This week, the Biden administration and Democrat legislators formally released an immigration reform bill that would include an earned pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants and do away with many restrictions on family-based immigration. We can expect a familiar dance to ensue: While Democrats squabble among themselves, Republicans will move heaven and earth to block them. For decades, we’ve been pondering the same questions: What will it take for Congress to finally act? Will we finally be able to give undocumented Americans the ability to look forward and backward, not only to where they’re going but to where they’re from.
In many ways, this nation clips the very wings immigrants came here to fly with. Entrapped, dreams continue to grow nonetheless—possibly with even more force. Jimmy still dreams of returning to Huehuetenango one day. He still dreams of making his mother her favorite meal: a pot of atol de elote, caldo de pollo and hand-made tortillas, he told me. Dominga is now 80 years old and has entirely lost her vision. But even though Jimmy seems to let reality sink in every now and then—subtly acknowledging the likeliness of his mother’s passing before their reunion—he remains as adamant as I was when I missed my parents across the Atlantic Ocean: Counting down the days until they meet again.
Only I have always had a big airplane to take me back to them.
As our country has debated the merits of immigration reform, we’ve grown accustomed to defending undocumented immigrants, like Jimmy, as dollar signs and economic assets, rather than as simple humans deserving of basic dignity. Relegated to the shadows, it’s as if we’ve forgotten that immigrants, too, once led lives under the sun. Before the United States, there were lives lived, memories made, and mothers loved—all sacrificed for the illusion of better opportunities on this side of the border. No one told them that starting over meant surrendering their past. Today, more than half of undocumented immigrants have been here for 10 years or longer, and thousands of Dreamers—those who came here as children—are now in their 30s and 40s. We’ve been trained to reward this longevity as “Americanness,” when really, it was at the expense of their freedom.
So yes, perhaps the most courageous thing Members of Congress can do right now, is the simplest one: Go back to the basics. Perhaps, it’s time they imagine immigrants as that 10-year-old boy that could be sitting directly across them, on their next flight overseas. American passport on one hand, roundtrip ticket on the other. Smiling, as the flight attendant announces the descent.