In July of 2000, after living in China for nearly four years, I returned to the United States. When people asked me why I was returning to the U.S. to start again from scratch, I told them that I was returning because there was nowhere in the world like this country, a nation of immigrants that draws its strength from its diversity. Wherever I lived in the world, I was proud of being from the United States: A daughter of immigrants from Latin America who could stand with my fellow Americans while still celebrating the culture of my parents and their ancestors.
I do not live in Arizona, the home of a new law that makes it a crime to be without your immigration paperwork if police choose to question your citizenship status, and yet I feel its impact all these miles away. Now, for the first time in my life, there is a level of fear for me attached with being--and looking--Latina. A few times now I have returned home during the day after realizing that I didn't have my U.S. passport on me. Despite being a U.S. citizen, born in this country, I am fearful of having any issues if stopped. This is not the U.S. that I left China for.
I am multilingual. I have worked in countries all over the world. I have lived in seven states in the North, South, East, and West of this nation. I was born and bred in upstate New York and went to an Ivy League university. I am a published author, a public speaker, and have been a talking head on major news outlets. I have worked for a Fortune 100 company, a presidential campaign, an international nongovernmental organization, and am currently heading up a nonprofit. If I feel fear as a Latina daughter of immigrants, I can only imagine how my brothers and sisters who have not had the same privilege and opportunities feel.
Arizona's new law (and the copycat laws that are springing up across the U.S.), Arizona's new policy of re-assigning of teachers who have accents, and the recent rejection of ethnic studies in public schools in both Arizona and Texas, are all signs that we are heading down a dangerous path. The erosion of human rights at the state level has national implications.
If history has taught us anything, it is that once human rights are eroded, we have stepped onto a slippery slope. Already, we have slipped toward accepting hate crimes against Latinos in New York and Pennsylvania, the profiling of Latinos in Arizona and North Carolina, and possibly the next iteration of segregation in schools. We cannot be naive. We cannot forget our history as a nation. We have much to be proud of as Americans, but also much in our history to cause alarm: Japanese American internment camps, the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow.
My father came from Mexico to Fordham University to pursue his PhD in theology and philosophy. He became a social worker in upstate New York. He spoke English with a very heavy accent, but his connection with the kids was powerful. I remember people stopping us as we walked down the street to tell him, "Mr. Esquivel, you changed my life."
At one point in his career, he almost lost his job as a social worker because some people said his accent was so thick that it made him ineffective. Then they surveyed the kids he worked with. They rated him amongst the highest-rated social workers in the school. Despite his heavy accent, he was connecting with them, contributing to their lives in a way that no one else was. Imagine if he had been taken out of that position (in which he served with commitment for over 30 years) because of his accent. How many kids' lives would have remained untouched, unchanged?
His story is not unique.
As a nation, we are lucky to have men and women like my father. Our history is marked by millions of immigrants who have made powerful contributions to our society--from unsung heroes like my father to famous immigrants like Madeline Albright and Albert Einstein. We need to step forward bravely as a nation--as we have before in the days of the suffragists, the abolitionists, the civil rights movement. The struggles for human rights and civil rights are not new to us. As a nation and as a people, we continue to build toward the dream of what we can be.
We must reflect on the words carved on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" We must remember what we learned from Cesar Chavez: "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore." We must pay attention, as Abraham Lincoln urged us, to the better angels of our nature.
If history has taught us anything, it is that once human rights are eroded--once we allow ourselves to overlook the humanity of certain groups of people--we have stepped onto a slippery slope. If no one stands up to the injustice, the erosion of human rights continues. I often think of Martin Niemoeller's words in the aftermath of World War II:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
We are standing on the brink of a critical choice as a people--a moment when we as a nation will choose who we will be. There is still time, but we must stand together against the injustice that we are seeing.
William O. Douglas, the former Supreme Court justice, cautioned us: "As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air--however slight--lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."
Luckily, hundreds of thousands of people all over the country are on the watch. They've been finding creative ways to protest Arizona's new law and to stand in solidarity with those it targets.
But with polls showing that a majority of Americans support Arizona's law, we must go further. A majority of Americans once supported segregationist Jim Crow laws as well as the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans. Our responsibility to fight for civil rights hasn't ended, and will not end as long as we allow fear and hatred to tear us apart. We need to celebrate the immigrants among us as well as our national values of diversity and inclusion. We must have faith in the goodness of our people, and encourage each other to be the best we can be. We must be brave. Let us be the U.S. that so many have come to this shore to find.