Posted by on July 08, 2011 in Blog

Last week, U.S. Representative Hansen Clarke, speaking to a forum on racial profiling, said “I’m the son of an undocumented immigrant—and I’m proud to say that.” Clarke’s father emigrated from pre-partition India in the 1930s, and later settled in Detroit’s lower east side, where Clarke grew up. A Cornell graduate, Clarke began his career in public service on the staff of Wayne County Executive Edward MacNamara, before serving as chief of staff to Rep. John Conyers. Clarke went on to win the seat for Michigan’s 13th District in 2010.

Clarke has come under fire for his comment—for having the audacity of pride in his father’s experience. But at this time, when draconian immigration laws are crossing the desks of Governors across the country, it serves us well to consider the contributions of immigrants, including those who arrived in this country without visas.

Without considering the flashier examples—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Salma Hayek, and “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan—Clarke joins a distinguished group of “illegals”:

  • Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), a six-term U.S. Senator, has recalled how his mother, an illegal immigrant from Italy, was stopped and detained by police when he was a child.
  • The parents of Jose Hernandez, a flight engineer on the Space Shuttle Discovery, were undocumented field hands in California until eventually acquiring permanent residence
  • Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta, awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bush for sacrificing his life to save at least five of his fellow U.S. Marines, was an illegal immigrant from Tiajuana, Mexico.
  • Henry Cejudo, who captured the gold medal in freestyle wrestling in the 2008 Olympics, is the son of undocumented workers from Mexico.

And of course AAI President James Zogby has frequently told the story of his father who, at 25, jumped off a boat and swam to the American shore. The post-World War I anti-immigrant backlash kept him from securing a visa to join his family in the U.S. But he did arrive, and he worked and raised his family, he was granted amnesty and became an American citizen. “What is so remarkable about this story is that it is so unremarkable. It is the same story that can be told by millions of Americans. And it is playing out today for millions more,” says Zogby.

And we thank Hansen Clarke for having the courage to weave his story into the broad narrative of our country’s shared immigrant experience.

 

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