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I am an Immigrant.

September 21, 2007

About Me: I’m the new Legislative Program Assistant at FCNL, working on issues related to the budget, immigration, civil liberties and poverty. Also, I happen to be an immigrant- a first generation immigrant.

Most people I meet would never guess. They are usually surprised when they learn this fact about me. After all, I’m white, I speak English, I have a college degree, I wear JCrew, and I love a good hamburger. What they don’t know is that I also speak French, I eat saucisson, I read Le Monde, and most of my family celebrates Christmas six hours before me.

In 2006, the U.S. welcomed 1,266,264 immigrants from around the world, almost as many as in 1907, when the U.S. welcomed 1,285,349 immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security can tell you exactly the number of permanent residents welcomed each year since 1820, and this number has risen and fallen repeatedly throughout the times.

My family could have floated across the Atlantic with the Mayflower. We could have arrived to help fight the Revolutionary War or as immigrants seeking refuge after Europe was decimated during WWII. Instead, we arrived from France in 1992 along with 973,445 other immigrants from around the world that year. My brother was 13, I was 10, and my little sister was three. Both my parents arrived as medical doctors, much like the 21,911 immigrants in 2006 who arrived as professionals with advanced degrees. Today, almost 15 years later, my brother works for a large urban development company in Boston, I have just begun my work here at FCNL, and my little sister starts as a freshman at Wesleyan. No doubt that the 973,445 other immigrants from 1992 followed equally diverse paths.

And the diversity of the immigrant population cannot be over-stated. Consider:

In 2006, U.S. citizens adopted 20,705 immigrant orphans from around the world, welcoming these children into their homes.

In the same year, the U.S. offered asylum to 6, 003 refugees from Russia, 3039 from Vietnam, and 2792 refugees from Iran (among refugees from many other countries).

Today, 35, 000 non-citizens serve in the armed forces, while 100 non-citizens have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to Census 2000, 62 % of all foreign born in the U.S. have at least a high school education. Almost one in every four immigrants has a bachelor’s or graduate degree, while one in every 10 foreign born has a master’s, professional, or doctorate degree.

Immigrants come from all walks of life and once they arrive, they follow innumerable paths.

When I tell most people that I’m a first generation immigrant, they have a hard time reconciling this with the mental image they have of a first generation immigrant. They usually comment that I am not “really” an immigrant or that I am so acculturated, I “might as well” be American. The truth is that I have a French passport, if I commit a felony I can be deported, and there is still a large – if largely invisible- cultural gap between myself and many U.S. citizens.

On the other hand, lots of people won’t hesitate to assume that an Asian-American or Latino is a recent immigrant. People ask, “Where are you from?” expecting the response to include an impoverished third world nation. In fact, these individuals are often U.S. citizens with firm roots in their communities. This mentality speaks to a deeply ingrained prejudice in the U.S. psyche. For many, an immigrant MUST be poor, uneducated, and a minority. Most also expect immigrants to be male, single, and a manual laborer.

We hear this stereotype a lot but it is simply not representative. Many immigrants are poor; many are hard workers who believe in the American dream. Many are minorities, appropriately reflecting the diversity of all nations. Many speak little English upon arriving; yet these individuals may be highly educated. A Brazilian accountant may work here as a carpenter. A Ukrainian doctor as an EMT.

The tendency for U.S. citizens to view immigrants as one monolithic group – the “illegal” immigrant scrambling across the U.S.-Mexican border – is a dangerous one. It illustrates a lack of knowledge, a lack of imagination, and a lack of nuance. The world is not black and white. When nuances are stripped away, little room is left for dialogue or understanding. To see immigrants as a monolithic group, robs each individual immigrant of their identity. On the other hand, to respect the humanity of those arriving in the U.S. is to understand and appreciate their diversity.

References:
Department of Homeland Security : http://www.dhs.gov/ximgtn/statistics/
Migration Information Source: http://www.migrationinformation.org
Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/

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