What It Means to Be a Nation of Immigrants

Pramila Jayapal writes about the Night of 1,000 Conversations, in which more than 2,500 strangers in 28 states gathered to discuss the role of immigration in the country’s past, present, and future.

In Takoma Park, Maryland, 13 people gathered for a provocative discussion on the poor conditions of detention centers across the nation and unwarranted raids, all within the overarching theme of “What kind of America do we want to live in?”

Photo by Dinah Chung

This story from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. 

On June 19, 2008, a group about as ethnically diverse as you could imagine clustered around tables at Seattle’s United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 union hall to watch a video and discuss immigration.

On screen appeared the face of Michael Graves, an African American man who had worked at a plant owned by Swift & Co., the world’s third-largest processor of beef and pork.

“They held me with no reason and no probable cause,” Graves said. “I’m a U.S. citizen, born and raised here. I was treated as a criminal, on a normal day when I … just went to work.”

Graves was among thousands of workers investigated during raids by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement at six Swift meatpacking plants in late 2006. The agents held many workers for hours on little or no evidence—and without food or water, access to telephones, or even restrooms. They were not allowed to retrieve documents that in many cases would have proven their legal status.

Produced by the national UFCW, the film told a difficult story about raids that ultimately placed 1,300 workers in detention centers, divided families by splitting noncitizens from their American-born children or from spouses with legal status, traumatized workers and denied them basic civil liberties such as access to legal counsel, and cost Swift thousands of dollars.

Stories of the barriers they had overcome revealed their common hopes and dreams.

The audience at the union hall—which included Japanese Americans, Hispanics, Blacks, and Whites—shared reactions to the film, then launched into a discussion on an even more difficult question: What kind of America do we want? And how is immigration part of that America ?

The Seattle gathering was one of hundreds held across the country as part of a campaign called the Night of 1,000 Conversations and organized by The Rights Working Group, OneAmerica, and a coalition of civil rights, immigration, and faith groups. The coalition began the conversations in 2007 as a way to break through the divisiveness of the national immigration debate and get people talking face-to-face. That night, more than 2,500 people in 28 states sat with strangers and talked about what immigration might mean in a country known as a “nation of immigrants.”

At the Seattle union hall, the audience split into groups of five to 10. The participants didn’t divide themselves by race, as sometimes happens in diverse groups. Instead, each table included people from a variety of backgrounds.

Some groups featured diverse conversation partners: East African and Indian; Vietnamese and Mexican; Japanese and Colombian and Korean; African American, white, and Native American. Software engineers and activists, factory workers and homemakers, government employees and teachers were there.

One group included a Japanese American woman, an East African immigrant man, a native-born Hispanic woman, an immigrant South Asian man, and a native-born White woman. Immigration meant something different to each of them.

For the Japanese American woman, the discussion brought up fears as she recalled the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “Have we learned nothing?” she said. “Can we not see that depriving people of their basic rights is bad?”

The East African participant voiced outrage. “It’s just hypocrisy,” he said. “The U.S. wants to be the leader … other countries look [to]. But what they’re doing here is even worse than what some of the dictatorships are doing elsewhere … locking people up just because they are Muslim and therefore ‘possible terrorists.’ You just don’t expect that from America.”

Another participant expressed frustration that gaining legal residency and citizenship through Homeland Security’s convoluted visa system would take him 20 years.

The gatherers brought difficult racial questions into the open. When one participant opined that African Americans’ attitudes were partly to blame for urban social problems, another was quick to challenge him. “They face discrimination every day,” he said, “in employment or on the street.” As the two talked, they found agreement. Both said our education system needed a fix to serve all communities, immigrant and native-born.

Participants also came to understand the importance of refusing to be silent.

This was not the only conversation that revealed a common agenda. Participants agreed on the need for a path for immigrant workers to become legal residents. “They just want to work hard,” one participant said. “This country was built by immigrants.”

And many participants were open about their personal struggles. When one woman shared how her undocumented mother had worked to provide a better life for her, another person described fleeing persecution in his war-torn home country. Stories of the barriers they had overcome revealed their common hopes and dreams.

Participants also came to understand the importance of refusing to be silent. Many were inspired by the example of the workers picked up in the Swift raid, whose testimony has become the basis of a lawsuit against Homeland Security for violations of constitutional rights. Many wanted to demand that the government answer for policies that unjustly denied immigrants access to legal counsel and due process. They snapped up voter registration materials and postcards to send to Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, demanding human rights protections for immigrants.

Across the country, participants shared similar stories and moments of inspiration. One New York participant wrote, “If other conversations were as productive as ours, then this is a truly innovative grassroots movement with the potential to make great waves.”

Talking about immigration in this country’s charged political environment is not easy. The breadth, depth, and sheer wisdom of the discussions belie the idea that immigration is a divisive wedge issue. The conversations demonstrated the power of coming face-to-face with others who may not, at the surface, hold the same views. As we delve deeper, we begin to find common hopes and a shared vision of an America that lives up to its ideals of democracy for both citizens and immigrants.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.