When you think of America, what is the first thing that comes to mind? If I ask the old me—the 11-year-old me, to be specific—I would probably have responded with baseball and hot dogs. However, maturing and moving to Brandeis University has allowed me to see life through a bigger scope. I have become more aware of the cultural and ethnic differences that not only form our student body, but affect how many of us think of America today: as a diverse, growing and cohesive population.
Throughout this week, which is Immigration Awareness Week, I ponder the question of why some people still refuse to accept the new generations of immigrants. Why is everyone not open to the idea of new people arriving to the United States? Most immigrants come to the United States chasing the American dream, a better life. Although it may sound cliché, there are still closed-minded and exclusive forms of thinking toward undocumented immigrants, so much so that it must signify that the claim has not reached enough ears in order to become a cliché itself. Despite it being ludicrous, I cannot avoid linking the perception from some students that undocumented immigrants do not belong in the United States to the early history of this nation. Is that not what the first immigrants were searching for when they decided to settle in this unexplored land a few centuries ago? A better life?
I have come to realize that the subject is as polarizing here at Brandeis as it is out there in the rest of the world. The other day, I was studying near the Starbucks area in Farber, sitting at one of the desks that have the green lamps. It was the night of the presidential debate and some people were tuning in with their laptops while they were doing homework. The person in front of me started a conversation with other two people about immigration. This person referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegal” and said rhetorically, “Why do they even come here? Can’t they just go back to their country?”
Some people would view this little scene as innocuous and perhaps of little importance. Nonetheless, as a Latino with an immigrant background, I found it offensive for distinct reasons. First, how can a person be considered “illegal?” Is there such thing? The correct term should be “undocumented immigrant.” Secondly, a big percentage of the people who immigrate to the United States annually are forced to escape persecution, blackmailing or deadly threats, or experience extreme poverty or violence back in their homeland. You cannot generalize; you do not know everyone’s story. They have limited choices, one of them being desperately forced to seek refuge in other countries, and some chose the United States as their destination. Whether this society wants to accept them or not is reflected in our daily actions.
Around this time last year, one of the events during Immigration Awareness Week included posting different human silhouettes all over Usdan. Inside each cut-out was descriptive information about the individual who happened to be an undocumented immigrant, in an attempt to humanize the faces of undocumented immigrants. The response from the Brandeis community was overwhelmingly negative. The students, specifically the members of the Brandeis Immigration Education Initiative (BIEI)—who planned the event—were perplexed and shocked over the lack of tolerance from the university, an institution that highly values social justice. The silhouettes were torn apart and offensive comments were written on them. Most of the comments were atrocious, such as, “Go back to the country that you belong to.” Our ignorance toward this particular subject was made visible along with our lack of inclusiveness.
I do not want to generalize and paint only a pessimistic perspective on the subject. As a matter of fact, the BIEI club is an example that there are people at Brandeis who understand or desire to understand the difficult plight of marginalized undocumented immigrants. Since the beginning of the semester, BIEI has been able to grow out of its initial underdog status. It has earned momentum and the support it’s needed and deserved from the very beginning; in addition, it recently was able to become officially part of the Intercultural Center.
I have been fortunate enough to attend several of the events they’ve hosted and have been able to witness the genuine interest that some Brandeisians feel about the subject. The attendance varies from students with immigrant backgrounds to people who have relatives or friends who are undocumented, or simply people who are curious and yearn to educate themselves more on the subject. Perhaps I should invite the ignorant individual I encountered the other day at the library: Perhaps I needed to control my ire, and in lieu of immediately abandoning the scene, I should have invited her to one of the BIEI meetings. After all, ignorance is curable.