On that freezing December day when I landed at JFK Airport, this is what I noticed first: There were many brown and taupe and black people standing behind and ahead of me in the immigration queue. A 24-year-old from a then-99 percent Caucasian country, I was startled by such racial diversity. But back then — 1986 — I lumped the lot of us into the same color-blind category: immigrants.
I see now just how naive I was.
What a shock... to discover that some of my American-born acquaintances never thought of me as an immigrant.
Eighteen months after arriving in America — and 18 months and eight hours after I had promised my weeping mother that I would be home soon — I assured a nice town judge that the marriage vows I was about to exchange with a tall American man were not a scam to snag a green card.
Ten years on, as my husband and I toasted our wedding anniversary, I still had no long-range plans to be a permanent U.S. immigrant. But by the time we’d marked 20 years together, I had conceded in my head and in my heart that I had become — and would remain — one of America’s almost 40 million (the number has grown higher since 2008) immigrants -- 13 percent of the U.S. population.
What a shock, then, to discover that some of my American-born acquaintances never thought of me as an immigrant. Consider the dinner party guest who ranted about free-loading immigrants while passing me the meat platter. In response, I cited history. Did he know, I wondered aloud, that the first U.S. census to collect data on the birth countries of its residents — in 1850 — reported 2.2 million, or 10 percent, of the population as being foreign born. And the flesh-and-blood people behind those numbers? His forebears — and mine.
He dismissed my umbrage. His wife leaped to his defense. “Oh, not you!” they said. “We weren’t talking about you!”
Of course they weren’t. They were talking about those brown and taupe and black people who stood next to me, and who have stood there since, in immigration queues at airports all over the country.
During another dinner party diatribe, one guest took me aside to say, “When we talk like that, we don’t mean you. I mean, you’re…” He twirled a hand in the air.
“English speaking? White?” I asked.
Then there was that day when I was trading in my used Honda hatchback. “He might buy it,” the garage man said, nodding across the parking lot at a young man in a blue shirt bearing the garage’s name and logo. “Them Brazilian immigrants, they don’t care what they drive, so long as they can pay cash.”
The garage owner assumed that we were in cahoots, and that I, like him, pronounced “immigrant” in the third-person, and with derision.
I...didn’t know that, as a pale, freckled Irish girl, my burden of proof would be less onerous, less mired in suspicion and accusation, than that borne by my brown and taupe and non-Euro counterparts.
When otherwise thoughtful people turn rabid xenophobe, when they re-write their own family’s arrival here and the history of the United States to disparage the latest wave of newcomers seeking better lives, they may not mean me. I am certain they do not mean to insult me. But they do. They insult me and my immigrant tribe, all of us.
On landing day, there was another thing that I didn’t know about America. I didn’t know that we immigrants carry with us a burden of proof — of our intentions, our worthiness to be here, of our industriousness — as long as that industriousness is not toiling at or taking another’s job. I also didn’t know that, as a pale, freckled Irish girl, my burden of proof would be less onerous, less mired in suspicion and accusation, than that borne by my brown and taupe and non-Euro counterparts.