Lily has lived in the United States since 1983. She married here, bore a son here and divorced here. She made a loyal circle of friends here. She has stitched together a productive life in this country, integrating fully into American culture, and in August 2013 she became a citizen. I like to call her a genuine “African-American” because Gambia, a tiny West African country, is her native land.
She embodies the immigrant’s dream, but there is a wrinkle in her story. Her route to citizenship involved laws bent, if not broken; crimped, if not crumpled; ignored, if not rejected. When Lily (not her real name) flew into Washington en route to Atlanta, she entered the country on a tourist visa. She had no intention of returning to Gambia.
The 1980s were years of lax border enforcement, so she was easily able to find a job as a domestic in an Atlanta hotel. She tells a hilarious story about persuading the human resources department that she was a native of the Caribbean, despite having an accent that bears little resemblance to the typical West Indian lilt. No one requested papers.
But she didn’t abuse the privilege. She worked hard. She stayed out of trouble. She acquired a green card — a document indicating legal residency — when she married another Gambian native who had already been naturalized. (I’ve known her for five years, since she became a caregiver in my family.) And she came to love her new land in the ways that so many hopeful immigrants do.
There are millions of people living in this country with stories similar to Lily’s. They have worked hard; they have learned English; they have paid taxes. Why don’t we have the generosity — or, at the very least, the sense of enlightened self-interest — to allow them a route to citizenship, too?
Unlike Lily, however, they have encountered an era of deep resentment toward immigrants, especially those of slightly darker hues. Despite establishing an economic climate that welcomed their labor during the 1990s and early 2000s, we don’t seem to want the rest of their personhood — their families, their possessions, their frailties, their political rights. They have been consigned to the shadows.