09/07/2012 09:17 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

What No Immigrant Will Ever Have

I have lived more than half of each of the past 12 years in Italy. I acquired a visa, permanent resident status, a house, a national health number, learned Italian, and got -- after the considerable effort of a 25-hour course and an oral exam in Italian -- a driver's license. However, there is one thing I will never have no matter how long I live in Italy: an Italian childhood. I realize this every time I converse with Italian friends over dinner or spend a long evening with them. No matter how much vocabulary I know nor how much grammar I master, I sometimes hear only their words but fail to understand what they are talking about.

The problem is that I wasn't taught how close to stand when conversing, the rules of social cheek kissing (just when to do it and which one goes first), and why a long vacation in August is important enough to take out a second mortgage. These are the niceties of cultural knowledge that you acquire only when you grow up somewhere. I understand those things about America, and especially the South where I grew up. I can never hope to understand them fully in England, East Africa, and Canada where I have also lived.

This is the common fate of all immigrants. It was true for our forefathers who left England in search of a better life. It was true for the American revolutionaries who broke ties with homeland and heritage to achieve unaccustomed freedoms while those who could not abide the loss became what historians call Loyalists. It is something both Israelis and Palestinians share. Palestinians mourn the loss of their childhood homeland just Israelis feel they were kicked out of theirs.

It is also true for all those immigrants who have come to America seeking the American dream. And it is true of current immigrants who come against odds and perils. And ironically, it is what those quasi-Americans who were born here or brought here as young children fear most -- being robbed of the only childhood they have ever known.

As we struggle to develop a national policy regarding undocumented immigrants, we should be mindful of this sacrifice. We need to recognize that these contemporary immigrants also left behind one of their most personal and precious possessions and that their children seek to hold onto theirs.

William M. O'Barr is professor of cultural anthropology, sociology, and English at Duke University and author of 12 books.