The Public Humanist

Who are “We”?

Born to Puerto Rican immigrants and reared in an Hispanic Manhattan neighborhood, the Tony Award winning composer, Lin-Manuel, chooses a young, illegitimate, Caribbean-born immigrant (who “pulls himself up by his own clever boot straps”, earns passage to the Colonies to obtain an education, and becomes the nation’s first treasury- secretary), as the subject for his acclaimed and sold-out for years musical Hamilton. Using millennial- rap for a Colonial story, Lin-Manuel crosses and re-crosses the borders that separate historical epochs, ethnic and racial identities, as well as musical genres. He brings us together on the border lands where we can hear and experience the stories of distant “others”. Does anything better suit the rags-to-riches success story in the land of golden opportunities (or as my immigrant grandparents would have put, “the goldena medina”) or better highlight the immigrant foundations of the “us” we call the United States?

Hamilton performance photo by Joan Marcus

Hamilton performance photo by Joan Marcus

Lately I have been wrestling with the concept of peoplehood. My interest stems from my work on the making of contemporary Jewish identities and the growing concern among Rabbis, policy makers, theologians and other leaders of “the” Jewish community about whether the 20 % of American Jewry and nearly a third of its young people who call themselves Jews, but not by religion, should be counted when we are counting Jews. It has generated hotly contested policy, religious and political debates about who should or should be able to make claims on “the” community’s resources, time and attention. Or put another way who belongs to the “us” of now and the “we” of the future.

Current debates about inclusiveness and exclusivity around immigration in the U.S.A. offer some parallels. A sizable part of all who reside within our borders, approximately one-quarter of the overall U.S. population, is either first or second generation immigrant, but recent election rhetoric and some of our stalled immigration policies suggest that we are politically and socially uncertain about where some of these immigrants belong in the story of “we”. Other than demographic data we know rather little about the life stories of those we call “them”. More worrisome, what we claim to know often reflects a one-size-fits-all set of negative stereotypes that distances us from and reinforces a distrust and fear of those foreign born, particularly those who are unauthorized (approximately 4.1 million), the most impoverished of all immigrants.

Initiatives for immigration reform that would provide a pathway to legal status for parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and for those who came to the U.S. as children (DACA) have been drawn, but a federal appeals court recently upheld a lower court opinion to halt the most recent of these initiatives. Programs that would extend work permits to and a temporary reprieve from deportation of unauthorized immigrant parents—in hopes of keeping families in-tact and to better protect those who come here as children—have been suspended putting the children of unauthorized immigrant parents—nearly 80 percent of whom were born in the United States—at great risk.

Jennifer Bernard, a nun, and Tita Boots, a domestic caregiver share a moment while filming "Help Is...," a video series about domestic workers.

Jennifer Bernard, a nun, and Tita Boots, a domestic caregiver, share a joyful moment while filming Help Is…, a video series about domestic workers, an industry with a substantial number of immigrant workers.

If we put ourselves in the shoes of those who live on the brink of deportation, sometimes to homelands where they might face sure disaster, in those of U.S. born children who have never experienced life outside our borders but are faced with the deportation of their “unauthorized” parents, or in those who have come to our shores as “unauthorized” children, we might better understand their plight. Apart from stereotypes, we know very little about the hopes, dreams, aspirations and motivations of those who live “unauthorized” among us. The stories by, for and of those who are generally unheard in our culture reveal that these “others” are quite similar to us on some of the most basic of our American values and dreams. Every agency director or project director with whom I connected, who works with immigrant communities in Massachusetts, tell similar stories. They not only speak of the socio-economic barriers and harsh conditions many of their clients face but stories of how hardworking their clients are, how willing they are to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and most especially to see that their children are more successful than they. Some who have come here as unauthorized immigrant children, they report, serve in the military, complete undergraduate and graduate degrees, and are contributing to the economy. My own informal interview with Lili (fictitious name) who came to the U.S.A over twenty years ago as an unauthorized immigrant woman resonates with the “rags to riches” story with which I began this blog. She came with nothing, found domestic work (for which she was mightily overqualified) with a kind employer, worked nights, weekends and overtime for several years so that she could bring her son and mother to the U.S.A. Today she owns her own small business, is a permanent resident of the U.S. and has a granddaughter looking at MIT as one of her College choices for next year. She owns her own home, volunteers her domestic services to the elderly at no cost, is actively involved in the Red Cross and the local pantry and enjoys skiing, a sport she never encountered in her native South American homeland.

The “we” of the people we call “ours” is more than a set of laws about citizenship. It is about the everyday lives of a diverse people, some struggling harder than others to make it in a country growing increasingly “meaner/leaner” under the guise of “tougher”. Seeing the world through the eyes of the other moves us beyond empathy for individuals to a more inclusive story about us as a collective “we”. And while we don’t know where the next Lin-Manuel resides, let’s hope that it is within our borders.

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