Thanu Yakupitiyage is currently working on The New York Immigration Coalition’s “With The Stroke of A Pen” campaign, which asks people to send President Obama a pen with which to sign an order that would halt the record-level deportations tearing thousands of families apart. She shares her experience and talks about identifying both with her community in Brooklyn, New York, and with the communities where she grew up in South and Southeast Asia.
“My experience of the immigration system in this country is that there are inadequate pathways to be able to live here if you are a foreign national. It’s also an extremely classist system in which those who are valued for having certain ‘highly technical’ skills … are provided with more avenues than those who are deemed to be ‘low-skilled.’ “
For the “I Am…” storytelling project, people from all walks of life relate experiences, demand respect and reject criminalizing language about immigrants. Stories are gathered in collaboration with allies and campaign partners. We are grateful to Yakupitiyage for today’s story.
I Am Home Both Here and There
I came to the U.S. at the age of 18 to pursue my higher education. My whole family still lives in South and Southeast Asia. I live in Brooklyn, New York, in a mixed-income neighborhood made up of immigrants and people of color from all parts of the world. I value New York City and Brooklyn in particular, because I feel at home amongst so many people who claim home both here and elsewhere, just like I do.
Despite feeling at home here, we are not always welcomed. I was walking with a group of friends—young people of color both national and international—when someone on the street yelled at us to “go back to our countries” and referred to us by the slur “illegals.” I was shocked by the hatred in the person’s use of the word. It was the first time I’d heard it. Many people use the i-word, partly because the mainstream media has normalized its use. This normalization of hateful language impacts how people in our society treat each other and what people presume to be justifiable ways of treating others.
My experience of the immigration system in this country is that there are inadequate pathways to be able to live here if you are a foreign national. It’s also an extremely classist system in which those who are valued for having certain “highly technical” skills such as engineers, doctors, etc., are provided with more avenues than those who are deemed to be “low-skilled” (i.e. restaurant workers, day laborers, construction workers, labor-intensive work). This system doesn’t take into account the contributions of hard working immigrants. It also doesn’t take into account the multiple narratives and stories of immigrants who have faced hardships in coming here and in remaining here.
The immigration system is also prone to political pandering by politicians who have made immigration a wedge issue and this has resulted in the lives of immigrants being taken for granted. Immigrants are in fact human beings, not toys to be played with in a political game for politicians trying to gain votes.
The i-word supports the scapegoating of immigrants in the U.S. for everything from our downtrodden economy to “homeland” security threats. There is a long history in the United States of this kind of scapegoating of immigrants, in part because immigrants are the easiest and most vulnerable targets. Immigrants are often considered outsiders even when they live in America. Immigrants of color in particular seem to never be fit enough to be part of the country.
The slur “illegals” makes our communities unsafe, it breeds distrust among and between communities, and the use of this word is part of a larger inability to build vibrant communities. Using the i-word goes against the shared values of dignity, humanity, and respect for all people. Language has power and the i-word is used in a divisive and hateful way that denies the experiences of immigrants. By dropping the i-word, we as communities who value respect, dignity, and justice, are choosing to counter hate and not to fall into media narratives that pit people against each other.