Hopes and Dreams

In a decision that will likely have far-reaching influence in the media, the Associated Press decided to drop the phrase “illegal immigrant” from its style book.  The AP argues that the term “illegal” is imprecise and should only apply to actions, not people [1].  The AP’s choice fits with immigration and Latino rights groups’ arguments that the term “illegal immigrant” is degrading and dehumanizing because no person should be viewed as “illegal [2].”  The labels we use in debating immigration matter because they apply to human beings.


No matter what your politics on the issue of immigration are, it is important to remember that all immigrants come to America with their own hopes and dreams.  Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “Immigrants in Our Land” accurately sums up many immigrants’ dreams and disappointments.  He begins:


We are born with dreams in our hearts,

looking for better days ahead.

At the gates we are given new papers,

our old clothes are taken

and we are given shots and doctors ask questions [3].


In his poem immigrants come to America with the hope for a better and freer future, but face inevitable disappointment instead:


We came here to get away from false promises,

from dictators in our neighborhoods,

who wore blue suits and broke our doors down

when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,

swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.

But it’s no different here.  It’s all concentrated [4].


He describes the immigration process as fundamentally dehumanizing.  Immigrants enter with hopes for a better future, but instead become engulfed by an overwhelming legalistic process:


Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,

but so very few make it out of here as human

as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now [5].



Edwidge Danticat’s story “Children of the Sea” frames the American immigration system through the view of a group of Haitians desperate to reach America by sea.  While Cuban and Haitian immigrants both come from Caribbean island nations with histories of political repression and poverty, Cubans generally have received a far warmer welcome.  One of the Haitians on the boat in Danticat’s story laments that after spending so much time out in the sun, “Now we will never be mistaken for Cubans.”  The man recalled an experience in which he shared a boat with a group of Cubans that had been intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard.  While the Coast Guard took the Cubans straight to Miami, they promptly returned him to Haiti [6].


Finally making in through the American immigration process gives immigrants a better sense of purpose and belonging.  Danticat’s story “Caroline’s Wedding” begins with this victory.  The story begins with the narrator gleefully leaving a Brooklyn courtroom waving her naturalization certificate “like the head of an enemy rightfully conquered in battle.”  Temporarily giving up her certificate to receive a passport, however, made her feel “like unclaimed property [7].” 


At the same time all immigrants documented or otherwise, are a part of American society.  No matter what the case, they are individuals with their own needs and dreams.  As one character in Ha Jin’s story “A Good Fall” explains to Ganchin, a distraught Chinese monk whose legal status in America has ended, “Except for the Indians, nobody’s really a native in the United States.  You mustn’t think of yourself as a stranger – this country belongs to you if you live and work here [8].”


[1] http://blog.ap.org/2013/04/02/illegal-immigrant-no-more/


[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/02/ap-drops-term-illegal-immigrant_n_3001432.html


[3] Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” in Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems (New York: New Directions Publishing), 12.


[4] Ibid, 12.


[5] Ibid, 13.


[6] Edwidge Danticat, “Children of the Sea,” in Krik? Krak (New York: Vintage Books), 8.


[7] Danticat, “Caroline’s Wedding,” 157-158.


[8] Ha Jin, “A Good Fall,” in A Good Fall (New York: Pantheon Books), 231.

5 thoughts on “Hopes and Dreams

  1. Reading the poem “Immigrants in Our Own Land” really got to me in that, people come here hoping for a better life, but having those expectations unfulfilled once they arrive.

  2. Your interpretation of one of the last stanza of Baca’s poem is an interesting one. I hadn’t thought that it was speaking strictly about the immigration process. I thought he was reflecting on the outcome of living in America in the long run. Especially since the following stanza talks about their nostalgia for home, and talking about the old days. Your interpretation makes a great deal of sense though, especially since the poem starts by talking about the actual “logistic” process they are forced to endure upon entering the country.

  3. That’s a great point about the immigration process Colin. The dehumanizing aspect of immigration is something that should have more public discussion. People are so concerned about tightening the process for anti-terrorism/anti-illegal immigration/etc that they ignore the impact this could have on actual people.

  4. Sometimes I can’t believe how difficult the world makes immigration. A couple years ago Chris and I looked into getting Irish citizenship and moving. Unfortunately neither of our grandparents were born there, so the process was more difficult. What urked me was the fact that Chris’ grandfather was an Irish citizen, but was born on holiday in England.

  5. I really loved the way that all of this week’s readings presented an incredibly complicated view of immigration. It’s easy to say, “well, life is even worse back home, so immigrants should be grateful,” but what does it mean to give up one’s home and one’s culture? What does it mean to be (relatively) safe, but unwanted by the society around you? What new dangers await? Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poetry and in the stories of Krik? Krak and A Good Fall are not the triumphant stories of a search for freedom in America or glamorization of the home left behind – but instead tales of people for whom no choice is a good one, and multiple roads lead to suffering of one kind or another. It’s awfully disheartening, but painfully realistic, and something we should really keep in mind when thinking about immigration today.

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