I grew up poor but never knew just how I poor was until I hit middle school.
In elementary school, my day started with getting breakfast from the cafeteria window, where I got to choose a cereal box along with a small carton of milk from our cafeteria lady, Angie. She had short curly silver hair and always happily provided us our breakfast, along with a great smile.
For lunch, I lined up with the rest of my classmates to get lunch from Angie, too. Each of us carried a small envelope with our names on it.
I didn’t realize, though, that my envelope was different from the other students. While other students had money in their envelopes with cash to pay for the weekly price of school lunch, mine was empty. Instead, my envelope had my name on it along with five checked boxes for every day of the week – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday –that I was able to receive free lunch.
This afternoon, I was thinking more about this petition. And it occurred to me: perhaps instead of advocating for a Lunar New Year federal holiday, we should instead have a discussion about establishing “Immigrants Day” as a U.S. federal holiday?
Okay, bear with me for a second on this one. In this country, there are eleven U.S. federal holidays, highlighting and commemorating landmark moments in American history. We “celebrate” (with a fair and arguably justified share of controversy) the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. We honour veterans and military service who served in the many defining wars that America has engaged in through both Veterans Day and Memorial Day. We celebrate the contributions of the labour movement with Labour Day. We remember the triumphs and sacrifices of this nation’s civil rights leaders and how the civil rights movement changed America when we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Yet, not a single day exists to celebrate America’s immigrants and its long, detailed history of immigration legislation and immigration reform.
America is a nation founded by immigrants, including many of the very Founding Fathers who first established this country. The very fabric of America is intertwined with immigration and the immigrants who have shaped and changed what it means to be American in America. In fact, I would argue that first-generation immigrants offer among the most inspiring stories of the American narrative: first-generation Americans are Americans who have chosen the American dream, who have left home and family to pursue the American dream, who have sacrificed to become a part of the American Dream. They are not Americans by accident of birth; first-generation immigrants are Americans by decision.
Many Asian Americans see the current petition asking for Lunar New Year to be made a federal holiday as long-overdue acknowledgement of the contributions of the Asian American community. But, only a subset of Asian Americans actually observe Lunar New Year; by contrast, I would argue that an Immigrant Day would include the entire Asian American community, as well as the narratives of many other communities including many Latino Americans, African Americans, and White Americans. Nearly 13% of all American are first-generation foreign-born immigrants, and of those roughly 1/3 are Asian Americans of all genders, ethnicities, languages, religions, and creeds; still more Americans are only one or two generations away from a foreign-born immigrant who first set down their family’s roots in this country. Immigrants can be found in every sphere of American life, society, culture, and industry; indeed, waves of immigrants have helped to make America the most diverse, economically successful, technologically-advanced and vibrant country in the world today.
Not only would an Immigrants Day celebrate the contributions of immigrants to the American experience, but it would also be an opportunity to remind ourselves of how immigration legislation has evolved over the generations. It would be a chance to remember this nation’s history of racist immigration law, including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as well as other race-based immigration laws that restricted immigration into the U.S.; but, it would also be an opportunity to commemorate and celebrate the events that led to the historic 1965 passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the national origins formula and became a pioneering piece of open-armed immigration legislation that is still a model to other governments, worldwide.
Tonight, President Barack Obama redoubled his call for passage of comprehensive immigration reform. Perhaps, now is the perfect time for Asian Americans to band together with African Americans, Latino Americans, and immigration reform activists to start a discussion advocating for a federal day of celebration and remembrance to commemorate the contributions of America’s immigrant population. I propose that Immigrants Day could be observed on October 3, the day that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act into law.
And, that is definitely a White House petition I would sign.
Update: I created the White House petition. Please share this link: http://wh.gov/dIvd and urge others to sign it. It needs 100,000 signatures to garner an official response.