As an immigration attorney for the past 14 years in both private practice and legal services, I feel confident in saying there is not a single kind of immigrant or one kind of immigration story. There are multifarious individuals and families of diverse global origin bearing a cornucopia of ideas, perspectives, hopes and dreams. This past year, I was given another vantage point to observe the manifold immigration experience when I was hired by Harvard University to provide legal representation to its DACA and undocumented students in order to prepare for the anti-immigrant threats that Donald Trump made on the campaign trail.
On Jan. 27, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order that banned entry into the U.S. of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries. This hastily written executive order had the effect of stopping individuals with valid visas and green cards, sometimes mid-flight, from entering the United States, including some of the scholars at Harvard.
I was asked to follow up with two post-doc researchers who were stuck in London. After a nationwide injunction was issued against the travel ban, the two sisters and their families were allowed to board their flight and return to the U.S. I went to the airport and offered them a ride home. In the car ride home, I had the opportunity to speak to them about their experiences. What I heard from these amazing women on the car ride home was truly inspiring and uplifting.
These women are accomplished scholars studying philosophy, mathematics and astrophysics. They could be doing their research at any number of institutions across the globe but they chose to come to the U.S. I queried if they ever thought of taking their skills elsewhere—if the anti-Muslim rhetoric and increasingly anti-immigrant policies in America were too hard to tolerate. One sister explained to me that, in her view, there are two Americas. There is the political America, that is fickle, and there is the functional America that exists on campuses, on worksites and in communities. While the political America can sometimes seem nationalistic, isolationist and racist, the functioning America continues to provide a space for individuals from around the world to develop their ideas and pursue their goals. She explained to me that she has studied around the world, including Europe, and nowhere else could a woman in her field gain the level of attention and respect that she received here in the U.S. She believes that America still is the one place in the world where people will accept and listen to what you have to offer. And for that reason, she wanted to continue studying here with her peers from around the world.
An example of another point in the spectrum of immigrant stories is marked by the young people from Central America coming to the U.S. fleeing violence. In 2014, the number of unaccompanied attempting to enter into the United States increased dramatically. This increase of unaccompanied minors is often referred to as the “surge” of young people coming from the northern triangle of Central America that includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. While the life and death stakes that they faced in deciding to travel to the United States differs dramatically from the post-doc Harvard researchers traveling on a visa, their end goals sound similar. They know that when they come to the United States, they will face an uncertain existence, being undocumented and living in the shadows. But they also believe that in the U.S., they will have an opportunity to complete school.
I have met with young people from Central America who lived in fear of being killed every day that they attended school. Many decided to come to the U.S. to complete their studies, rather than remain hiding in their home countries. They have dreams as well. They want to be doctors, dentists, teachers, business owners. Some just want to work as hard as they can to earn money and build a life for themselves.
I remember talking to one undocumented young person who works in a kitchen. He was telling me how he met a person begging for change near the restaurant where he worked. He told the man that he didn’t have any extra money but that he would introduce him to the manager at the restaurant to see if he could get a shift. This young man couldn’t believe that somebody could be out of work or that they would feel reduced to asking for change. Despite not having permission to work, he still saw so much opportunity in the U.S.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, smartly stated, “America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.” One of those ideals is our confidence in the freedom of speech protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Embedded in the notion of the freedom of speech is the recognition that such a freedom allows us to learn from one another.
The opportunity to benefit from inclusion and a diversity of ideas has given America its competitive advantage. This diversity and inclusion requires that we continue to encourage the free flow of ideas and determination that makes us strong. For this reason, we must come to understand, as a nation, that overly rigid immigration laws don’t just hurt the individuals and families that are directly affected by deportation and separation, but also hurt our nation as a whole by depriving us of the heterogeneous perspectives, talents and voices that seek to be part of our communities.
Continued anti-immigrant rhetoric threatens the image of America globally such that people will no longer recognize this country as a place to share their ideas and their work ethic. We must remain united in the concept that we are ever evolving and accepting of the ideas and knowledge that exists globally and that this land will provide the refuge needed to ensure that those ideas, and the people who have them, flourish.
Jason Corral is staff attorney with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.