Americans by Choice: The Deep Patriotism of Immigrants

I was a teen when my family moved to the United States. My family immigrated through a process now pejoratively referred to as ‘chain migration.’ One of my first memories - in the supposed liberal haven of California, mind you - was standing in line to pay for some groceries with my father when a older, white man cut in front of us in line, turned to us, and proclaimed “You’re not in your country!” Being brand new in a foreign land, we did not dare protest. But an event that is now more than 20 years old still lives as vividly in my memory as any.

While that moment informed my view of this new land, it didn’t define it. Sure, as an immigrant and especially early on, it would always be a reassuring experience to see and meet those who looked like me and spoke my native language, but I was always fascinated by the people, cultures, languages, and foods different from my own. I was grateful for an English teacher who dedicated hours every day after school to work on the English of a kid to whom she had no cultural or ethnic ties to. I was drawn to book talks at the library that explored systems, cultures, and philosophies. I loved volunteering at a church to tutor middle school kids with math. You would think math is the same no matter where you come from, but you’d be wrong. The way children from different backgrounds get - or don’t get - math is a captivating subject. I enjoyed tailoring my tutoring based on how each child learned.

On the heels of 9/11, I visited my family in India. During that visit, I discovered something about myself that surprised me. I enjoyed my time with my family and being in the place I’d spent so much of my life in, but I missed the vitality of a diversity of cultures, peoples, foods, languages. To me, that’s what it meant to be an American - although I wasn’t one yet on paper - the unique opportunity to form my identity; not by running away from my roots but by being fortunate to celebrate the diverse roots and common human desires of those around me.

When I took my oath of citizenship a few years later, I was excited and humbled, happy and serious, and above all, patriotic.

Because I’d made a choice. I chose to be an American. I chose to be an American because of what that choice meant to me: a land where I and my heritage was a strength, a place where friendships and connections and family lay far beyond what I looked like, and an idea that our country is stronger for everyone in that room that raised their hand and pledged their loyalty to the United States along with me. We weren’t just becoming citizens of a nation that had accepted us, but of one that we deeply believed we had an equal stake in shaping the future of.

I don’t speak for any immigrant other than myself. But I can tell you categorically that every person in that room taking that oath felt a pride that words cannot do justice to: a pride that who we were, how we came, and what we could be were all that we needed to call ourselves Americans.

Immigrants love this country. Not because we were born here, or because we belong to any ethnocultural group, or because we were ‘molded’ to reject our backgrounds. We love this country because we came from somewhere else, because we belong at once to our ethnocultural background and find ourselves fascinated by all the others belonging to our fellow Americans, because acceptance, not rejection, form the basis of our patriotism.

And all of us - along with most natural born Americans of color - have been told at some point or other in our lives (most of us more times than once) to “go back” to where we came from. And almost all of us will hear it again.

That will not make us bitter. It will make us determined. Because no matter where each of us was born or how we got here, we are from here, we are from the United States - a country founded on the basis of the idea that all of us are created equal and one replete with the recognition that humans have time and again fallen short of that idea. This is something people of color and immigrants understand in our bones. We know that the path to the idea of equality is hard, rough, steep terrain and that we will fail again and again to get there.

But we will keep trying. And each time we will make a little progress. Then we will fail again and try again.

Because we love America.

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