Not long ago, President Donald Trump used this racist retort to attack sitting members of Congress, writing in a tweet that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
His words were a woefully ignorant attempt to marginalize and ostracize people of color, even if they were born here or are U.S. citizens.
For me, it brought up painful memories. Nearly 30 years ago, as a recent Orange County transplant, I was walking to work along Katella Avenue. As I crossed the street, a Ford truck passed. One of the occupants yelled, “Go back to Africa!”
This Citizenship Day, Sept. 17, I implore my fellow Americans to remember that, in spite of what the president seems to believe, it’s absolutely impossible to tell where a person is from, how “American” they are, or what they believe based on their skin color or appearance. It’s something the American government itself understood when the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office created the holiday in 1952. The department’s stated goal was to “recognize people who are taking steps to become U.S. citizens” and to have us all reflect on “the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and what it means to be a U.S. citizen.”
These days, that reflection is more important than ever. America doesn’t just belong to one kind of person, race, or ethnicity, and to think that it does is both radically anti-democratic and economically shortsighted.
The slur yelled from the Ford truck was so quick and unexpected that I couldn’t respond. I looked around, trying to see if anyone else on the quiet side street heard, but I was completely alone. It was surreal; I’d heard racial slurs before, but I’d never been told anything like “go back.”
What does it even mean to look “American”? This nation, founded by immigrants, still thrives thanks to the economic contributions of newcomers—be they dishwashers or doctors. And the longer they are here, the more they become a part of our nation, enriching and diversifying us.
My family’s story is a perfect example. I’m the son of an African American mother and a Japanese American father. My mother’s parents, born on the cusp of the Great Depression, hailed from Missouri and Tennessee. They moved to California after World War II after my maternal grandfather was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army.
My father was the son of immigrants from Hiroshima, Japan. His family was among 10,000 Americans of Japanese origin and permanent residents incarcerated at the Manzanar Relocation Center for the duration of World War II. After the war, his family was released, and chose to return to the Los Angeles suburbs where they’d lived before the war. My uncle, now 96, recalls the local parade held in honor of the thousands of people—both Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants– returning from the camps. But the celebration was marred by racist onlookers yelling “Go back!”
Yet, despite the overt racism and wrongful incarceration of his parents, my dad still loved America. Extraordinarily, he joined the military, served honorably in the U.S. Air Force, had three children and passed away at age 56. He always loved his country and saw its true potential, despite its treatment of his own family.
Today, as communications manager for the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA), I have personally witnessed the dangerous impact of President Trump’s hate speech. Our office regularly fields calls from worried parents who say their children have been harassed and threatened at school because of their race or religion – kids who are now being told to “Go back.”
At the same time, my work at CAIR-LA has shown me the tremendous contributions that Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) immigrants have made in the United States. Despite the racism and racial profiling they’ve experienced, MENA immigrants, who comprise 15-18% of the U.S. American Muslim community, start new businesses at more than double the rate of the general U.S. population, according to research by New American Economy.
In 2015 alone, households led by MENA immigrants earned $58.5 billion in total income and paid $17 billion in taxes to federal, state, and local governments. In my home state of California, more than 10 million immigrant residents contribute $105.1 billion in taxes annually. They’re more than 26 percent of the population, and immigrant-owned businesses employ nearly 1.9 million people. There’s no way the Golden State could run without our foreign-born brothers and sisters.
To me, these are the kinds of actions that truly reflect the “rights and responsibilities” of being a citizen. Shouting anti-Muslim slurs at CAIR members and staff or sending bomb threats to our office—both of which happened in March–are not. Almost all American families of color, including my own, live with racist attacks from some of our fellow countrymen and leaders. Yet we persevere and continue to strive for the betterment of the United States. We do this from a place of love and hope. This Sept. 17, we know that people still come to America for the same reason: to find a better life for their children.
Thirty years ago, I was determined not to be weakened or defined by the hatred I experienced in Orange. Today, I join so many others in renewing that commitment. We must stand together and denounce xenophobia and racism wherever we find it. This nation is home for all, not some, of us.
Eugene Fields is the Communications Manager at the Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA).
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