Making America as good as its promise

Americans have to come together to push for the passing of the American Dream and Promise Act.

The American Dream and Promise Act (HR6), put forward by Democrats, aims to provide a clear pathway to citizenship for more than a million Dreamers [File: Reuters/Tom Brenner]

This spring could not be more welcome in the United States. As we emerge from a tough winter season under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump era, we have the opportunity to reflect on a brighter future for our country.

Perhaps the most important takeaway of the past few months has been that our wellbeing on all fronts depends on treating each other with respect, fairness, and mutual care.

The acknowledgement that we are, indeed, an extended family, is key to reviving our ailing immigration system – and it is at the heart of the American Dream and Promise Act (HR6), put forward by Democrats. The bill aims to provide a clear pathway to citizenship for more than a million Dreamers like me – undocumented individuals who came to the US as children – and Temporary Protected Status-holders across the country.

The legislation reflects the growing consensus among Americans behind a more functional and humane immigration process. According to a January poll, 72 percent of likely voters favour citizenship for Dreamers and 69 percent support citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.

On March 18, HR6 was passed by the US House of Representatives and referred to the Senate, where it awaits a vote. Some Republican Senators have expressed support for providing Dreamers with citizenship, but are yet to act on their words and try to convince others to join them in supporting the bill. To pass, HR6 needs all 50 Democratic votes in the Senate and 10 from the Republican Party.

Many of those who oppose the bill in the Senate and beyond are still willing to rely on the services that undocumented immigrants provide, get rich off our hard work and devour our food, movies and music. The hypocrisy in US immigration politics is outrageous.

I have been in the US since I was three. I have pledged allegiance to our flag since kindergarten and sung our national anthem at every sports event I have ever attended. Immigrants like me and my family have been builders and caregivers, musicians and artists, teachers and health professionals, the workers who grow, harvest, make, sell, and serve our food.

And, as we have seen during the past year, the 11 million immigrants who are here without a secure status make up an essential part of our front-line capacity. After all we have been through together, not being recognised as part of this country is not just wrong, it is immoral.

Last November, Democrats won the Senate, House and presidency with the promise of just and humane immigration reform – the kind most Americans say they want. If an unruly and outdated Senate minority continues to block HR6, Democrats should look for alternative ways to get components of the act through.

One is using the reconciliation process, which allows for some budgetary legislation to be passed with a simple majority in the Senate rather than the usual 60 votes. This means the Democratic Party can take certain provisions of the HR6 and insert them into a budget bill, which they will have an easier time getting through the Senate.

The same approach can be used for the provisions of the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, introduced by Senator Alex Padilla and Representative Joaquin Castro which would give citizenship to 5.2 million undocumented workers, including many thousands of Dreamers, who have been deemed essential during the pandemic.

While Democrats strategise on how to pass these important immigration reforms, we, the people, should not stand idle. Every voter can flood their Senators and Representatives with phone calls and emails telling them to prioritise a pathway to citizenship using all tools at their disposal. Pressure from the grassroots should not stop.

Action on immigration reform should be accompanied by the realisation that such legislation is not beneficial just for the immigrants themselves. History shows we all stand to gain more from inclusion rather than exclusion.

Successive waves of newcomers have brought their innovation and energy and added to this country’s wealth. In 1986, 2.7 million undocumented people gained legal status with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). In the decades that followed, homeownership among IRCA beneficiaries doubled and poverty decreased by 50 percent.

Immigrants have also bolstered struggling communities across the country. In her recent book, The Sum of Us, economist Heather McGhee relates how Somali immigrants have revitalised the languishing mill town of Lewiston, Maine, and how Mexican farm labour is breathing new life into small-town economies, from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, to the Texas Panhandle, starting new businesses and repopulating local schools. Indeed, according to statistics, between 2000 and 2010, 83 percent of population growth in rural areas in the US was due to people of colour moving in.

McGhee notes that, despite the fear-mongering of anti-immigrant politicians, the mostly white residents of these communities have often chosen to welcome their new immigrant neighbours and the economic revival they bring.

But just as white communities have been transforming and opening up, so have immigrant communities. In my family – like in many Spanish-speaking immigrant families – we used to say: “no soy de aquí, ni de allá,” which translates to, “I’m not from here, nor from there.” It was a reflection of how we felt when Americans saw our skin as too dark and our English as not good enough and at the same time, Mexicans saw our behaviour as too Americanised and our Spanish as too poor.

But we, as a family, have come to terms with these complexities. Now we say, “Si, soy de aquí y de allá,” which means, “Yes, I am from here, and also from there.”

The American society is not a homogeneous, monocultural one. Instead, it is a beautiful mixture of cultures, languages and ways of living that all come together under the umbrella of common values – equality, justice and opportunity for all.

As Barbara Jordan, the first southern Black woman elected to the House of Representatives, once said: “What the people want is very simple,” she said. “They want an America as good as its promise.”

But getting that done is not solely the job of the people American voters elect and entrust with our governance – it is also ours as well. We have to work on turning America’s promise into reality by teaching our children that all people deserve to be here, by organising in our communities, and by demanding that those who represent us match their words with actions. If we continue to talk with each other and to stand up for each other, we can achieve a better future for all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.