When I met Alain Francois, I didn’t ask him for his green card.
I didn’t wonder if he was a “productive citizen.” I didn’t think he was an alien. He looked human to me.
But President Donald Trump and his administration are blind to the humanity of immigrants, both legal and undocumented. Tuesday’s announcement ending the hopes of 800,000 so-called Dreamers only confirms that fact.
Immigration talk is all about weeding out the criminals from the “good, productive citizens.” Even well-intentioned people say, “When we deport people we are losing doctors and scientists and the best and the brightest.”
Does that mean to be a desirable immigrant you have to be a superstar?
Alain, an American citizen who came here from Haiti, works at the Apple store. He’s a fixer and teacher of Mac technology. He can save you from that pinwheel of death when your Macbook won’t let you be great.
Is that good enough, America?
“What does it mean to be a productive American?” Alain asks me. “I get up and go to work every day. Which is what everyone does. Does it mean I enjoy apple pie?”
Well, he does enjoy Disney World. He and his wife, Tasha — who is half-Honduran, half-Irish — have gone there every single summer since they got married 10 years ago.
Alain was never a Dreamer, the children who, until now, benefited from President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But at 32, he’s in the Dreamer age range. His parents, in search of a better life, brought him here when he was 9. They came as permanent residents with Alain’s uncle as their sponsor in Miami.
“I felt unwelcome. It didn’t matter what my personal story was,” Alain tells me. “The story attached to me was that of a poor Haitian dirty kid who was part of the boat people family.”
A green card was always good enough. And it allowed him to cherish a part of his identity he couldn’t always proudly exhibit.
“Not being American,” he tells me, “it was the only way I could hold on to my Haitian identity.”
But the 2010 Arizona law legalizing racial profiling and forcing immigrants to carry their “alien registration documents” at all times motivated Alain to become an American citizen. He wanted to protect his rights in the country he calls home.
Two years later, when Obama created DACA to protect young undocumented immigrants, he worried opponents would come for them one day.
“And now we’re here,” he says on a Tuesday, just hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the initiative.
This was more than dismantling Obama’s shield, it was the demonization of immigrants. Sessions said DACA “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs.”
Aliens? Is that what we’re going to continue to call people? When we call someone an alien we dehumanize them. We no longer see our classmates, friends and neighbors.
“I think it’s hard for people who have not experienced migration to really feel the pain,” Alain says. “It irks me when someone says, ‘I came here legally, why can’t they’ because it’s not that easy. It’s hard to come here legally. It’s not cheap. You can’t kick people out for trying to achieve the American Dream as protected by a previous president.”
Under the Trump administration the American Dream is a members-only club.
According to Sessions, a good immigrant assimilates. He says the establishment of an immigration system approved by Congress will “enable our country to more effectively teach new immigrants about our system of government and assimilate them to the cultural understandings that support it.”
When Alain hears “assimilate” he thinks about his first year in Miami.
“I did my best to lose things that were identifiably Haitian in everyone else’s eyes,” he said. “I tried very hard not to have any accent. I got made fun of for wearing church clothes to school. Kids were wearing jeans and T-shirts. I started to dress differently to fit in. And at some point I started to isolate myself from the Haitians at my school. I’d get to know everyone else but them.”
This is what America teaches: us versus them. We teach that anyone who does not look, dress or speak the part is bad. We teach people to stay away from those who aren’t like you. We send a message that immigrants are up to no good. So that when they come here they feel they need to stamp every bit of their beautiful selves out to appease some false standard of Americana.
But Alain undid the brainwashing. He found himself embracing what it means to be both Haitian and black in America. And right now, as the government moves to end DACA, we have to speak out. Congress can save DACA, so contact your representatives.
“There is power in our vote,” Alain says. “That’s an institution we have been intentionally excluded from historically and continue to be excluded from in some areas of the country today. It’s important to have your voice heard.”
Alain doesn’t try to be someone else anymore. He says what we need right now is empathy, awareness and allies.
“Either we are too tired to continue to try that or we are too paranoid,” he says. “But that’s the starting point: befriending people who are totally different. Because they might give you a point of view you have never considered. You might do the same.”
And validating their citizenship shouldn’t be a requirement for basic human connection.