When did the word immigrant become synonymous with one kind of immigrant? When did the word immigrant immediately imply radical Islamic terrorist? Why, when America has long been defined as a melting pot, is it now trying to rebrand: “Make American great again.”
Our country was “founded” by immigrants and we have become interwoven into the fabric of America. It’s preposterous to discount the significance. The U.S.A. is only 238 years old. As a basis for comparison, for the religious, the bible is noted to be between 1,900 and 3,400 years old. Do the math – the most anyone can claim is nine generations in America.
I’ve identified myself as an immigrant for the last 37 years, ever since I stepped onto New York City from the former Soviet Union in March of 1979. My earliest memory is the plane ride to JFK, with the blue water in the toilet and the salty bag of peanuts, and somehow this flashback flushed any other memories of my birth land out of my mind. Now, as a mother to a six year old and 14 year old, I’m constantly surprised by how much or how little they remember from age five. They remember specific details from birthday parties or vacations, yet I recall hardly anything before the blue swirly water in the toilet 25,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
Speaking Russian has gone in and out of style. I was grateful the 1980s, Perestroika made it cool to be Russian and to wear Cyrillic letters on my t-shirts. Now Putin came along and made Russians the bad guys again, and I have to say how I’m technically Ukrainian, but not really because it was Russia back then and I don’t speak Ukrainian.
I thought I was a generation away from the immigrant stamp defining who I was, but you can never shed that mark. It’s like the immunization scar I have on my upper right arm which gives it away. I’m not a “real American” since I wasn’t born here. I could never be president because I wasn’t born here. I don’t have an American birth certificate, I have citizenship papers, which my parents obtained five years to the day, from the day we stepped off the plane.
We went to the place where you get official, took a number, and waited in folding chairs for hours to be called. We stepped up to a teller window and I was way too small to see anything. There was a problem because I didn’t have an official birth certificate, only a bronze coin with Lenin on it, and my name. There was no proof of who I was other than my mother’s word, the coin, and some medical documents. It was somehow good enough and I was granted the ability to pay taxes for the rest of my days!
I know both my parents voted for Trump and I voted for Hillary, and I felt like I was in a time warp, speaking to people who were once prisoners of war. It was as if they were magnetically pulled towards a dictator-like leader – for them, he was actually nostalgic! They were comforted by a government of exclusion. “I don’t understand,” I would say. “He hates immigrants. If he was the leader in this country, we would never be here. How could you support that? “
I know the answer before I finish asking the question. I know they voted for him for the same reason millions of Americans did – they were terrified. Ultimately they were scared of terrorism and somehow the word immigrant became synonymous with terrorist. What I found most shocking was how thousands of contemporary Soviet immigrants were huge Trump supporters. When I asked any of them how they can support someone who wanted to close the borders, someone who would not have been here if he was in office, they all answer, “The Soviet Jews weren’t blowing up nightclubs.” My parents are educated people who fled their home country in pursuit of democracy and freedom, and now they want to close the borders. It’s hypocrisy with a capital H and I can’t seem to find any resolution for it.
I feel lucky to be a white woman today. I didn’t have to wake up the day after the election and face the possibility my way of life may be threatened. I studied the Holocaust for years in high school and college and have thought about what I would do, and I always thought I’d be the type to run, to hide, to pretend I wasn’t a Jew. Some people have pointed out a rise in antisemitic crimes since the election and while it’s abhorrent, I think to myself, “At least you can’t tell I’m Jewish from the outside.”
I’ll never stop being an immigrant, but some days I wonder what it would take to stop being an American.