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By the time I arrived with my parents and my younger sister, it was 1991. Long gone were the days when immigration was circumscribed and European immigrants never had a chance of returning to their homes. They left with the implicit knowledge that they would never go back to their European cities and villages. Immigrants today, whether legal or illegal, face challenges that did not exist in the past. For over 100 years the United States had an open policy, so that the toughest challenge immigrants faced was getting here. If the immigration policy that exists today had always been in place, most immigrants who came to this country between 1790 and 1924 would not be allowed in. The new wave of immigrants that included my family were racially/ethnically different; fitting in was not as simple as it seemed. Mobility and technical advances allowed us to be constantly connected to our countries and culture. We could make a phone call every day and save money for a flight back home. The "old country" was not left behind, it was part of our new selves. But throughout the years all immigrants have shared a common goal: to work hard for progress and opportunities.
When I hear negative stereotypes about immigrants today I wonder, when did we all become so entitled? Perhaps this has always been the attitude about immigrants in the United States, but I remember very well learning about waves of immigrants coming though Ellis Island and being welcomed. I read "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus and internalized the verse "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." During trips to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty I felt like I had a connection to the families arriving to a new country, lost and confused, but hopeful. It was a shock to find that the immigrant dream was just a nice story, because today there are no welcoming arms.
I did not choose to come to the United States, my parents made that decision for me, so as a child learning about American history I would question my parents. Why would my family leave their heritage and only home for a foreign land with no guarantees of the life that lay ahead? Moreover, why pick the United States? All they could say was, freedom. The United States offer freedoms that the rest of the world envies. My grandparents came to the United States after the protests and US military occupation that overthrew a 30 year dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Years later, my parents were still trying to free themselves from a country that was plagued by consequent political upheavals. From the perch of our pampered lifestyles in the United States, we forget that many live in deplorable situations and only wish for an iota of the American dream. We are so isolated from world situations that we forget that much of the world still lives in conditions the Founding Fathers came to America to escape.
I share my story, not because it is unique; I am almost certain that I had it easy compared to so many that come here without the support of their family. My story is a story that is common, but as ordinary as it is there are not enough human faces attached to our stories. We must show that immigrants today are as important to American values as the immigrants that arrived via Ellis Island. Everyone living in the United States has an immigrant story, though for too long forgetting that story was part of assimilating. Today, we are only spoken about in statistics that silence our true stories. If we can feel compassion for an Irish escaping a famine, an Italian fleeing poverty, or a Jewish immigrant fleeing religious persecution, we can most definitely feel compassion for a Salvadorean escaping a civil war, an Arab fleeing political oppression, or a Mexican in search of an escape from poverty. Our stories our powerful, but only if they can be heard.