by Lily Kaye
I was waiting to be picked up from Kindergarten, trading Kooky Pens -- a strange fad of pens with painted faces on them -- with my friends. I remember bragging to my friend Fei-Tzin as we traded pens that my dad was an “alien.” To me, this was a hilarious statement, and the word alien had only one meaning-- that of a green, long-limbed creature from outer space. I obviously knew that my 6’ 4” father with blue eyes and brown hair was not a green creature from outer space, yet I enjoyed insinuating that he was. At the time, I had no comprehension that the term “alien” meant that my dad was a foreigner, no understanding of the immigration process, or how lucky he is.
My dad grew up in British Columbia, Canada, and moved to the United States for college. Growing up, I was unaware that he had to do anything special to live in New York City, the only city I have ever lived in. It was not until many years after my Kooky-Pen trading days, once my dad became a citizen of the United States, that I began to contemplate what it means to be an immigrant, to become a citizen, and all that it takes to reach the highly-coveted status of American Citizen.
While my dad made the active choice to move to the United States and later become a citizen, it is a privilege I was merely born into. I take pride in my country, am grateful to be an American citizen, but recognize that my status as a citizen is one that should be coveted, one that so many people yearn for.
My dad’s journey to become an American citizen was longer and more difficult than I thought. He had to prove that he had a job waiting for him in the United States, post the job opening in the newspaper, and go through each application to prove that every American applicant was inferior to him in a meaningful way. He had to endure a physical examination, interviews, and wait a painfully long time for results on a background check. If this is the story of an educated, privileged, white, male, I struggle to truly grasp what other people endure to become citizens. I cannot help but wonder what his experience would have been if he were not a white man.
I remain conflicted about my father’s immigration story. Once, in a history class at Duke University called Immigrant Dreams, American Realities, I was asked to discuss an immigrant that I know, and share something about them and their story with my class. I racked my brain for someone to discuss and settled on my childhood babysitter, Ingrid, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic. It was not until after the class ended that I realized I could have spoken about my own father. I then began pondering why I genuinely did not consider him an immigrant with his own unique immigration story. I think I discounted my dad’s story because he faced relatively minimal strife and is an educated white man whose physical journey to the United States was a short plane ride.
I have begun to wonder how the word immigration can simultaneously apply to his process and that of families separated at the border, or Irish immigrants who were discriminated against, denied work, and raced because of their immigrant status in the 19th century. By using the same word to describe all of these different journeys, does it diminish the struggles that many immigrants face, does it work to equate the comparatively easy journey my father faced with other tragic ones?
About the author:
Lily Kaye was an intern at The Common Good over the summer of 2019, where she worked on updating TCG’s website, conducting research, and organizing events. She is currently an undergraduate at Duke University studying Public Policy and Economics.
At Duke, Lily is a staff writer for a student magazine, The Standard, an Agent at an on-campus leadership program called Duke Launch, and a part of the Outing Club. In Durham, she volunteers at a non-partisan non-profit called Democracy North Carolina which is focused on increasing voter education and turnout in North Carolina.