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What Would Your Immigrant Ancestors Think of the I-Word?

Published on Sat, Sep 10, 2011

Ready to talk about immigration and the i-word?

In the days leading up to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I walked around New York City with Nayana Sen and Leigh Thompson, asking people what they thought about immigration and the slurs too often used to describe immigrants today. We started out at Battery Park, where people take ferries out to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The site is part of the Immigration and Civil Rights Sites of Conscience Network, committed to use historical perspective in order to stimulate ongoing local and national conversations on immigration and its related issues, promote humanitarian and democratic values, and treat all audiences as stakeholders in the immigration dialogue.

Inspired by the Sites of Conscience’s work, we asked people what they knew about their families’ roots in the U.S., what they thought about how immigrants are treated now and whether or not they agree with use of the i-word to describe people.

In most of our pre-interviews, people wanted to be on camera—but as soon as we said “immigration,” we got confused looks, artful turn-downs and fast walkers. It was a reality check about how unprepared and uncomfortable a lot of people feel when faced with this urgent topic.

For those of us who are ready to talk about immigration, it’s important to share what we know and not to assume we all have the same information. The next time someone says to you that this is a “country of immigrants,” remind them of the contributions of American Indians and black people who were enslaved. Explain to them that until the late 19th century, federal oversight of immigration didn’t exist and there were virtually no laws to break. There was no border surveillance and people didn’t need to obtain visas before entering. As the Immigration Policy Center put it, “immigrants would simply arrive at ports of entry, such as Ellis Island and other seaports to be inspected, and then would be allowed in if they didn’t fall into any of the excluded categories.”

Published in the Colorlines | Read Article