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Mother of Exiles: What does it mean to be American?

If someone were to ask you to close your eyes and think of America, what would you see? Some of us would see hotdogs and firecrackers. Others would see the Statue of Liberty and the Declaration of Independence beaming in the warm effervescent glow of freedom.

For so many the privilege of being an American is something we never have to think about. When people ask us what our nationality is we are able to say, “American” without thinking.

For others the American experience is hyphenated.

There’s a clause or an explanation before our “American” denoting that we didn’t come here the same way everyone else did. Some of us are African/Black-American, Latin-American or Native-American. We are a subset of a larger group.  Although the explanation before our “American” is problematic, we still have the right to vote, go to the bank and feel safe in our own homes.

For 11 million people, many of whom have lived in the United States for years, those simple rights and privileges are void.  These people are not citizens; they do not have visas, and at anytime can lose their family or friends. The difference between being a citizen and losing everything is, for all intents and purposes, one piece of paper.

For many, whose home countries are riddled with tumult and violence, America continues to be a beacon of hope and opportunity. Many people are willing to die to live the American dream. The ashes of their hopes are littered across the southern border f the United States.

For Cristal Lopez, Mills College student, aspiring immigration lawyer and former undocumented person, the reality of losing everything was a very real fear. She, like so many came to America not of her own volition but rather at the will of others. Although she grew up a normal kid going to science camp and playing with her friends she knew that there was something different about her and all the other kids in her neighborhood.

“Seeing the police would almost bring on fear,” she said. “You knew if they pulled you over it wasn’t just ‘click it or ticket’, you didn’t want to be deported out of the country.”

If not having the proper papers makes someone illegal, what does it mean to be American? Am I American? What are the sum total of my American parts?

I had no control over my being American. It was the intertwining and twisting of many different fates that lead me here. I had no choice. Like so many people who call America their home, my people came here on boats.  They came, not as explorers or people looking for religious freedom, but rather as cargo destined to be chattel in a foreign land. My people were still considered 3/5 a person and were not given citizenship until they had been here for 178 years as slaves.

Does the Mother of Exiles on Ellis Island mean girls like Cristal and myself when she says, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door”?

This land is populated by the intertwining fates of millions of people over hundreds of years.  Is America the sum of all of its parts? The story of us is rich and tumultuous. There are things for which we can be extremely proud and ashamed. But for so many of us our desire is just to be included. For some, this desire is so strong that they  are willing to die for it. Mother of Exiles, do I get to be American?