During Trump’s speech, I am sitting in the gallery of the House’s hallowed chamber alongside other immigrants whose lives are directly affected by Trump’s executive orders, at the invitation of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). I grew up in the San Francisco area and for years lived in Pelosi’s district. But my decision to accept her invitation was not made lightly, considering the terror that the Trump administration has inflicted on immigrant families. As the country’s “most famous illegal alien,” as Lou Dobbs once called me, some of the lawyers advising me suggested I lie low. “Don’t go on cable news as much,” they said. “Let’s see how all of this shakes out.” My 79-year-old grandmother took it one step further. Shortly after the election, my lola (“grandmother” in Tagalog) asked me to go into some kind of hiding.
I decided to show up tonight because that’s what immigrants, undocumented and documented, do: We show up. Despite the obvious risks and palpable fear, we show up to work, to school, to church, to our communities, in big cities and rural towns. We show up and we participate. This joint session of Congress is a quintessential American moment at a critical juncture in our history. I am honored to attend and remind our elected leaders and everyone watching that immigration, at its core, is about families and love — the sacrifices of our families, and the love that we feel for a country we consider our home although it labels us “aliens.” We show up even though we’re unwanted, even when most Americans don’t understand the pull-push factors of migration and why we come here in the first place. (No discussion of Trump’s “America First” worldview can be complete without first examining how U.S. foreign policy and trade agreements impact why people move.) We show up even though many Americans, especially white Americans with their own immigrant backgrounds, can’t seem to see the common threads between why we show up and why they showed up, at a time when showing up did not require visas and the Border Patrol didn’t exist yet.
Our presence inside the Capitol in front of Trump is among the everyday acts of resistance that we are witnessing across the country. There are the undocumented workers showing up in industries that depend on our labor, including the more than 100 workers nationwide who lost their jobs while participating in “Day Without Immigrants” protests. The undocumented students showing up in high school classrooms and on college campuses, in places that have made it clear “illegals” are not wanted there. The undocumented parishioners seeking refuge in places of worship, like Jeanette Vizguerra, the mother of four who’s found sanctuary inside the First Unitarian Church in Denver. (“Supposedly, I am a criminal because I drove without a license, because I had expired stickers on my car, because I had false documents to work and put food on the table for my children,” Vizguerra has said.) When our bodies are seen as mere “labor,” when our presence is broadly “criminalized,” our very existence is an act of resistance.
Our existence is a repudiation of the myths, misinformation and outright lies that many Americans wrongly believe about this country’s undocumented population.
The myth is that we pose a threat to national security and cause harm and danger in communities —— a myth that Trump perpetuated throughout his campaign and continues to push tonight, when half of his guests in the House chamber are relatives of people killed by undocumented immigrants. The reality is that study after study show that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes and be incarcerated than native-born Americans.
The myth is that we are making a mockery of this country’s laws and openly flaunting our illegality. “Why can’t you just get legal and become a citizen?” is among the questions I am most frequently asked, both by people who want me deported and people who consider me as American as them. It’s a question that strikes at the core of deep-seated ignorance that many citizens have of this complex issue. The reality is that demands to “get legal” and “become a citizen” are just as complicated, depending on each immigrant’s own specific circumstances, as our outdated immigration system, which Congress has not reformed since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
The myth is that there are “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants,” as if people are easily divisible and definable as “illegal” and “legal,” when the reality is that definitions we use and divisions we make speak to the inhumanity of a broken system.
Am I a “good immigrant” because I am more assimilated (whatever that means) and speak better English than my Lola — who, by the way, is a U.S. citizen? Millions of American citizens, like my Lola, live in households with undocumented family members. How do you separate undocumented Americans who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children from their undocumented parents, who risked everything so their kids could have a better future? If we are to “show great heart,” as Trump has said, to the DREAMers (named after a bill that Congress never passed called the DREAM Act), shouldn’t we also show our heart and offer our gratitude to their parents? When Trump promises to “fight for the safety of every American” and protect the American people first, is he referring to the U.S. citizens whose undocumented parents face detention and deportation because of his executive orders?
I carry these questions with me as I sit in the gallery tonight. I also carry the generosity of Americans — of all races and backgrounds, all political persuasions — who, in my nearly 24 years in this country, never needed laws or pieces of papers to treat me as a human being, as if I were one of their own. Undocumented people like me rely on our allies in innumerable ways. My showing up tonight is possible partly because my allies always showed up for me. My showing up tonight is about the kind of citizenship that is not limited by documents and laws.
Shortly after I arrived in the United States in 1993, during one of my middle school classes, I learned that the Capitol building is considered the “People’s House.” Tonight, as we undocumented immigrants are every night across this country, I am one of the people in this house.