President Trump recently tweeted that four congresswomen should “go back” to where they came from. Of course, three of them were born in the United States.
Still,the irony is that the United States can’t afford to lose its immigrants.
When I was 12 or 13, my father and I were helping my mother take the trash to the curb. She was the housekeeper of a beachfront home in Naples, Florida, and was finishing up for the day. A pickup truck pulled up next to Dad, and a chorus of young white men began to scream, “Go back to Vietnam, you gook!”
My Chinese father turned away, seething in silence. This was the late 1970s, when the nightly news ran stories about the Vietnamese “boat people.” In that moment, I learned that any Asian was fair game for xenophobic vitriol.
My family’s immigration story began when my grandfather came to the United States from China in the 1920s to better provide for his new wife and child back home, even if it meant being separated from them. The Chinese Exclusion Act made it impossible for him to enter legally, so he came in through Mexico.
When my father got older, my grandfather wanted him to have opportunities — education, work, freedom — that didn’t exist in rural Guangzhou. He asked a Chinese-American friend to claim my father as his own, and Dad arrived in San Francisco when he was 16. (Unfortunately, because of U.S. laws and the Communist Revolution, my grandmother wasn’t able to reunite with her husband for another 30 years).
My father took the name “Frank.” He enlisted in the Army during World War II and then in the Korean War. This “gook” earned a Bronze Star for bravery, something he was too humble to boast about. Occasionally Dad could be cajoled into talking about his service. He would chuckle as he described how he was dispatched to run communication lines in a remote area in Korea and came under heavy fire. He said he single-handedly held the enemy off throughout the night until backup arrived a day later.
Frank went on to marry my Cuban mother, Lucia, who has her own immigration story. Together, they raised three daughters, bought a home, paid taxes.
Although he was proud of his Chinese heritage, my father loved America and its traditions. He took us to the July 4 fireworks on the beach, the annual Swamp Buggy Parade, decked the house with Christmas lights and always voted. Dinner at our house was never complete without rice, but my dad started his day with oatmeal and coffee — and a doughnut if my mother wasn’t looking.
Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college, and they wanted their kids to have what they missed. Each worked several jobs to afford sending my twin sisters and me to private school and provide us with piano, ballet and art lessons. I went on to get an MFA from the University of Maryland and then a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. My sisters Denise and Daniela rose in their respective professions in real-estate development and fashion marketing.
Ours isn’t a unique story. Almost every American has an immigrant past, and our aspirations, sacrifices and contributions are inextricably intertwined. Each wave of immigrants — Irish, Germans, Italians — also endured cries of “go back.” Their customs and religious beliefs were seen as a threat to the American identity. Yet they stayed, and our country is better for it.
Immigrants, through their sacrifices and contributions, hold America accountable to its ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
At the core of “go back” is a belief that immigrants (and their American-born offspring) are only here to take jobs, exploit the social support system and destroy “the American way of life.” What Trump and his followers fail to recognize is that the United States is indebted economically to them. Several reports cited in a November 2018 PBS article found that immigrants contribute more taxes than they use in government benefits, boost employment sectors, and their children are more productive citizens.
With immigrants coming from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, some Americans are once again alarmed by “other” cultures coming to our shores and, in particular, hate how our country is becoming browner. Like foolishly staring into the sun, they’re blinded by their own fear and bigotry. They can’t see how these newcomers also share the American Dream, which is ultimately about fulfilling one’s potential. After all, the United States is one of the few countries where people, like my grandfather, father and mother, can arrive with little in their pockets and still improve their lives, their family’s lives and their adopted homeland as well.
The truth is, no matter how ugly, racist or loud these taunts are, there is no going back. This country simply can’t afford to lose immigrants’ contributions. Once Trump, and those who share his corrosive mindset, recognize this, they will see that America is moving forward, with or without them.
Katarina Wong is program manager for the Arts Administration program at Columbia University, an artist and arts writer. She is writing a memoir about her Cuban, Chinese and American heritages.