NEW YORK — It was a proud moment for our family. Our firstborn son was coming home from his first semester at college in Chicago. He had made it through midterms and finals, through an array of friendships and experiences in a new city, the one where his immigrant mom was raised.
To save money, we bought our son an Amtrak ticket. It was the first time he would travel alone by land and the first time on a long train ride. It would be about a 20-hour trip. Painful for his back, and as it turns out, painful for his soul.
He slept all night and by the time the train got to Buffalo in the afternoon, just miles from the Canadian border and with another eight hours until New York City, Raúl was wide awake.
That's when I got the text from him.
"Mom! Somebody just got on the train and asked if I was a citizen!" he exclaimed, referring to an immigration official. “That's crazy!"
"I said yes,” he continued. “But everyone on the train looked at each other and were like, 'Can you believe this just happened?' Mom!"
That was how our Thanksgiving holiday began. With my son living through an experience I only had seen on TV or in the movies. I remember as a kid watching a TV show called Hogan's Heroes. And I learned about the Gestapo from there and from Hollywood.
Yes, I am purposely calling these immigration officials the Gestapo. Officials who look like police getting on a train in the United States of America and asking people to show their papers? Is this who we have become?
It just breaks my heart as a mom and mostly, as an American. That is not the country I pledged my citizenship to. My country is based on the beliefs of innocent until proven guilty, due process, equality, freedom from Big Brother.
Oh yes, and it happens to be that immigrants are the very basis of this country. People from all over the world coming here. That is who we are.
Or who we think we are.
The criticism of President Barack Obama's recent executive action on immigration has been swift and deep. He may have pushed his own limits but the policy recommendations have divided this country one more time, slicing and dicing families like good old American pie. You can stay, but your dad and sister can't? How American is that?
Border Patrol agents are charged with dividing families, making choices like, “You are a good immigrant. You get to stay. But you over there, you are a bad immigrant, and you have to go.”
While President Obama says only criminals will be deported, yet, as we speak, in Texas ground has broken on the construction of a brand new detention center for families, mothers and children. CHILDREN. Behind bars. And they have broken no laws. But they are put behind bars paid for by your taxpayer dollars.
But one thing the president got right in his speech was the tone. It did appear to be heartfelt like he was finally exhaling this pain he had been carrying, and should carry, on his shoulders. The pain of family separations. But the presidents message went deeper. He was asking all of us the question that my son’s experience raised to me: Is this who we are in this country? Is this who we have become?
Do we have to continue to be this way?
Powerful, deep, core questions every American should think about.
Because the immigration agents on that train weren't just asking brown people for their citizenship, they were also asking the sons and daughters of "white Americans." Some kids may think it's normal to have an immigration agent board a train and ask for your citizenship.
But we know it's not. That's the stuff of Hollywood and a moment in history that is a horror for the world.
That's not us.
Or is it?
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