There are several discussions that are happening in this country: One of them is what it means to be an American. This discussion is not limited just to the United States, but it is happening throughout the Western Hemisphere. Through my participation in the Washington Model Organization of American States (WMOAS) for two years, I have begun to discover how different the definitions of the term 'American', and what it means to be one, are. For many people who live in the United States, 'American' is synonymous with 'citizen of the United States.' However, it is much more complex than that.
When we ask the question, "What does it mean to be an American?", we must be wary of a deceptive trap. Generally, we assume that there is a single answer to this question. We usually limit ourselves to some form of binary construction that defines one person as an American and somebody else as 'non-American', with specific criteria for both categories. The dangers of this type of construction are numerous, but Jacques Derrida, the famous French post-structuralist philosopher, argued it best. We are not bound by a single structure of understanding.
Once that can of worms is opened, new possibilities emerge, new possibilities that must contribute to this national and Hemispheric conversation if comprehensive immigration reform will happen. Participating in WMOAS afforded me the opportunity to meet people from across the Hemisphere -- from Maria, my friend from Colombia who sends me new music regularly -- to Natalia, who has lived in Brazil, Venezuela, Thailand, Costa Rica, and is now studying in the United States. Without these friends I never would have learned their stories, their cultures, and their human experiences.
These human experiences are stories which we all can share and relate to. It is the human aspect of cultural understanding that is being drowned out in the conversation -- both on Capitol Hill and around our dinner tables. In this time of Hemispheric transition, cultural understanding and respect is more critical than ever. It is easy to forget these values when engaged in political discussions, and even easier to forget when certain news networks and pundits make the conversation as uncivil as possible.
I freely admit that I don't know the answer to a solution for comprehensive immigration reform. I am confident in two things: First, that the current immigration system is broken, and second, that the best way towards a solution is to have an open dialogue. We must have an open dialogue between ourselves, at our dinner tables, at Little League games, in the hair salon, and in our campus dining halls. If such a dialogue cannot happen, then immigration reform is doomed to fail before it begins.
This is not an appeal to sympathy for some sort of blanket 'amnesty' policy. It is an appeal to reason, to remember that we are all human, that we all have unique cultural experiences. It is an appeal that no matter your stance on immigration reform, that you not give into ad hominem attacks and xenophobic rhetoric. It is an appeal to civility, to a commitment to the conversation.
Both WMOAS and my friends have taught me what it really means to be an American -- both as a citizen of the United States, and as a citizen of the Hemisphere -- and for that I am forever grateful, and it is exactly why I am proud to be an American.