For a lot of Colombians who've moved to NY, Maria acts as a surrogate mother. She embodies the best qualities of a Colombian. She's warm, she's kind, she's giving and she loves her family, whether it's her blood relatives or all who she's "adopted" throughout the years.   With open arms, she receives everyone into her home. An afternoon at Maria's starts with a good cup of coffee and a recap of the latest news in Colombia. People will come in and out of her apartment-- some people you'll know from beforehand and others you'll meet that day. Everyone of different ages and professions, a different story of why we're in NY. Maria is what we all have in common. If you're lucky enough, by the end of the visit she'll be reciting excerpts from Sartre and singing boleros. From Maria I've learned that no matter how far you go, home is something you carry with you. That even if you move permanently to a new place, acquire a new culture and never go back to your country, home is something that lives within you. <em>-Laura Steiner, HuffPost LatinoVoices</em>

  • Nannies and Cleaning Ladies

    They tirelessly take care of our children and our homes, while often not being able to return to theirs. <em>- M.C. Gonzalez</em> Flickr Photo by <a href="" target="_hplink">*clairity*</a>

  • Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize Winner

    A member of the team which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Jose Antonio Vargas dropped the I-bomb in <a href="" target="_hplink">an essay for the New York Times in 2011</a> where he outed himself as an undocumented immigrant. Since then, Vargas has dedicated himself to raising awareness of the need for an honest dialog about the broken immigration system via his <a href="" target="_hplink">Define American</a> initiative. <em> - Miguel Ferrer, HuffPost LatinoVoices</em>

  • My Mom!

    My favorite immigrant? My mom! <em>- Andrea Long Chavez, HuffPost LatinoVoices </em>

  • New York City's Delivery Guys

    If you live in NYC, you know you cannot survive without food delivery. No matter the time, no matter the weather, your food lifeline is maintained by a small army of immigrant delivery guys, mostly Chinese, Mexican or South East Asian immigrants who risk life and limb so we can have our chicken with broccoli. <em> - Miguel Ferrer, HuffPost LatinoVoices</em>

  • My Favorite Immigrant Is Nathalie Rengifo!

    I have had the pleasure of knowing Nathalie for the past four years and since then I've visited her family in Bogota, been introduced to aguardiente, traveled all around the country with her, etc. She's currently working at UMass's Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy and has worked at the United Nations in Colombia. For me, she's taught me about the importance of maintaining big dreams, especially through her compassion towards those in need, as even with her accomplishments, she's still always on the hunt for new projects and adventures. #wooinspiration <em> - Inae Oh, The Huffington Post</em>

  • My Husband, Willy Ramos

    My husband, Willy Ramos, is a 28-year-old Puerto Rican, biomedical research doctoral student, who like many others, came to the U.S. after graduating from college with one goal in mind: To help find a cure for rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease of autoimmune origin that weakens and deteriorates the joints, eventually confining a patient to bed. Willy's mother has suffered it for more than three decades. After five years in a doctoral program at New York University, investing long hours, dedication and patience, his passion remains intact. Not even homesickness, the beach and tropical heat he misses so much, or simply being away from those he loves most, have managed to undermine his desire to make a positive difference. When asked why he chose his career he said, "I was able to see the suffering of what is a chronic disease, the one my mother suffers, millions other suffer, and their only hope is that in a place like this someone will discover something that might help them live longer and enjoy that peace of mind. I don't have to necessarily make the discovery, I do not care if I do, as long as someone does." He is my support, my strength, my pride and my inspiration. He represents the potential of the immigrant communities in this country, people who put their heart into everything they do and leave everything they know behind in order to make a change. <em> - Zuania Capó-Ramos, AOL Latino</em>

  • Gary Shteyngart

    Born in the USSR, Gary Shteyngart is the American writer who wrote "The Russian Debutante's Handbook", "Absurdistan" and most recently, "Super Sad True Love Story". A critically-acclaimed writer who in 2010 was named as one of The New Yorker magazine's "20 under 40" fiction writers, Shteyngart has been credited with single-handedly inventing a new class of literature: the contemporary Russian-American novel. Shteyngart's writing is richly colored by the cultures that have formed him, unapologetically replete with the oft-clashing ideologies and imagery of the Russia of his childhood, the New York of his adulthood and the Jewishness of his blood. As an immigrant myself who studied Russian literature at Columbia where the author now teaches, Shteyngart's novels about identity, race and nationhood have spoken to me -- with an intimacy and a familiarity that is at times unnerving and at other times, comforting. The immigrant experience is -- of course -- never the same, but often, it is similar. There is always a push and a pull, an Otherness and a sense of belonging that when taken together makes for the confusing, but often beautiful, process of immigration and cross-cultural assimilation. <em> - Dominique Mosbergen, The Huffington Post</em> Flickr Photo by: <a href="" target="_hplink">Mark Coggins</a>


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