Politics

When Does an Immigrant Become an American?

It’s time we focused less on how people get to America and more on the lives they build after they arrive.

Cirilo Casillas holds an American flag as military members walk past at a naturalization ceremony.
New U.S. citizen Cirilo Casillas, originally from Mexico, holds an American flag as military members walk past at a naturalization ceremony on July 25 in Los Angeles.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

David S. Glosser’s extraordinary condemnation of his nephew Stephen Miller, the presidential adviser, in a widely read Politico op-ed this week, is the story of an American mystery: How can a man who owes his very life to the country’s tradition as a safe haven for refugees and immigrants turn his back on said history?

Miller, whose family fled poverty and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, might be one of the most glaring examples of this contradiction, but he’s not the only one. The president’s inner circle is full of radical nativists with deep immigrant roots. All but one of John Kelly’s great-grandparents emigrated to the United States from Italy and Ireland, including a fruit peddler and a wagon driver. Jared Kushner’s grandparents were immigrants. Chief nativist ideologue Kris Kobach is of German and Norwegian descent. And, of course, Donald Trump would not exist without his paternal grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, who fled Germany as a teenager to avoid military conscription and built a life in the United States of America. Trump’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, was also an immigrant, as was the mother of his eldest children, Ivana Zelnickova, and his current wife.

Glosser’s piece, however, is more than a mere reminder of the blatant moral failings of Trump’s team. By recounting his own family’s story of assimilation into American life, a tale of hardship and achievement shared by generation after generation of immigrants since the country’s foundation, Glosser has suggested a shift in the immigration debate away from the administration’s refusal to welcome immigrants and refugees to a much more complex dilemma. What happens if we stop focusing on immigration itself—the difficulty of simply getting to America—and instead begin to ponder the lives immigrants have built in the United States? Once we contemplate those lives in all their intricacy, would we then reconsider who deserves to be uprooted through the trauma of deportation? In other words: What kind of life can an immigrant build after a quarter of a century in the United States? At what point does that life deserve to be considered fully American?

This is not a rhetorical question. Under the Trump administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has become unhinged, a deportation machine that increasingly fails to discern between those immigrants who deserve removal—like members of Trump’s bête noire, the feared MS-13 gang—and those who have led peaceful and productive lives for decades in the United States and now face repatriation after being detained by the federal government’s ruthless immigration enforcers for, say, jaywalking or other minor traffic violations.

Who exactly is being deported? The Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles recently shared with me a comprehensive study, which has not yet been published, that offers a dramatic glimpse. Over the course of a year, personnel at the consulate interviewed more than 1,200 Mexican immigrants detained for deportation in Southern California. Sixty-seven percent of them had lived in the United States for at least 16 years. Half of those had been in America since the mid-’80s.

Most of the interviewees held steady jobs and had at least finished middle school. Only 2 percent declared they were unemployed. Ninety-seven percent said their children were American citizens. The trend extends far beyond Los Angeles. An increase in arrests made in the interior of the country has produced a dramatic upsurge in the detention of long-term residents. The government has even stepped up efforts to target U.S. citizens for denaturalization.

Are these lives “American” enough to deserve an opportunity to prosper, like previous generations of immigrants who arrived in America when settlement laws were far friendlier? Many communities across the country seem to think so, coming to the rescue of immigrants who have been arrested for deportation after years of leading honest lives as assimilated members of American society.

The town of Morristown, in Hamblen County, Tennessee—which Trump won with ease in 2016—movingly fought back after a wide-ranging ICE raid in a local meatpacking plant rounded up almost 100 immigrants. Some of those arrested had lived in Morristown since the early ’90s and had, between them, 160 children who had been born in the U.S. Something similar happened last year in Lincoln Heights, a mostly Hispanic neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, where the community fought tooth and nail for the release of Romulo Avelica, an undocumented cook who had lived there for about a quarter century. Immigration authorities detained Avelica while he was dropping off Fatima, one of his daughters, at school. Fatima recorded her father’s arrest and can be heard crying while Romulo is led away. The apprehension—and the video—roused the public, and, following ample coverage of the case and backing from local authorities and the neighborhood, Avelica was released after six months.

Ultimately, though, the responsibility for halting the fracture of these lives—so wholly American were it not for the paperwork—falls on the president’s shoulders as well as those of his closest advisors. They should be mindful of their own life stories. After all, after he disembarked in New York harbor, young Friedrich Drumpf traversed the country and built a business in the northwest that, in time, allowed him to become a U.S. citizen and return to New York. It took him seven years to take full advantage of his new country’s generosity toward men like him, hardworking and dedicated immigrants who were given a fair chance at belonging. His grandson Donald would be born over 50 years later.

In David Glosser’s telling, it took his own family a whole generation to consolidate a business that allowed future generations to prosper, Stephen Miller among them. What would have happened to either man’s ancestors under the current punitive mayhem? What would they have done if, after years of living in the United States, their adoptive country, they found themselves having dinner after a long day of work, sharing their quintessentially American dreams in half-broken English, and the immigration police had come knocking? It is a moral question that Miller and Trump have chosen to avoid. History will not be so kind.