Until recently, there was a political consensus about immigration in America, and it went something like this: We are a nation of immigrants, made stronger by our diversity. While Democrats and Republicans may have differed about how to regulate the flow of newcomers to our shores, thought leaders across the spectrum, from John F. Kennedy to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, have embraced immigration as an integral component of America's greatness.
Immigrants, Ronald Reagan once said, “didn't ask what this country could do for them but what they could do to make this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history. They brought with them courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom."
Under President Trump, the rhetoric—and policy—have been turned upside down. The proposed Mexican border wall, the Muslim travel ban, the separation of families on the border—now immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, are despised by the most powerful person in our government and his allies.
We Are Witnesses: Becoming an American, a film series created and produced by The Marshall Project, seeks to reclaim the narrative around immigration. By letting people tell their own harrowing, sad and inspiring stories, we are given entry into their worlds. We meet the Russian asylum seeker persecuted in their native country on account of sexual preference; the family torn apart after a father is deported to Ecuador after living in the U.S. for nearly two decades; a Honduran teen risking his life to flee across the Mexican border; and a Yemeni-American shopkeeper who organizes his community to protest the Muslim travel ban. We are taken inside the system by an immigration judge, an advocate and a Border Patrol agent. And we learn what it is like to live under fear of deportation and to experience the joy of being sworn in as a citizen. Together, these stories help us understand what it is like, away from the headlines, to become an American today.
America's immigration policies have always been double-edged, and the current fear-mongering is certainly not new. The Statue of Liberty perched in New York Harbor is one of the most powerful symbols on the planet; it still represents the hopes and dreams of millions of people over two centuries who have found refuge here and achieved better lives for themselves and their families. And yet, our country was also built on the backs of Africans brought against their will. At various moments, we blocked Chinese, Jews and southern Europeans from our shores—often when they were most in peril in their home countries. And we interned Japanese-Americans during World War ll.
We have, in other words, always been a nation of contradictions. We Are Witnesses: Becoming an American reminds us of the steep price many are still willing to pay to leave their countries of birth to live in the United States. Theirs are the faces of struggle and disappointment but also of old-fashioned American patriotism.