Identity and Equity

What Every American Should Know About the Immigrant Experience

September 14, 2020  • Araceli Hernandez

What should every American know? This question has long been debated, discussed, and deliberated. And while answers need to come from all of us—not just a powerful few—young people have often been excluded from these conversations. A partnership between Chicago Public Schools and the Aspen Institute’s program on Citizenship and American Identity aims to change that. Together they seek to elevate youth perspectives, beliefs, and values as vital to our national conversation of civic purpose. 

The following blog is part of our series featuring perspectives from Chicago young people, interrogating and exploring key terms identified by Chicago Public School Participate Civics students. See the list of terms here.

Araceli Hernandez is a 10th-grade student at Marie Sklodowska Curie Metropolitan High School located in the Archer Heights neighborhood of Chicago.

Constantly being told repulsive comments, not being paid the same as others, having to work twice as hard for the same job—these are things some Mexican immigrants have to live with on a daily basis. As a daughter of immigrant parents, I have seen and heard the many negative assumptions people make about immigrants and have felt disappointment and anger. Both my parents are from a beautiful ranch in Mexico called “El Colorado.” In 1999, they decided to come to the United States because they sought better opportunities and a better life not only for them but for their children.

My parents are food vendors and I accompany them to work in the summer and during school breaks. Sometimes there are people who simply want to slam us with rude slurs. I have heard them say things like “go back to your country” or “you don’t belong here” or “all you do is add to the trash.” Hearing those words makes my heart ache and angers me because my parents work hard—day and night—to give me a better life than they ever had. I see them wake up every day at six in the morning and come back home at around nine at night. They don’t deserve this ugly treatment simply because they weren’t born in the US. My mom and I continue on with our work, smile at these people, and say, “I hope you have a great day.” I find it pointless to exchange insults with ignorance. Immigrants are not “aliens” just because they are from a different country.

We have allowed the government to make decisions that harm immigrants, and it will continue to do so if we don’t change our mindsets.

In the past and even today, immigrants have been labeled by those who seek to dehumanize or other them. One such name was “the know-nothings.” The Know-Nothings were an anti-immigration political party in the 1850s. They chose to name themselves “The Know-Nothings” because they claimed that when they asked immigrants questions, they would reply that they knew nothing. This name is harmful to the image of Mexican immigrants because, at first glance, it suggests that immigrants are brainless.

Throughout history, groups have formed against immigrants in the name of a false sense of American identity or patriotism.

Similarly, a case called Plyler v. Doe (1982) aimed to create more challenges for immigrants by allowing states to deny public education to students based on their immigration status. Those same types of ignorant people who refer to immigrants as brainless also try to deny us knowledge. These roadblocks continue to be unfair and limit opportunities for those seeking acceptance and fair treatment. But thanks to the ruling on that case, public education can no longer be denied to any person based on their immigration status. Little by little, we can fight for immigrant rights, and show the world that immigrants just want to be treated like humans.

Throughout history, we see groups forming against immigrants who seek better chances, in the name of a false sense of American identity or patriotism. Immigrants are not “job stealers” or stealers of your education. Why not think of them as ambitious people who are simply asking for basic human rights—not people you need to be protected from? As time moves forward, we must change our mindset about how our democracy works—and who that includes—in order to give every person an equal chance at life. My parents didn’t immigrate here for more roadblocks, they came for the security. And by security, I don’t mean the Secure Fence Act of 2006, a Congress-approved 1.2-billion-dollar fence between the Mexico and US border.

Let us create a country where there is less hate. One where we are able to bring people together and be more considerate of everyone’s circumstances. Immigrants are not here to steal jobs, education, or add to this country’s problems. They come here starting from scratch in search of job security or education that will help get them on their feet. Native-born Americans should know more about the full story of our immigrant experience. Know that we are not different because of where we come from, but rather, we all seek a better life and equal opportunities that lead to happiness and peace. If we could all come to realize that, maybe this country would be a lot stronger as we all work on improving it together.

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