Foreign-born students balance American and immigrant identities




Senior Victor Rodriguez said he took his favorite vacation in the summer of 2007: a road trip through Mexico, from Mexico City to the Yucatan Peninsula. He and his family spent time exploring Mayan ruins, swimming under a waterfall and talking about their adventures. But according to Rodriguez, Mexico represents more than a fun travel destination to him because it was his home for the first six months of his life. Then, his family immigrated to the United States, and he became a citizen here.
Rodriguez is one of a growing number of students at this school who came to the United States after being born in another nation. According to the Department of Homeland Security, immigration is continually on the rise. It is a development that has sparked a debate at the national level over how the United States should deal with the increasing influx of immigrants.
Patrick Thomas, cofounder of the Pro Bono Immigration Project at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said that he expects to see changes in the federal immigration law as early as this summer.
“Immigration reform has the chance to become a uniquely bipartisan issue this summer. National Republicans have recognized, based on the 2012 election…that they must lead on immigration reform to stay competitive in national elections—and especially in the Presidential elections,” Thomas said via email. “…In the best case, we could see a passed law as early as September or October. Worst case, it could last into 2014, or of course, die as a bill. There would then be some time before most of the new laws took effect, though some would do so immediately.”
According to Thomas, the proposed bill would expand border security and interior enforcement measures, tie the implementation of such measures to a legalization programs for immigrants who are already here and reform nonimmigrant visas.
w.congressSuch changes, he said, are necessary in light of an “absolutely broken” legal immigration system, one in which a Filipino brother or sister of a U.S. citizen would experience a 24-year wait to receive a visa.
One of the most pressing issues, Thomas said, is dealing with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in this country. According to Thomas, people come to America for a myriad of reasons, but the lack of legal status makes this segment of the immigrant community difficult to understand.
“Legalization allows these individuals to come out of the shadows — and will force those who truly shouldn’t be here to face justice,” Thomas said. “In contrast, doing nothing allows the current, universally decried system to continue. It allows individuals to continue to remain unmonitored and unknown. And it allows unscrupulous employers to continue their mistreatment of all workers in the United States. That is the definition of ‘amnesty’ — giving something for nothing.”
According to Thomas, citizens of the United States should remember that at one point in time, most of their ancestors were immigrants, too.
“The United States is unique in the world, as we do not define our nationality by ethnicity or race, as many other nations do. We are truly a nation of immigrants, shaped by immigration. Unless you are of Native American heritage, you too are the legacy of immigrants in this land,” Thomas said. “Immigration reform efforts should remain aware of this, and not withhold opportunities from those who seek to forge new lives for their families, merely because of a perceived birthright entitlement to the wealth our nation has to offer.”
Rodriguez said he became a citizen when his parents did. According to him, their process of attaining citizenship involved reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and taking a test over the U.S. government. He said he still identifies himself more as Mexican than American.
“I think America would mean my place to go and be alone because in Mexico, I’m with my family pretty much the entire time. Being in America for me is being more independent with my life and being secluded but having more control over my life, and that is good in a way, but in another way, it’s kind of lonely at times,” Rodriguez said. “To me, Mexico means home. That is where I feel most comfortable, that is where I feel as if I really belong.”
Even so, according to Rodriguez, he has learned much from the immigrant experience.
“I definitely know a lot about the Spanish culture and the American culture, and I feel like (they really relate) in some ways,” he said. “It also makes me more understanding because I know a situation in which people have been treated differently because they’re Hispanic, but I also know circumstances in which the person is not able to afford something or someone is an illegal immigrant. If I ever met someone in that circumstance, I would be able to provide them with advice or help of some kind.”
Rodriguez said he hasn’t experienced as many of these challenges because he does not appear to be Hispanic.
“Personally, (the challenges do not) affect me because I look white. I’m pretty sure that if I looked like a typical Mexican, people would definitely treat me differently,” Rodriguez said. “There are a few derogatory comments that are passed around every now and then that sort of take me off guard since I’m not used to it. If I were in a different community and the comments were to show up, it would offend me, and it does offend me. I end up telling the person that said it that I’m Hispanic, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,’ but if they didn’t mean it that way, they wouldn’t have said it with that tone of voice.”
U.S. History teacher Peter O’Hara said that school’s demographic has not shifted from a mostly white, middle-class student body in his 13 years of teaching, but he believes Carmel is a community that is relatively open to immigrants.
“It’s just a basis of the type of community we are. We’re a very welcoming community. People of other races and cultures are welcomed very well. There’s nothing we’re doing that keeps people out. It’s just kind of a factor of where we are,” he said. “I think it’ll change. If you and I walk back in here 20 years from now, I think it’ll be more diverse.”
According to O’Hara, the growing trend of immigration is nothing new in the history of the United States.
“The Hispanic population is growing tremendously throughout the country and legally growing also. There’s always a trend in our country (toward immigration). We’ve always been a nation of immigrants. It’s just that immigrants now are coming from cultures other than a white European culture. We have a lot of immigrants coming from different places, so it’s a historical trend,” he said. “We’ve had tides of immigrants throughout our history from different places in the world, and in the long run, it’s made us a much stronger nation. I certainly believe that that trend is going to continue. People don’t come here to be a certain race or a certain culture. They come here to be Americans and share in our type of government and way of life, and they make it stronger.”
Despite some persistent anti-immigrant sentiment, O’Hara said he expects the process of immigrating and becoming a citizen to become faster and easier.
“There is still some anti-immigration legislation in some states; however, that has really slowed down. The federal government has more legislation pending which is pro-immigration and helping people who are already here attain citizenship and even ideas like fast-tracking citizenship for people who are already here. We’re still going to have to have quotas, and we’re going to have to manage immigration. We can’t just open the doors up and let everyone stream on in because that’s very difficult to do. I think the legislation that is now in front of Congress is great. We need to reform our immigration system, and we need to become legally more welcoming, and I think that’s going to happen,” O’Hara said.
According to O’Hara, the majority of people in the United States and especially in this city already accept the growth of immigrant communities.
“There have always been people who are not very accepting of other races and cultures as they immigrated. My grandfather was Irish, and he used to tell me of the time when he wasn’t allowed in a bar because he was Irish. He said that he walked into a bar and a guy said, ‘No Irishmen or dogs allowed in here,’ and (my grandfather) was like, ‘I was down there with the dogs.’ We’ve always gone through those sorts of things, but we’ve always emerged stronger,” he said. “We are so tolerant and so welcoming. Some of our top students are not traditionally white and middle class. I think they’re treated pretty well.”
Freshman Terry Zhou said that in his experience, students here have been kind in helping him learn about the English language and American culture after he moved from China to the United States at the beginning of the year.
“Becoming American is probably the biggest event in my whole life, and I believe it’s like a new start to me. I’m really glad I have the chance to come to America,” he said. “To me, American means better fortune.”
It is an opportunity, he said, that some may not be so lucky to have, since the numbers of immigrants to the United States has increased in recent years and is still on the rise today.
“It would be awful for people in some countries under dictatorship because immigration may be their only way out, but at the same time it’s understandable to establish laws against immigrations because more and more people are immigrating to the states each year,” he said. “(Immigration) will help in a way because more and more experts will come to the states to make some progress, but it also drags America down because as the population grows there will be lots of problems like housing, food supplies and pollution.”
According to Thomas, although it is impossible to predict what exactly will happen to immigration as a trend, it is likely to keep growing despite any negative effects it has on the United States.
“I would expect that as economic improvement seems likely and our federal government seems to be favoring greater levels of immigration in their immigration reform proposals,” he said.  “We’ll see immigration pick up a bit over the next decade.”
Rodriguez said he agrees that as Americans become more accepting of immigrants and recognize the benefits immigration could hold for the economy, the nation should anticipate an increasing number of immigrants.
“There are better jobs over here, and there’s a better environment,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the land of the free, as they say.”