America, we need to talk.
I was born in paradise, on the beautiful island of Jamaica. I was born a British subject, and Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II was the ultimate head of my church and state. Because I was brought up speaking the Queen’s English, and was a bookish kid to boot, words have always mattered to me. Conflating similar yet different terms may win you cheap rhetorical points, but it really ticks off this grammar nerd.
People who say “immigrant” without specifying legal or illegal aren’t arguing for a distinction without a difference; they’re trying to trick you into believing something that’s just not true.
America was always a glamorous plane ride away from my young life in Kingston. The United States was a land of plenty. It’s where we flew to shop for toys and fabric to make our clothes. To my 11-year-old self, Americans chewed gum and spoke with a funny twang, and pointed out the overhead compartments and emergency exits. I loved imitating them, but never imagined I could become one of them.
One day, my paradise crumbled. Mobs ruled the streets and terrified the adults, and America became the emergency exit for my family. We had to leave so much behind. It was a strange time to parachute into 7th grade at St. Rose of Lima School—where I had to diagram sentences and stop putting the letter “u” in color and honor.
To add to the discomfort of showing up as one of the very few non-Catholic kids in the middle of the school year, and not knowing the Pledge of Allegiance and being terrified the nuns would find out, on my first day of school I raised my hand to ask an innocent question that made sense in English English, but turned out to be rather awkward phrasing in American English: “Excuse me, does anyone have a rubber I can borrow?” (It means “eraser” in British English.) Those synonyms turn out to have distinctly different meanings in and out of the Commonwealth.
Awkward. But I learned.
But this is also why I, and many legal immigrants, have our hackles raised by the facile substitution of “immigrant” to cover both resident and illegal aliens.
The movement that almost broke my country and added to the Jamaican diaspora was Democratic Socialism, which has failed everywhere it’s been tried. It drove us out of paradise. At the end of the day, mob rule is incompatible with idyll. My family landed as Green Card holders (the colloquial term for resident aliens) in the United States of America in 1976—the bicentennial year—and red, white, and blue was everywhere.
Providing a pathway to citizenship to someone whose very first act upon stepping on American soil was to break the law is like setting up a pathway to homeownership for the lovely couple who broke into your house.
America isn’t for everyone. I didn’t fall in love with her right away, Bicentennial fireworks notwithstanding. The freedom to choose your own path is liberating . . . and scary. The responsibility to improve the lives around you is enlightening; and sobering. The right to speak freely is exhilarating, and makes you vulnerable.
Over time, I learned that America always picks herself up, dusts herself off, and reaches out a hand to help the other player off the floor. When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, Americans open their hearts and their wallets and are at the ready to board a plane to help.
I now look at the American flag and my heart bursts with pride. The story of this country and its founding is a miracle. And so, at the turn of the century, I became an American citizen. I am no longer a subject. I took an oath “that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
Not everyone who emigrates here feels the same way. Some arrivals are purely transactional in nature—“give me a safe place to stay and I’ll pay taxes and behave but I’m not falling in love with you.” That’s OK. It’s why the law provides for resident aliens to come to the country and participate in her freedoms without taking the ultimate step of becoming citizens.
Which is why people who arrive without bothering to even fill out a form or come through a legal point of entry are doing the wrong thing. Tossing citizenship around like Halloween candy is grossly offensive to those of us who jumped through all the hoops, waited in all the lines, and took all the tests.
I can understand the impetus to want to help everyone—it’s very American, after all. But providing a pathway to citizenship to someone whose very first act upon stepping on American soil was to break the law is like setting up a pathway to homeownership for the lovely couple who broke into your house. Words matter.
Americans, like no other people in the world, can do and be anything. There’s no caste system here. You can start at the bottom and work your way to the top and vice versa. Even better, you get to choose what is top and bottom for you. You get to spend your treasure and your time however you want. From Figure 8 races and demolition derbies in Jackson Hole, to swimming with dolphins in Key West, you get to do you. I’ve gone from a scared new immigrant who didn’t know that Americans had different words for things like erasers to a college graduate to a corporate event planner to a working actress to a mother of four and a one-time political candidate.
I love America and its miraculous founding, and every day I see people claiming that this country isn’t that great. Clearly, lots of you don’t know how good you have it. Robby Starbuck is a friend and filmmaker who also rejects what he calls “linguistic tricks” and who, as a Cuban American, appreciates and loves this country. He produced a love letter which his talented musician wife, Matriarch, did the music for and our fervent hope is that it reminds us all what this country is really all about.
There’s only one thing I can’t be as a naturalized American citizen. I can’t be president. But I sure can be a participant. As I eventually learned to say every morning at St. Rose of Lima, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Watch this love letter, and then please participate—peacefully—in the electoral process.
May God continue to bless the United States of America.
[i] Rubber, n. Eraser. Item to rub out one’s written mistakes.