Loving America

This morning two people will publish their stories in WINN.
We are all in these troubled times together and we need to be able to see ourselves clearly and to walk in another’s shoes (Gilah’s post) and we need to confront fear and to move forward in our country with love and hope (Pablo’s post).

By Pablo Roa

Donald Trump has bent the dream that brought me to this country. Here’s why he hasn’t broken it.

August 17th of this year was the four-year anniversary of when I became a U.S. citizen. I had it on my calendar and knew it was coming, but it was the same week as the Democratic National Convention and I didn’t have time to process what that day had meant. And, in the middle of a global pandemic that’s being intentionally mishandled by an increasingly authoritarian political regime, I certainly didn’t have a lot of reasons to celebrate. But after watching every second of the 2020 convention – every speech, every tribute, every act of hope – I couldn’t help but think about that day four years ago.

I had waited 15 years to become a citizen. And when the day finally came, I was overwhelmed with hope and joy. Barack Obama’s name would be on my certificate. My first vote would be for the first woman president. Our complicated country was changing for the better – and fast. When I raised my right hand and took my oath, I did so under the unwavering belief that I was not only living through American history, but I was a product of it. That this country – and only this country – would give me the opportunity to learn, work, and make the world a better place.

Roughly 45 seconds after becoming a citizen, I registered to vote. And a few months later, the whole world went to pieces. In my defense, I was 19. But I wasn’t completely naïve. I was deeply aware of the privilege that I’d had that day. I knew that it was sheer luck and circumstances that allowed me to become a citizen in the first place. I knew that over 11 million people in this country couldn’t do what I’d just done. I knew that it would take my parents several more years to become citizens, and that for many friends and family members, that day might never come. If you aren’t familiar with U.S. immigrations laws and the naturalization process, you might think waiting 15 years is as bad as it gets. But the truth is, I had it easy because of the type of visa I was fortunate enough to have.

I joke that it’s on-brand for me that the value of my new passport plummeted as soon as I got it. Almost immediately we elected the guy who quickly made us a global laughingstock. Now we’re banned from pretty much every country in the world. Classic. But the irony ends there. The global prestige of U.S. citizenship may have faded, but the domestic consequences of non-citizenship have only gotten worse.

Countless policy choices and stoked fears have made this “nation of immigrants” very difficult to live in for anyone who wasn’t born here,
and for anyone who isn’t straight, white, and male. It is important to acknowledge that some of the anti-immigrant practices either started in or were maintained by the Obama administration. But the immigrant experience has gotten exponentially worse under the current president. The immigrant experience has deteriorated for all of us, but it is imperative that non-Black immigrants (like myself) acknowledge all the ways that the system is designed to hurt Black people more than anyone else. They face a greater risk of deportation. They are more likely to be detained and less likely to be released. They’re more likely to be put in solitary confinement and less likely to be granted asylum. And, of course, Black immigrants face the same systemic racism and police brutality that all Black Americans experience.

If all of that wasn’t enough, we’re now living through a pandemic that is disproportionately killing more Black and Latino Americans, an economic recession that disproportionately affects Black and Latino Americans, and a mediocre government response that has purposely excluded immigrants at every step. U.S. citizenship has always been an exclusive club, but now it’s becoming a prerequisite for survival in our country. So, yeah, the world has gone to shit, but no, I haven’t lost that sense of hope I had four years ago.

Last year while working on the Pete Buttigieg campaign, I was at a town hall in Iowa where a man named Rick asked a question about immigration. He said he’d come to America 25 years ago and that he loved this country. He also said it was getting harder to live here and that,
“Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re really welcome.”
How deeply broken are we as a country when someone who has contributed to his community for 25 years, doesn’t feel welcome?

I was listening to his question from the press riser and every word he said was painful. It was one of those paradoxes in working for a political campaign, fighting for a better world but seeing a world that is so broken that you start to wonder if the fight is worth fighting. I could feel my cynicism bubbling. I’d had a similar feeling a few months earlier in New Hampshire. I was energized from the events, inspired by the voters – feeling like we were doing something, making a real impact. Then I got a message from my mother that she and my aunt had been harassed by a white woman. They’d been walking the dog when he barked at a moving car. A woman nearby immediately yelled at my mom because, according to her, the bark from our 12-pound dog had scared her daughter (who was nowhere near the dog). My mom, one of the kindest people on the planet, profusely apologized. But the apology seemed to make the woman angrier. She followed my mom and aunt, loudly shouting, “You scared my daughter!” She wasn’t just angry, she was unhinged. My mom speaks just about perfect English, but with an accent – like most people who learn English as a second language. It was clear her accent had rubbed the woman the wrong way. My heart sank as I read her texts. And my blood boiled. Then I wondered what the hell was the point of what I was doing. If our world was so broken that my mom couldn’t even walk the dog in a deep blue, affluent neighborhood without being accosted – could an election really change anything?

I was so lost in my thoughts that I almost missed Pete’s really good answer to Rick’s question. He said he thinks of those who come to this country not as getting a favor, but as bearing a gift. But it wasn’t Pete’s answer that has stuck with me – it was the way the crowd responded. While lost in my whirlwind of cynicism I had also felt fear that the majority white audience in this majority-white town in this majority-white state might not respond well to Rick, fear that someone in the crowd might hear his accent and respond like the angry white woman had to my mom.

Now, I’ve been discriminated against plenty of times in my life – for my name, for the country I was born in, for the “free things” I get because I’m an immigrant, for being “lazy,” for being “surprisingly articulate.” But I’ve written them off as isolated incidents. I was convinced that they didn’t represent what was in the hearts and minds of most Americans. I remained hopeful in the promise of this country, flawed as it is. But this day was different. Some combination of Rick’s question, the endlessly dark news cycle, and the memories his question raised, made that hope fade away. It was replaced by cynicism. And anger. And fear that I hadn’t had four years earlier. Fear that Trump’s America was very real – that it was all around us, that we couldn’t escape it, and that we certainly couldn’t defeat it.

It took about 30 seconds for my high level of cynicism to disappear. When Pete finished his answer, the crowd jumped to its feet. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was cheering. And it wasn’t for Pete – it was for Rick. They were showing him that he belongs. They were showing him that they heard him, and that they cared.

Fear, anger, cynicism, are emotions that drive Trump’s America. That day I almost let them get me. I was so emotional that I didn’t listen to what Rick was really asking. He wasn’t asking for pity. He wasn’t criticizing his community. He wasn’t asking other people to get angry, because he wasn’t angry. He said he loved his country: he was asking what he could do to fix it. His question was full of hope. I didn’t choose to become a citizen because this country is perfect. I chose to become an American because this country can be perfected.

I’ll never blame anyone for not feeling hopeful. We’re living through a deadly pandemic. Systemic racism is only getting worse. Millions are struggling to make ends meet, and we are barreling towards a climate disaster that will make our current crises seem manageable. So, when someone thinks about voting and asks, “What’s the point?” I don’t blame them. We’re living in dark, dark times.

But I will always make the case for hope. After asking, “What’s the point?”, I’ve found that the point is that my mother could text her immigrant son who was traveling with a presidential candidate who’s fighting to fix it. The point is that Rick wasn’t giving up. He went to a town hall meeting and asked, “How can we fix it?”

It’s been four years since I became a citizen and I still feel the hope I felt that day. I’m not ignoring that Trump’s America can and does exist, but I’m convinced that this country is better than that.  I will continue to work every single day to make this country better.

This November, the last word is ours. The fight to make this country live up to its promise will be long, and it won’t be easy. But, it will be possible. And that is the point.

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Pablo Roa is a political writer, video producer, and storyteller. You can find his work at pabloroa.com and you can contact him on Twitter @_PabloRoa.

This story was first published on Medium:

The image that accompanies this post is “Flag” from Piquels.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful – Inspirational – Providing Hope in an otherwise dismal world!!!! Thank you Pablo!!!!!

  2. Ellen carroll says:

    Thank you for two uplifting stories against what often feels like doom.
    The truth is everything happens for a reason, good and love are the answers and will be , yet it takes the dark sometimes to shine light on those truths.
    While it seems impossible America could dissolve so inside out, opposite of all we held dear and thought others did too..only to find so many welcoming these negatives. The good thing is we will pull together, we will get stronger, the youth will have a reason to get involved and understand why their voices are so important to use.
    “If not us, who..if not now, when” in the wise words of John Lewis.

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