Although I have not suffered the agony of navigating my way through this country’s broken immigration system, I have experienced the trauma that it causes by keeping people from the ones they love. It is something I think about as I follow the Fast for Families happening in Washington, D.C., and events across the country in support of commonsense immigration reform.
I am an African-American. Born outside of Minneapolis to immigrant parents from Eritrea, I was well aware of the challenges of the immigrant experience, but it wasn’t until I told my parents about my work on SEIU’s immigration reform campaign that they related to me the details of my mother’s experience living as an undocumented worker for the first few years of my life.
My mother entered the United States after fleeing Saudi Arabia; she was granted a visa to visit my father, who had arrived the year before as a refugee after working at a camp in Sudan. My parents were engaged in Eritrea but separated by the effects of war.
By the time my sister and I were born, our mother’s visa had expired and she was facing deportation. In our culture, it’s nearly sinful to separate young children from their mother, so my parents were struggling with this choice: to keep their children from their mother and raise them in the country they sacrificed so much to reach, or to raise them away from their father in their war-torn homeland.
My father–the very stubborn, but also incredibly smart man that he is–insisted that our family would not be separated. We were very lucky, and my parents had to work harder than most people imagine possible, but we made it. I know if it weren’t for the people before me who fought for the rights of immigrants, people of color and women, I would not have theopportunity to stand up today for the future of my own country.
Since I joined the SEIU immigration reform team, I’ve spent the past few months talking to people about comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. I’ve spoken with people one-on-one, in small groups and in large crowds about immigration reform, and I hear the same few excuses why everyday people like us–even those who consider ourselves a part of the fight for justice–don’t support the immigrant movement that’s happening today.
Sentiments that seek to pit African Americans against African immigrants, such as black Americans and African immigrants don’t get along, strike a nerve with me, because I’m an American, born and raised, by parents who emigrated from Africa, so where do I fall? The face of America is changing, and that change is in part due to the U.S. civil rights movement, which demanded change and justice for all–no matter where we come from. Whether our ancestors were forced from Africa due to the slave trade, religious or political persecution, war or economic reasons, we remain African.
If we connect our common experiences of slavery, colonialism and racism, it’s obvious that we are overcoming the same struggles on several fronts. Those who look to oppress and exploit us spend immense amounts of time, energy and money to keep people at odds with each other, to exaggerate our differences, and to portray our neighbor as “the other” or a “threat.” When we analyze our similarities and look for what unites us, it makes us stronger: a tremendous force against oppression.
We have to bridge the divide between immigrants and U.S. citizens who know the burn of oppression. I grew up hearing and trying to understand stories like mine from family and friends around the country. This is why it is a great responsibility to me–as well as a great honor–to stand up for the 11 million brave, hard-working citizens of the world living and loving in this country and to continue fighting for commonsense immigration reform.
Eden Yosief is a member of the SEIU immigration reform team based in Minnesota. This article originally appeared as a blog post for SEIU.