04/25/2012 08:31 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

SB 1070: How Do You Define American?

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.

My Favorite Immigrant