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Photo by Eliska Merchant-Dest.

Who is American?

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

America is, essentially, a nation of exiles. Since its inception, this nation has invited people of every lifestyle to join a community that, ideally, celebrates diversity of culture, ideas and nationalities. America strives to become a land of multiculturalism, promoting excellence. America is “a land of opportunity.” A “melting pot” of sorts.

But who is an American?

Primarily, the American identity holds roots within immigration. The core values America believes in must be grounded in a system that fairly assesses who is an American and who can be an American. Values like equality under the law and certain unalienable rights, including Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are all key to the American identity.

Through our immigration system, we decide what an American is and who can be one. Fundamentally, our immigration system is both an entrance exam to America and a definition of who and what we define as American.

However, all throughout American history, these same values and “self-evident truths” were, and still are, revoked from people deemed unworthy. The powerful have monopolized the definition of an American. They use tactics of fearmongering and race-baiting to exclude others and disseminate hatred. They reinforce their message through anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation. They create harmful stereotypes and caricatures to mock the downtrodden and forgotten. They create systems and institutions to oppress the “other” in the name of Americanism.

People of all races stand abused at the hand of a nation that promised them a better life. All throughout history, minorities were rejected from the national identity, seen only as plagues or, in many cases, subhuman. From black people and the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, to the indigenous peoples and Native Americans during the Trail of Tears, to the Irish and “NINA” in the 1860s, to the Japanese and the internment camps during World War II, countless people—whether immigrants, refugees or native-born—stood on the outside looking in, denied the “unalienable rights” promised to them.

Even now, the current President and his administration push a narrative that certain immigrants cannot join the national identity. They reinforce these views with slander through the media. They demonize Latinx immigrants and refugees, capturing them as they plead for asylum. They treat refugees inhumanely. Children are separated from their parents and put in temporary facilities to sleep on the floor with fences, caging them in like animals. They have minimal access to basic hygiene like showers and toothbrushes. Meanwhile, their parents don’t know where they are or if they’re even safe.

Immigration judges are backlogged for months because they are overwhelmed with too many cases. The average wait time to hear the result can last more than 500 days. Approximately two-thirds of all immigration cases result in deportation, and the chances are worse without legal representation. Actions like these rob immigrants of their decency, and the President has successfully sown the seeds of discontent and conflict.

The problem is that we have purposefully ignored the purpose of America. We are witnessing the grand manipulation of both the immigration system and national identity. The current immigration system is a rigged test, designed for those on the outside to never come in.

Under this system, only a certain few can qualify to be American. According to this administration, others are animals, rapists and murderers, or citizens of “shithole countries.” How we see one another controls the identity of this nation. Being American is more than just citizenship, of course, but our immigration invites others to take that first step to become American.

Our immigration system has always been a representation of what America could be, at its best. On the Statue of Liberty in Ellis Island, an excerpt from Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” lives forever in bronze, prominently displayed for the world to see.

“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,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We can still build that nation. It starts by realizing that our diversity makes us stronger. By reforming our immigration system, we reclaim our national identity and truly live out the values we set out to accomplish from the start.