Immigrants Keep Loving America, Even When America Doesn’t Love Them Back

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio


I know all too well how some Americans feel about immigrants: I was undocumented for 25 years, and I am a child of immigrants who remain undocumented. I also wrote a book about the daily lives of migrants during the Trump years.

At the time, the Trump administration seemed to be the worst possible administration for immigrants and their advocates. Every one of the migrants I met in my reporting had lived through something extraordinary. They were all good people, but they were also flawed like anyone else. If you know nothing else about our migrants, you should know this: They have survived everything God put in front of them, and then some, in the name of freedom and safety, for themselves and their children.

I will never understand why they, why we, were and are so hated.

President Biden vowed to fix the immigration system, but in many ways things remain as dire as ever. Not only has Mr. Biden failed to deliver meaningful reform, but also his administration has taken a Trumpian approach to the border crisis, issuing what amounts to an asylum ban. He has abdicated his responsibility, leaving room for local governments to act like sheriffs. All the while, Republicans have been steadily marching toward authoritarianism, book ban by book ban and voter suppression tactic by voter suppression tactic.

I was a child in Ecuador in the 1990s, a time when Latin America was reeling from the effects of decades of coups, dictatorships and political repression. My parents passed on to me and my brother their full-blooded hatred of authoritarianism and those who abet it — weak-willed people who value their own careers over their country’s constitution, the disengaged and indifferent populace.

White conservative men, the mainstay of the voting bloc that feels itself to be invisible and left behind, ‌whose genius goes unnoticed and valor goes untested, now ha‌ve an opportunity to be the protagon‌ists ‌they feel is ‌their birthright. ‌But they must know in their hearts that it is not brown, Black and nonbinary children who threaten America’s standing in the world; rather, it is men like them, all stirred up by military cosplay.

Take Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and his anti-immigrant border project, Operation Lone Star, which, among other things, while Title 42 was in effect employed state trespassing laws to arrest migrants when they cross private land. Every week, it hemorrhaged $2.5 million from taxpayers as National Guard members were deployed at his discretion to stop single instances of border crossings. It’s ridiculous. But it sure did make him sound like a cowboy.

On Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed legislation that requires hospitals to collect immigration information from all patients and prohibits local governments from issuing any form of identification to the undocumented. The new law will have a chilling effect that could make Floridians reluctant to point undocumented persons to a soup kitchen, give them a ride to a doctor or encourage them to pursue an education. It nullifies valid driver’s licenses issued to “illegal aliens” by other states. It criminalizes anyone who hires an undocumented worker. It is a huge waste of taxpayer money and antiterrorism allocations. And it is un-American.

Immigrants believe in the American story about freedom and self-governance. In fact, nobody believes harder than we do. The migrants at the border right now are there because they acted on the belief that we are all born with a God-given right to self-determination. They were willing to risk everything on their belief in liberty, on their belief in the kind of freedom you fight for. Human beings who have known freedom their whole lives cannot fully appreciate it — in the same way that fish cannot really appreciate water.

It is a cruel twist that the country we fled to can sometimes remind us of the places we left, but the irony is the point. In an attempt to keep nonwhite immigrants out of the United States, many Republican lawmakers have turned against its crown jewel: democracy.

The good news is that immigrants can be our secret weapon in the fight against authoritarianism. Immigrants love America in a way that America needs to be loved if it is going to survive.

Our political disillusionment hasn’t resulted in apathy, but the opposite: We’ve turned it into a longing in the form of the American dream. If love is the choice to hold something dear at the risk of loss and without needing to be loved in return, what else do we call the code of honor by which millions of undocumented people pay taxes and contribute to Social Security every year, knowing they will never see a dime? If faith is the belief in something wonderful without needing to see proof of its existence, how else do we explain the 22-year-long fight of the Dreamers to get a pathway to citizenship?

The problem is we’ve been treating immigrants very, very badly.

Most Americans support meaningful and humane immigration reform that includes a way for the immigrants already here to get legal status, but our elected representatives do not act as if they care about anything other than re-election. Fixing this immigration mess involves unsexy things like expanding eligibility for temporary status, expanding humanitarian parole and hiring more staff at US Citizenship and Immigration Services. In order to achieve this solution, we need bipartisan collaboration. But not everyone can lead, not everyone is willing to work hard and not everyone is brave.

Even in the United States, political corruption, economic collapse and extrajudicial punishment can happen at any time. Maybe that’s an intolerable thought and painting immigrants as fundamentally different from us, bearers of an otherworldly suffering, allows us to pretend they are not like us and that their fate is not intertwined with our own.

The New York Times