My Japanese grandfather came to the United States in 1898 hoping to become an American citizen. He died without even getting a chance to achieve this goal, as our country’s laws back then didn’t allow foreigners to become full Americans.
We shouldn’t go back to such a time. But today, House Republicans are reconsidering denying newcomers the right to become citizens. If adopted, this law would vastly damage, not repair, our broken immigration system.
The ability to become a U.S. citizen is a cornerstone of the American Dream. Our heritage is as a nation of immigrants, not guest workers. Our legend is that America is the great melting pot.
The Statue of Liberty reads: “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.” It does not read: “Send me the chosen few so that I can make them second-class citizens.”
Citizenship is keenly important to Asian-Americans. Asians were the first “aliens” in the United States. Prior to 1882, any person entering the country was considered a citizen. Chinese and Japanese immigrants were the first to be denied citizenship for their lifetime.
Creating two classes of Americans — citizens and legalized workers with no hope of achieving citizenship —would return this country to a time when Chinese “coolies” could build the railroads for a country that would never truly accept them.
Let’s not go there.
Asian immigrants seek citizenship more frequently than others. We have the highest percentage of foreign-born members of the population. Asian immigrants also have the highest naturalization rate — 57 percent — of any minority group. We want to put down roots and become true Americans.
We rely on family visas more than any other ethnic group, and our loved ones wait longer than most to enter this country.
We are the fastest-growing minority group in America, and we want immigration reform now. This reform must include a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants, for individuals who have waited in line abroad for decades and for future aspiring citizens.
Providing immigrants a pathway to citizenship is not just morally the right thing to do; it is also good for our economy. Today 11 million aspiring citizens live in the United States. They pay taxes and are a large part of our work force. They are consumers fueling demand. Immigrants from the world over have made this country thrive. It is time we embrace our nation’s diversity and create a system that allows all immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
If he were still with us, it would make my grandfather proud.
Priscilla Ouchida is the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League and an executive committee member of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wisc., 53703.