“Don’t punish the kids for the sins of their parents.” “They were brought here through no fault of their own.” “They were just innocent children.”
This is the language pundits and politicians use to justify requiring 800,000 undocumented immigrants to apply for DACA, short for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Immigrants brought to America as children must apply every two years and pay the government $495 so that the country they call their home does not deport them.
To be eligible, we ask DACA recipients not just to go to school or to be enlisted in the U.S. military. We also ask them to point a finger at their parents, who risked everything to bring or send them to America, so that they might be safe.
The phrase “divide and conquer” has been a part of our lexicon since the days of ancient Rome, used to describe a method for those in power to maintain that power by exacerbating differences among their subjects, turning them against one another and forgetting who is actually keeping them in chains.
But there is another phrase, wielded by the revolutionaries who founded this country: United we stand, divided we fall. And, when it comes to dividing immigrants, we must remember a line from Warsan Shire’s poem, “Home”: “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
The reality is that, for many of the parents who brought or sent their children to America without going through proper bureaucratic channels, America meant (and means) survival. As former governor Jeb Bush proclaimed, it was an act of love.
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As someone who was sent to the United States when I was 12 — my mother sent me here from the Philippines to live with my grandparents, who were naturalized citizens — I harbored mixed emotions toward Mama for many years. I found out I was undocumented when I was 16, and we haven’t spoken regularly since (including after I lay all of my feelings bare in my documentary “Documented”).
I understand the complex feelings of being resentful and grateful. On one hand, I wondered: Why did she put me in this situation? On the other hand, I wondered: Where would I be if I didn’t have all of the opportunities that America makes possible? Each Thanksgiving I ask myself: How can I use these opportunities to better myself so that I can continually give back, with gratitude?
For six and a half years, I have been traveling around the country, listening to other people’s immigration stories and asking people how they define what it means to “be American.” Again and again, we hear very similar themes: a tale of the first generation’s bravery, sacrifice and grit and, for their children, a sense of aspiration to fulfill their parents’ dreams for them and make it all worthwhile. Together, all of our immigrant stories become more meaningful, and inform one another. That is what it means to be part of a family.
Yet currently, family members are being physically torn from one another’s arms in the name of immigration law. We also can’t allow anyone to divide us in spirit, or crudely yank the sacred thread that binds our stories together.
In the story of our country, the Trump administration’s dismantling of the DACA program is a national tragedy that will be a source of confusion for generations to come. The program was one of the few compromises that the Obama administration made in attempt to right unjust, inhumane and outdated immigration laws. Our own history tells us that laws are fluid and change over time; they do not dictate morality, but are dictated by morality (or the lack thereof). It wasn’t until the 20th century, for example, that we saw women first granted the right to vote and the abolishment of Jim Crow laws.
The pervasive rhetoric around immigrants who received DACA and their families is predicated on an underlying judgement that their mere presence in this country is a crime. It is not: Being in the U.S. without authorization is a civil offense.
Yet if a crime has been committed, someone must be responsible, right? If you qualify for DACA, it means that you were under a certain age when you came here, so you were too young to have committed a “crime.” You are a “good,” “acceptable,” “assimilated” one. But your parents are not. America will accept you — provisionally — but you must condemn the actions of your family members who brought you here.
"Divide and conquer."
No wall has yet been built, no border yet drawn, no law yet written that overpowers the love of parents for their children. Let us celebrate and give thanks to the resilience of immigrant families who, despite all possible obstacles, find ways to survive, even thrive. Our laws and various languages may separate them, but united they stand.
Jose Antonio Vargas is a journalist and filmmaker, and the CEO of Define American. In 2010, Vargas revealed his status as an undocumented immigrant. He has produced and directed his autobiographical documentary, "Documented," broadcasted by CNN, and MTV’s White People.