Who is the American Dream for, anyway? – Katie Mgongolwa

Katie Mgongolwa
Katie Mgongolwa

The day the Trump Administration announced intentions to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), one of my students asked me if I’d heard the news.

“I did hear,” I responded gravely.

My student wrinkled his nose. He told me he supported the repeal, which surprised me, since he was also an immigrant. But as he continued talking, I realized that he thought because his own (legal) entry into the United States was relatively easy, it must be that way for everyone. He had his own valid experiences, but he assumed everyone’s experiences were like his own.

I talked to him a little bit about my husband’s own immigration story. The countless visitor visas we applied for from Tanzania were all rejected; we finally received his visa a few days after our daughter was born.

I think too of DACA recipient Alonso Guillen, who was killed during Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. His mother, who lives in Mexico, won’t be allowed to attend his funeral. This reveals how dehumanizing and arbitrary the immigration process is.

I think of my British friends who mockingly tell stories of becoming U.S. citizens and the famous people they saw at the U.S. Embassy in England. To them, getting a visa and then a citizenship is an anecdote, a process they take for granted.

To some people, the process to enter the United States is easy. To those of us born here, it is unfathomable to be denied access. But what I’ve realized upon listening to my high school student – and others in the community – is that we have failed to see things from others’ point of view and help even when we aren’t ourselves impacted. We are failing to teach our kids how systems and institutions work. It’s beautiful to watch us unite in an urgent, visual crisis liked flooded Houston; what happens to the more long-term crises, like laws and policies that create systemic issues?

I went to the Alerta Migratoria rally in downtown Durham the day DACA’s repeal was announced, and was struck by the common narrative woven in the stories the Dreamers shared with the crowd. Most had come when they were very young, so America was the only home they really knew; they didn’t know they weren’t “American” until they were in high school, needing a Social Security number for a driver’s permit or college application. Thanks to DACA, they had gone on to attend Duke University, Meredith College, NCCU. They had been able to get that driver’s license and assumed all the responsibility of taking family to appointments, jobs, hospital visits. It was clear that DACA had given them a sense of power in their own lives, even if it wasn’t a path to citizenship.

The DACA repeal has shown that exceptionalism and respectability won’t save anyone. DACA recipients are model citizens: 91 percent are employed, and all have a spotless record. They are educated. They came to the United States before the age of 15. DACA helped promote upward mobility; those with DACA make 20 percent to 40 percent more than before DACA. In 2015, 78 percent of DACA recipients said they finally felt safe and like they belonged in the United States. DACA freed them from the stress of deportation, allowed them to invest in their futures and the community, and contribute to the economy through opening businesses, buying homes, purchasing cars, and paying taxes. Even though DACA recipients are often seen as extraordinary, the repeal of the act shows that exceptionalism doesn’t keep anyone safe. It’s time we consider helping others not because of their exceptionalism but because of the sheer fact that they are human. It’s time to move from wondering if someone “deserves” our help to creating a fair and just society that includes all. Compassion shouldn’t be earned.

I’ve learned that the classroom is a good starting point for this. Every day is an opportunity to teach skills in humanity to our future leaders. When that student arrived the day after DACA’s repeal announcement, agreeing with the decision, I asked him why. He struggled to explain his logic. We talked about what DACA was and who benefited. By the end, he was asking new questions: Why would someone repeal DACA?

That, unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for. As Hari Kondabolu said, “Americans hating immigrants is like a body rejecting its own blood.” If we ever want America to be great, we have to shift our views of who is seen as American; otherwise, many of the voices and minds that would make us great are waiting for us on the other side of our borders.  

Katie Mgongolwa is a high school teacher in Durham. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com.