The allure of the United States to immigrants has always been rooted in an illusive American dream. In the 20th century, the vision of a utopian America was neatly packaged in iconic Coca-Cola bottles and glossy Hollywood films and exported to the world. Despite a long history of racism towards new arrivals, the US has steadfastly welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The American project offers a new beginning, an equal playing field, and unlimited opportunity *Terms and Conditions Apply.
In the early 1980s, my father booked a one way flight from Aeroporto di Roma-Ciampino to SFO. He would soon meet my mother who flew via Mehrabad International to start anew in California. They fell in love in an unfamiliar land, got married in a familiar Assyrian church, and the rest – as they say – is history. Fast forward to the 1990s and my sister and I were born at Kaiser Hospital in San José. The Clinton era and dot com boom defined a decade of prosperity and for a moment i’m sure it seemed to my parents that America was making good on its promises. The Coca-Cola tasted refreshing. Life was a Hollywood film.
However after a century of welcoming families like mine with open arms, today it seems as though Lady Liberty has decided to cross them. The Trump administration has repeatedly said there is no longer room at the inn. This is of course putting it mildly. Instead of offering even a stable to those most in need of shelter, the US offers cages for children, travel bans to students, and separation for families. In addition to advancing anti-immigrant policies, the current government continues to spew racist rhetoric towards Americans with Asian, African, Middle-Eastern and Hispanic heritage and has consistently shown utter disregard for Black lives. The post-war American project has been tested to its limits, and the key to its survival lies in those who still believe in it most – immigrants and their families.
“Nardin jaan, did you know she was born in Kaiser hospital in the Bay Area? Just like you” my father excitedly tells me over face time. My dad was referring to Kamala Harris, the first woman of color to ever be on a US presidential ticket of a major political party. Like me, Harris is a lifelong Californian. Born at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, and a child of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, Harris grew up in the Bay Area and returned to study at UC Hastings, launching her political career in San Francisco. Harris has long embraced her background as both a Black and Indian woman, sharing inspiring stories on the campaign trail about why representation matters. My dad’s remark and the hope in his tone reminds me that Harris’ significance doesn’t stop at her representation for women of color, but extends to millions of first generation Americans. Should Harris reach the White House, her position reassures every immigrant parent that their countless sacrifices were not in vain. That despite working too hard for too little, despite relearning and converting degrees, despite navigating intimidating bureaucracies, despite enduring casual racism and the uphill battle of life in a new country, that their children will have the opportunities they were promised after all.
As Harris assumes the role of the poster child for first generation Americans, she also reminds the rest of the nation that immigrants are what make our country excel in the first place. In this way she perfectly represents her constituency as the junior Senator from California. If ever there was an American dream realized, it can be found in the Golden State. California not only has the largest economy of any other state, but if it were its own country, would be the fifth largest economy in the world (recently surpassing the U.K. and France). Not coincidentally, the state also has the largest share of foreign born residents; nearly one in three Californians is an immigrant. In an era of rising xenophobia, Harris repeatedly reminds the country what Californians already know to be true: that our state’s openness and its prosperity go hand in hand. In her own biography she makes it clear that her personal successes have not been achieved in spite of her first generation background, but because of it.
Kamala Harris is more than just a figure head for identity politics, her awareness and respect for where she comes from shines through her policy agenda. Her vision for the country is one “in which everyone could see themselves”. As a person of color, she knows that PoC are at the front lines of our climate crisis, which is why she co-sponsored the Green New Deal. As a Californian, she knows that all immigrants, documented or otherwise, are hard working and tax paying neighbors that deserve healthcare no matter what, which is why she sponsored Bernie Sander’s Medicare for All bill. Having been raised by two educators, she knows that the classroom should be the safest place for a child, which is why she plans to ban assault weapons. In her household, like in so many of ours, nothing matters more than family, which is why she pledges to fight for a minimum of 6 months paid family leave. Finally, Harris doesn’t just understand our nation’s diversity, she embodies it. She knows the vast potential immigrants and their children hold and won’t just fight for us, but with us. She understands first hand the inanity of travel bans and border walls and pledges to provide a path to citizenship to millions of immigrants that are eager to fan the flickering flame of the American dream.
When I first entered college as a teenager and proudly proclaimed to my grandmother that I decided to major in Political Science, she kissed me and told me that her grandson, the American, would be President one day. I wiped off her lipstick from my cheeks and rolled my eyes. Presidents aren’t born in Kaiser Hospitals, educated at public UC’s, or born to immigrant parents, I thought to myself. Many years later, and while I have no plans to run for any public office, Harris assures me (and my grandma) that all of those things are indeed possible. In the last four years, the US has fallen behind in nearly every way. It is difficult to counter Joe Biden’s claim that under Trump “the US has become weaker, sicker, and poorer”. Harris provides hope to this divided and isolated American reality because Kamala Harris is the future. The future is female, the future is black & brown, the future is bilingual, the future is first generation, the future is bright – if we allow it to be.
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Photos in order of appearance
1. Protesters hold up signs during a “Caravan of Love” walk in support of immigrants and refugees in Minneapolis, Minn., Feb 2017. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue/flickr/cc)
2. Supporters of President Donald Trump rally before his visit to tour border wall prototypes in San Diego, Calif., on March 13, 2018, via David McNew
3. Kamala Harris, left, with her sister Maya and mother Shyamala. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)
4. Kamala Harris, front center, with, her grandparents, sister, Maya, mother, Shyamala Gopalan, in 1972. (Joe Biden campaign via The New York Times)