Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Undocumented immigrants are powerful examples of resilience built from years of plowing through setbacks and disappointments. Now they are steadily and quietly powering our economy back to life. Their resilience is rebuilding America during the pandemic, and they deserve citizenship from a grateful nation.
I came to the U.S. from China when I was 10. My parents came of age toward the end of the Cultural Revolution there. The government reinstated the college entrance exam. My father became a heart surgeon, my mother a pathologist. Economic policies in the early 1990s opened China to the West, and my father entered a postdoctoral program at the Harvard School of Public Health.
A few years later, my mother and I joined him in Boston. My father and I got green cards and later citizenship. Bad immigration legal advice resulted in my mother losing her legal status and put in deportation proceedings. As an undocumented worker with a deportation order, my mother worked in Chinese restaurants, and the tips she made put me through the University of Chicago.
One day, my ma called me while I was walking to class. She was rear-ended on her way to work. The cops arrived and she was terrified of deportation. Nothing came of the accident, but I nixed my plan to accept a consulting job and tried to figure out how to help her. After the 10th immigration attorney turned us down, telling us, “she is safer in the shadows,” I decided to join a movement of advocates trying to change the law and protect my mother.
I was fortunate to meet former Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who together with Sen. Bob Menendez, stopped my ma’s deportation. Because of a review of old deportation orders, she got a green card and, five years later, citizenship after living 23 years in this country. That July, ma insisted on attending the Fourth of July parade in Skokie, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, decked out in an American flag T-shirt and waving two American flags.
At the age of 63, ma returned to the medical profession, examining biopsy specimens to diagnose a range of illnesses. My ma’s example shows that when you legalize people who are working and contributing, you unleash their economic potential.
I share my ma’s story because I see her and other immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, contributing to our country every day. And Americans agree — American support for immigration has soared to historic highs. For the first time since such polls were conducted in 1965, Americans want more, not less, immigration.
This is likely attributed to the fact that for the past 10 months, COVID-19 has forced Americans apart but brought them closer to immigrants and the enormous contributions they make. Seventy percent of immigrants work in a field classified as essential. They work as frontline medical workers and in supermarkets, pick the crops we eat and sauté food at restaurants. Immigrants or their children played key roles in developing two highly effective vaccines. They make up the lion’s share of the work to keep us alive and eventually restore us to some semblance of normalcy.
Immigrants are the frontline of our pandemic recovery. They put one foot in front of another, even when in fear and pain. They will become U.S. citizens one day. America will be stronger, wiser and more prosperous for it.
Rebecca Shi is executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition. This essay first appeared in “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.”