Fever dreaming of America

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The United States’ rejection of immigrants has always been among its most exclusionary practices. For Americans, the American Dream is a birthright. But sharing this birthright is where the problem arises: in a reluctance to extend the Dream to immigrants. 

This country requires immigrants to lay down their dignity at its borders in exchange for opportunity. In no other place is there such emphasis placed on justifying your presence. My parents, immigrants from Iran and Russia, encountered immediate suspicions about their immigration motives — a hundred different microaggressions that indirectly ordered, “Go back to where you came from.”

Immigrants should have their voices be uplifted, have sanctuary and be treated with respect and kindness, just as the average white American should treat any other citizen. The cultural diversity brought overseas by immigrants ought to be curiously examined and learned from. With the eagerness that my siblings and I attack suitcases full of Russian chocolates or Iranian dried fruits that my relatives bring back from trips to the motherland, so should America unpack, celebrate and champion various cultures.

Today, the United States seems to embody more of an American fever dream than a dream at all, full of disturbing contradictions and harrowing hypocrisies. Immigrants are ridiculed for their accents, “randomly” searched at airports and simultaneously caricatured as weak victims and threatening outsiders.

From rising hate speech to the travel ban to the attacks on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, our country is staggeringly anti-immigrant. Our leader is hell-bent on stopping the “illegal invasion” tarnishing the country with “crime,” “drugs” and “(rape)” (as though these phenomena don’t already exist in the United States). The same leader insisted that only “skilled” or “talented” individuals should be allowed to immigrate — what happened to the United States being the opportune place to foster a skill or talent?

Americans also perpetuate narratives that otherize the people integral to this country’s development and global success. Not only are 57% of the Bay Area’s STEM workers immigrants, but they also make up 25% of business founders in the United States. This includes my father, an Iranian Silicon Valley techie whose home has been reduced to a “dangerous,” “suspect” country and his people to a “Muslim problem.

To attain the American Dream, this country demands payment. There is a relentless pressure on first-generation immigrants who “made it” to prove they’re worthy of living on American soil. Attend a top-tier university. Climb the socioeconomic ladder. Raise little geniuses to repeat the cycle all over again.

Simultaneously justifying one’s existence and translating values from other cultures around the world is an exhausting trauma to endure. Assimilating a family — a feat that demands profound mental and financial security — is difficult (a gross understatement). For my parents, the challenge continues: They must raise their American-born children. 

As a second-generation immigrant, I know firsthand that the fear of losing children to American culture is a real one. I recall the more heated exchanges between my siblings and my Russian mother. We play verbal ping-pong over our bad habits, such as wasting food and complaining, until my mother ends our argument with, “You’re becoming so American.” 

That always stung. I’m certain it hurt even more for my parents, who doubted whether their children would grow up blind to the false superiority of their home country, or lose sight of the real tensions — racial, political or otherwise — at play.

My aversion to my own American-ness is deeply rooted in this country’s treatment of immigrants. I haven’t shared my parents’ experience of the United States, yet I grew up hearing and bearing witness to their stories — their traumas resonate across a generation. The desire to validate my parents’ efforts is present in all of my endeavors. My admission to UC Berkeley was something my parents celebrated like a stamp of approval on their newly American lives. 

To say my parents (or any immigrants) hate the United States would be the opposite of my point. The relationship is one of weariness and discomfort. I have hope that American sentiments toward immigrants will become more positive, welcoming groups and not stiffly tolerating them. 

I can only hope that this country’s anti-immigrant fever will break, that America will wake from its dream of exceptionalism and superiority. The United States’ true strength does not lie in preserving a nativist history smudged with exploitation and french fry grease, but rather the richness that others bring here from overseas. We must aim to listen to and understand immigrants without holding them to impossible standards or taking their dignity in the process. 

Immigrants are not inferior. They are not weak. It feels ridiculous to state the obvious, but it’s time this country treats them as equal human beings.

When I look at the state of this country, I do not want to feel shame and disdain for the only place I am able to call home. Though at every turn I find it more demanding to continue aligning myself with America and American cultural ideals, something in me longs to be proud of this country. Until the day it gives me good reason to, I’ll continue dreaming of that America.

Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]