Vice President Mike Pence unwittingly made the Broadway show Hamilton even more famous than it already was when he got a personal message from the cast about representing all Americans – including immigrants. As an agency that serves one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the nation, we at The Child Center of NY were grateful that the episode brought attention to the plight of immigrants, especially at this pivotal time in politics. But, as expected, the attention was short-lived. That’s why we’re so glad Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez have teamed up to create a music video set to the show’s unforgettable song, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).”
If you haven’t seen the video, I encourage you to view it for yourself, but, in a nutshell, it movingly portrays the immigrant experience through the eyes of people who have come here. Somehow, it manages to capture in realistic detail the many emotions – the fear and the hope, the exhaustion and powerlessness, and, uniquely, the feeling of being invisible while people who do have power debate your fate – it entails.
Miranda gets it exactly right in this video, and we hope it gets shared widely. While you may think it’s unlikely that any single video will change made-up minds, the more people are exposed to visceral images and stories like these, the more they will become part of our national consciousness – and, eventually, part of what we think of when we decide where we stand on what we offhandedly refer to as “immigration policy,” but which has such life-altering consequences for so many desperate people.
At The Child Center, we are not newcomers to the challenges immigrants face, and the important part they all too silently play in American life. In the spirit of Miranda’s video – hearing from immigrants themselves instead of speaking for them or choosing not to listen – I want to share with you what one of our immigrant staffers answered when I asked about her experience, and what she wanted people to know about it:
“As an immigrant child who arrived in New York City many eons ago, I know firsthand what it’s like to feel alone, to feel anathema, to feel different in a place that is supposed to support you and make you stronger — your own school, your own teachers. I wish I had just one teacher in my life as I walked through the hallways of P.S. 20Q who would stop to say “hello”; her “hello” alone would be a safe embrace for a child who felt invisible. Her presence would tell me “I see you. You matter.” Those are the kinds of teachers we have here at The Child Center of NY.
As lawmakers in Washington debate immigration policy, I think it's important that they, too, and all Americans, see us and know we matter.
In the early 1970s, I felt invisible. I was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and immigrated to New York City one year after my father had taken a position as a public school teacher in Morningside Heights. I remember the pale blue airmail envelopes that arrived weekly in Dar es Salaam -- my mother read those letters to us and they seemed like poems from afar, always ending in "Insha'Allah, Dad is waiting to see his daughters in New York very soon..." – until, at last, one of them contained a Pan Am flight code and three ticket numbers. The dream of immigration became a reality, and my four-year-old brain envisioned piloting the plane that would take me to my father in this wonderland called New York City!
This is the image that I'd like both sides of the aisle in Washington to understand: There are multitudes of hopeful children and parents who have immigrated to the United States and many more to come. Politics and the rule of law will set the tone, but a child's hope is ever-present.
Immigration is not a political act; it is an act of humanitarian confluence, where the hope of the one making the journey is intertwined with the dreams of her children. This dream, like many a parental dream, is not tethered to economics, to shiny new toys; it is a lifeline connected to a place, usually far away, usually with a better standard of living, where a parent has the confidence that her children will have a fighting chance and multiple opportunities. That is to say, immigration is grandly, unambiguously, and wholeheartedly about hope.
The "first world" nations, the U.S. being the most powerful of them all, have been nations of immigrants. Implementing a fair and judicious immigration policy will not only uplift the stature of the U.S. in the eyes of the world, but it also will establish a positive, inclusive precedent that hope prevails. Very simply, the bully in the playground who shames the "other" into staying in the corner can never win... because when the "others" take their talents to the fence, and the world sees their value, then there's no logical choice but to open those gates and welcome your fellow human beings to join in the journey, to continue paving the way to hope, no matter how far, how hard, how long.
That little Muslim girl from Dar es Salaam arrived in New York City in 1972. She went to P.S. 20Q, J.H.S 189, and Flushing High School, and ultimately found her way to a fellowship at Cornell University. That little girl grew up to serve in high-need, economically disadvantaged NYC public schools as an English teacher, guidance counselor, high school principal -- and currently as a youth development professional at The Child Center of NY. This is my story: It starts in a land far away, followed by a journey midwifed by a father who wanted to make his daughters "strong scholars who help others" and a mother who wore her hijab with stoic determination while helping newer immigrants to care for children while their mothers worked at sweatshops making "piece wages."
Immigration has never been a free and easy ride. For those who make it to shore, there is a second journey: one that is navigated via sweat equity in a new land, with copious amounts of tragedy, and a firm belief in empowerment. It's not a fairy tale, but who likes fairy tales anyway. I'd rather earn a seat at the table and gather more chairs in expectation of future arrivals.”