My Story; Our Story

As an immigrant, a woman, a social worker and a professor who teaches about the immigrant experience in the United States, I feel very connected to other immigrants throughout this country on many levels. And so I am keenly aware of the effects of restrictive immigration policies such as HB 87 in Georgia, HB 497 in Utah, SB 1070 in Arizona and the about-to-go-into-effect HB 56 in Alabama. They are not only oppressive to immigrants; they are reactive, reductive responses to the complexities of the immigration issues in this country.

My mother migrated to New York City in 1969 when my sister were 8 and 10 years old, respectively, leaving us at home in Grenada. As a single parent, for five years she parented us from a distance while working three low-paying jobs to support all of us financially. She worked days, nights and weekends, taking any job that came her way to keep us sheltered, fed and clothed. During the entire time, she had two dreams: (1) to be reunited with her daughters and (2) to provide us with an opportunity to get an education so we could be self-sufficient and not subjected to the same exploitive and repressive working conditions she had to endure for so long.

Today, my mother has an Associate’s degree, my sister has a Master’s degree in Public Administration and I have a Ph.D. in Social Welfare. I am indebted to my mother for her sacrifice, endurance, work ethic and for her commitment to my sister and me. We grew up knowing that being an immigrant meant having to work hard and make sacrifices. As a result, our number one role model is our mother. My son now is on his way to realizing his dream as well–and not only does he have his dad and me as his biggest supporters, he is blessed with the support of his aunt and grandmother.

My family’s story is not unlike that of other immigrant groups that came before and after us: English, Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Asians, Africans, Mexicans, etc. As an immigrant, I am dedicated to help others who are faced with horrendous restrictions, such as HB 87–which forces some women to choose between being killed by their abusers or deported. If this policy had existed for the early immigrant groups that this country recruited, welcomed and supported generations ago, we wouldn’t be the country we are today. Instead of engaging in these knee-jerk responses, Americans two-, three-, four-, and five-generations removed from their ancestral migratory experience should come to the table and find solutions that work in the best interest of the country, while keeping in mind, There but by the grace of God goes my ancestor.

Historically, whenever the United States is experiencing economic difficulties, it has responded with restrictive, oppressive legislation and policies that are punitive to immigrants, especially people of color. This was evident with the slave trade of African immigrants, the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 and the deportation of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression (many of whom were U.S. citizens).

Yet although there has always been anti-immigrant rhetoric, policies and practices–including against the early immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe–eventually these groups have assimilated into the American society. So I ask myself, why have the protracted discrimination and punitive laws against certain groups persisted for such an extended period of time? The answer, I suspect, is that race, color and physical characteristics have prevented these new immigrants from hiding or assimilating. Even if they change their names, they can’t change their skin color, physical characteristics or their race. Immigrants today are punished twice. They are punished for being newcomers and also for their racial and physical appearance.

For these immigrants there is no melting pot. They are denied access to the American society. Every possible obstacle is put in their way when they try to adapt. I realize how fortunate my family was because at that time we arrived in New York, we were not faced with restrictive policies such as Georgia’s HB 87. It could have happened to us. I cannot stand apart from the struggle of today’s immigrant.

Reprinted with permission from MomsRising. Part of a blog carnival accompanying the “We Belong Together” women’s delegation to Georgia September 28-29, which aims to expose human rights violations brought on by Georgia’s anti-immigrant bill HB 87.

Photo from Flickr user Nevele Otseog under Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. Barbara Rivera says:

    What an inspiring story. I am deeply touched by the struggle of the Cummings family. I also fight for immigration rights daily, as I am a first generation immigrant and my students are first and second generation immigrants. Injustice for all no matter what color or religion must stop now. I attach a shimmer of hope I read in the NT times about a possible new immigration law in New York City.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/01/nyregion/law-expected-in-new-york-city-would-hamper-inmate-deportations.html
    Barbara Rivera-Berger

  2. I can relate to the struggle the Cummings family went through and each day I feel what it’s like being an unathorized immigrant in this country. I am part of the 1.5 generation. I was born in another country, entered the US when I was only five years old and have lived here since then. I grew up with two cultures and I am bilingual. The color of my skin is light and so many times people do not believe when I tell them I was not born in this country. I feel very thankful that there are people across the country that understand what it’s like for us new immigrants to live in this country. I feel outraged when I hear individuals complain that the first generation of new immigrants resist to assimilate. They don’t understand how difficult it is to learn a new language at an older age especially a language that is so different from their own. And to top it off they are treated as criminals and disrespected daily.

  3. Mary McCarthy says:

    An important cautionary tale. We should all be paying attention to this outrageous discrimination. Thank you Christiana for being courageous in the sharing of your story and your invitation to all of us to stand up and oppose discrimination in all of its forms.

  4. Maria Garcia-Alcazar says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I appreciate your heart and drive to not stick to the “one story” mindset. In my story, the majority of my family migrated to Northern Ca from Mexico in 1991 in efforts to reach the glorified “American Dream”. Coming from a family of 9 older siblings, and parents reaching 50 years of marriage, as a 5 y.o immigrant, significantly shaped my experience and beliefs at a vulnerable age. Our family at the time living in US that was able to support our family financially to move. The majority of our family entered the country illegally, but fortunately for us, we received our green cards soon after due to the efforts of our family already in the US. During the move I remember being out of money due to corrupt police and soldiers take what we had in order to keep moving forward. Both parents having been raised working to self support, never have beyond an elementary education. In returned, such experience instilled core character characteristics that as an immigrant allowed me to push past barriers and make my own story which stands out next to that of my family. Having had the opportunities to a rich education as the youngest of the family posed a high level of responsibility and pressure to reach the potential my family set for me. Both parents now at 70y.o have not seen a paying job above minimum wage, but have in return made it work for our family and meeting every need we had. During my elementary education I remember feeling shame for being “Mexican” and not having access to better clothing/entertainment. Now as an adult woman in college I understand the power and richness of that experience. I’m looking forward to seeing how this class will help me to better understand the experience my family went through in relation to the political time frame of this country.

  5. Jamie Chosak says:

    My maternal great-grandparents came to the US from Eastern Europe around 1900. As Jews, they were living in a pogram in Grodno in what is now Belarus, then part of Russia. My great-grandfather, Sam, who was a cobbler, decided to leave to avoid being forcibly conscripted in the czar’s army which was at that time engaged in the Russo-Japanese War. As he was already married his wife, Eva, traveled with him. They arrived in Boston and moved almost immediately to Brooklyn where my grandmother was born.

    My paternal great-grandparents, Chaim and Bella, migrated to the US about the same time. I don’t know much about them other than that they came from Russia.

    I also know very little about my father’s parents except that my grandfather, who died when my dad was very young, came from Lithuania and my grandmother from Poland.

    I was very blessed to have the opportunity to travel to Lithuania, Russia and Poland as an adult. As I walked around the Jewish Quarters (or rather remnants of) I imagined my family living there and felt close to them for the first time.

  6. Marsha Foster says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. The challenges faced by immigration can create and arduous journey but for some, like your family it ends in a better life and success. This is motivational and fuels us to fight for a better life away from home, the reason why we are here. Immigration laws have shown some improvement in the level of discrimination and injustices but there are some that have a long way to go. The faces of immigrants are more of color and appears less received by the “adoptive parent country” and is reflected in the public eye through the discussions in the media.

    My story is quite similar to most. My mother and I moved to the Unites States from Jamaica, West Indies in 1997. I was the inspiration for the move. My parents felt the only way they could afford a better life, education and other opportunities for me was if I lived in America. We left my father and a familiar environment behind. My mother gave up her business and all she knew to work in hotels and clean for pennies on the dollar. Through it all she always said it was worth it because I was able to obtain financial aid to attend college. To my mother, this was a trade off the best interest of her only child. My mother never went back to school but supported me as no other. We both worked hard to obtain our dreams. 10 to 14 hour days became frequent for both of us. Things did not come as easy as my mother expected and we worked harder than we expected . America did not bring success through ease and relaxation as my aunt and uncle who came 20 years earlier discribed. The opportunities are greatly appreciated but one thing for sure is the fantasy and the fantastic stories are not real. We both struggled with adjustment to a new place, new faces and feeling out of place. The customs, interaction and family structure were not similar to how my family carries themselves. Even though english is our first language my mother struggled with communication due to her heavy accent. Learning to new pronunciation was a challenge my mother and others from Jamaica faced. 14 years ahead I am working on my Masters and gainfully employed in a field I am passionate about. My mother is retired and enjoying the fruits of her labor. Unfortunaely, my father refused to leave his home regardless of the crime and violence. 5 years ago we buried my father.

  7. Ebony Knowlin says:

    This is my story…

    Growing up, I always wanted to be able to say my family was from somewhere other than the United Stated. I wanted a story other than having ancestors that were slaves forced to come to America. As a child, I though being foreign or having roots in a country other than America was amazing. Being an immigrant, for me was the “thing to be!” I was always fascinated by the accents, the language and the food, of West Indians in particular. As a child, being an immigrant was exotic, and everyone loves exotic.

    As I became older, I began to learn more about the immigrant experience, which quite frankly, is not so exotic. Studying abroad allowed me to feel and experience some of the same feelings immigrants experience when leaving their native homelands. I felt like a foreigner in a strange land when I arrived in Mexico. I had to become accustomed to an environment completely different from my own and the culture shock I experienced was so overwhelming at times. I experienced fear and anxiety of not being accepted and at times wanted to do anything or be with anyone that reminded me of home. Often times, I felt like an intruder. Studying abroad allowed me to experience and appreciate a portion of what immigrants may feel when transitioning to a new country. Studying abroad gave me a new perspective on the not so glamorous aspects of immigration and the immigrant experience.

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