We Belong Here

by | May 7, 2020

We are living in a time of physical suffering and death as well as economic uncertainty and extreme hardship, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, there is a striking similarity to what we are experiencing. Some of us seemingly don’t matter as much. Our tragedies can be dismissed or forgotten, lost in the number of casualties. We are easily discarded and marginalized. It’s a world where the victim gets blamed, the weak get scapegoated, and the bully gets celebrated.

Two incidents this week bring this into relief, each with a ringing refrain that has become too familiar. One springs from my experience as a first-generation American and the other from the anger about a hate crime. 

First, reporting from the NY Times revealed how Stephen Miller from the White House is continuing to pursue hardline immigration positions. (Read “Before COVID-19, Trump Aide Sought to Use Disease to Close Borders”) Blaming immigrants for what ails us is commonplace. This Administration has used the tactic before and, with COVID-19, it was easy for them to target the Chinese this time. When in doubt, demonize the immigrant and close the border, even if neither presents a solution to the actual problem. “Other” the people who don’t look American. Set them up to take the fall. Even though many individuals with an immigrant heritage (like myself) claim the label of American as proudly as anyone, we become strangers in the land of our birth.

Even as I think about this recent incident above, there was another episode years ago that came to mind this past week as we remembered my father’s birthday on May 7th. In October 2018, we had just buried my father when, a week or so prior to the 2018 midterm election, the President announced that he was considering revoking birthright citizenship. That policy prescription evidently was espoused by Stephen Miller. Constitutional scholars discounted the idea as impossible, and it was summarily dismissed by nearly everyone. However, the mere utterance of the idea inflamed many immigrants. It was another instance of de-legitimization, another assault on our sense of belonging as Americans, and another attack on rights that should be irrevocable. However casually or irresponsibly stated by the Administration, expressing the idea had the same effect. The simple mention of revoking birthright citizenship caused me to join the ranks of people of immigrant heritage who would be castoffs, disowned by our country. Citizenship would not insulate me. Often, people facing this threat would stay silent. However, I could not. I weaved my reflections (days after the midterms) into the closing of the keynote seen here. At the conclusion of my speech, I shared with the audience how this country — that my father placed on a pedestal — would be so quick to abandon him or us. I thought of countless individuals who sacrificed their lives for a country that left them wanting or, worse yet, abused them.

However, it’s one thing to be relegated as an immigrant given the policy stances of an Administration, but it’s another thing when an attack on our sense of belonging and place as Americans results in physical harm or death. My second example illustrates how being out of place can get you killed. This past week, I thought of Ahmaud Arbery (pictured here from an op-ed powerfully presented by Charles Blow of the NY Times). Ahmaud’s birthday was the day after my father’s. I thought of him jogging through a neighborhood, as I would do. I thought of how innocuous that activity was. He was entitled to be where he was. Yet, he was “othered” and believed to be a threat by his white killers because he — according to the assailants — resembled a burglar. At a time of racism and increasing polarization, segregation, and insecurity, being where you don’t belong can be fatal.

We all may share stories of an environment that was unwelcoming to us or times when we were ostracized, but how many of us have stories where not belonging dispossessed us of our inalienable rights or put us in imminent danger of death? We readily equate everyone’s experiences now. “Everyone is the same,” we hear. But, our circumstances are different; the way we are treated is different; our sense of belonging is different, fragile for some and strong for others. From the White House policymaker in DC to the fellow resident in GA, you can take steps to exclude or include, to shun or welcome. For the sake of our shared American creed of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” let’s hope the path of inclusion is chosen.

To those standing in solidarity with the family of Ahmaud Arbery I say as he would say to his murderers, “these are our neighborhoods, as much as they are yours.” On behalf of my father and immigrants everywhere I say, “this is our country, as much as it is yours.” We belong here.