I Forget That I’m The Child Of An Immigrant Because I’m White

Photo: courtesy of the author 
immigrant ban

Back in 2017, as I watched the protests against Donald Trump’s executive order that “temporarily” banned travel and new visas for individuals and refugees from seven “terror-prone” countries, I couldn’t believe how antithetical the whole act seemed to the American character.

“We’re a country of immigrants!” I ranted at my wife. “Granted, we’re a country of immigrants that stole this land from the indigenous people who were already living here, but isn’t that supposed to be the American Experiment? The whole mythology of America that we tell ourselves? That this is some magical melting pot that thrives on diversity?”

“I can’t even imagine how children with immigrant parents are feeling right now,” I told her. 

My wife looked up from what she was reading. “Um, honey, you’re the child of an immigrant.”

Oh yeah.

My father was an immigrant.

RELATED: As A Woman Of Color And 2nd-Gen Immigrant, I'm Tired Of Trying To Live Up To America's Version Of 'Success'

I’m technically a second-generation American. My dad came to the United States in the late 1960s, looking to make a better life for himself and earn enough money to be able to send home extra funds to his struggling family whenever he could.

He was a laborer. A mason, a bricklayer who helped construct buildings in downtown Detroit. He was proud of living in America but never became a full American citizen. He was an “alien” and an immigrant until the day he died.

So why, during my outrage over the immigration executive order did I forget that my own father was an immigrant himself?

Because he was white. And I'm white.

I don’t remember my father as an immigrant because people never treated him like one.

My father could pass. He just looked like any other white-bred American you’d see on TV.

The only giveaway was his voice.

He was from Scotland and had a thick accent that was one part Sean Connery, one part Mike Myers from So I Married An Ax Murderer.

People would be delighted — not afraid or annoyed — when they would hear his accent. I distinctly remember a woman bringing her friends over to hear my father pronounce the word “ostrich” once.

White Americans didn’t see my father as a threat. He wasn’t here to take their jobs or bring terror to their shores. He was one of them. A cute throwback to their Anglo-Saxon roots.

But if you think about it, didn't he "take" their job by working here? 

And the truth is, my father had the EXACT same immigrant story that most immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen have.

The United States held the promise of a new life for him. There were opportunities there. There were options that never would’ve been available to him in the country of his birth.

All he wanted to do was work hard, contribute to society, and maybe find a way to support his family back in Scotland as well.

If you look at the lives of most of the people detained at airports over the weekend, their stories are remarkably similar.

They wanted to fit in somewhere, start somewhere new. They wanted to be closer to family, they wanted opportunities.

They took the American Promise at its word.

They believed, like my father did, that this was a country built by immigrants. A country that appreciated and accepted different cultures and creeds.

But why are these immigrants finding such suspicion and hate from the American government, while my own immigrant father barely registered as an “alien” to our neighbors and community?

RELATED: How Racism Keeps Black Americans In Debt

It has a lot to do with race.

These were not terror suspects being detained at airports across the nation.

Despite what some fearful Americans might tell you, there is already a fairly rigorous vetting process for immigrants and refugees who enter our country. Can it be improved? Sure. But so many of the people detained — children, grandmothers, whole families — were not stopped because of a credible terror risk.

They were stopped because of the color of their skin. Sure, not officially, but we all know it. 

They were stopped because, even though they’d already jumped through a million hoops to get their green cards, the U.S. Government chose to flex their muscles and point an accusing finger at them, simply because of the country they were born in.

RELATED: Why I Am Thankful I Did Not Have A Black Son

As many have pointed out, the executive order doesn’t even make much sense on a level of racism or terror panic because none of the terrorists who committed 9/11 or any of the subsequent atrocities against our country actually came from the seven “banned” Islamic countries.

(I know that list of countries allegedly originated from the Obama Administration, but that administration also never declared an executive order that saw innocent people detained like criminals and inspired thousands of people to protest at airports.)

More than anything, I know this NEVER would’ve happened to my father.

He had family from Ireland and, when he came to the United States, there were multiple terrorist attacks happening in Ireland and Great Britain every year.

But that didn’t flag him as a potential risk.

Oh, and one more thing:

Donald Trump’s mother was an immigrant. Our new First Lady is an immigrant.

As a nation, we don’t have a conceptual problem with “immigrants.”

We have a problem with immigrants of certain skin colors and certain religions.

That’s not protecting our borders. That’s not being pragmatic or cautious. That’s racism. That’s xenophobia.

The United States of America LOVES immigrants with cute accents, familiar skin tones, or long enough legs to win a beauty pageant or catch the eye of a New York billionaire.

When we haphazardly restrict travel due to your country of origin — without consulting other federal agencies beforehand and without taking into consideration a person’s past immigrant status — we’re showing off the worst that America has to offer.

We’re showing that the U.S. likes to pick and choose how we feel about our immigrants. If you’re an adorable Scotsman or a Slavic supermodel, please bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

But if you’re from a country that makes mainstream America nervous on a racial or cultural level, it doesn’t even matter if you’ve lived here for decades — we’re fine with rewriting the rules with no notice and telling you that we don’t let you back into the country if you leave.

That’s a side of America my dad never had to see, largely thanks to his skin color.

Tom Burns is a husband, a dad, and a veteran of the educational publishing industry.

This essay was originally published on January 31, 2017.