Immigrants Make America Great

6 mins read
Cuban Immigrant Families

My husband Daniel and I were born in the same year to Cuban parents. But the stories of our childhoods are very different. My parents were upper-middle class from Havana and able to flee the country early when war fractured the island in 1959, although they left with very little. Daniel’s family lived in the remote countryside where news traveled more slowly. Suddenly, they found themselves trapped inside a communist country ruled by an egomaniac who tolerated no opposition. Family members endured Castro’s work camps for those who opposed him until eventually, twelve years later in the early 70s, they were able to leave with nothing but the clothes they wore. Daniel was in his pajamas. Luckily, we both wound up in the tiny American territory of Puerto Rico, where nine years later we were fated to meet on a double date. (I was the other person’s date, but that is a story for another day …)

My point today is that, just like many currently trying to enter the United States on the southern border, both our families were fleeing dictatorship and violence. Despite the obvious class differences between the lawyers and businessmen on one side and the bakers and teachers on the other, both our families were welcomed into the United States. 

For decades, until January 2017, Cubans enjoyed privileged immigration asylum status. They were given work visas, residency permits and, eventually, citizenship. We have been able to contribute to our country with our labor, our taxes and our absolute love of a free democracy. On new soil, our families started restaurant chains, hardware stores, gardening services and design firms. The next generation became lawyers, builders, doctors, writers, engineers and entrepreneurs. Almost all of us went to college. I have two master’s degrees; Daniel has only one — the slacker — but he also holds technology patents that first enabled folks to receive secure emails on home computers and phones. 

Thus, it’s no wonder that the Cuban American community has built (or rebuilt, as the case may be) fortunes, accumulated power and networked to give a hand to fellow Cubans as they arrive. But, I am often ashamed when I hear those who share our heritage embrace the right-wing rhetoric about immigrating “the legal way” as if our communal success were just a reflection of their talent, hard work and solidarity. ¡Por favor! We need to acknowledge that without the fast-track asylum privileges, we would be just like other communities, surviving in the shadows and kept from leveraging their work toward a better life for their children because of their documentation status. By 2018, 59% of the approximately 1.3 million Cuban immigrants in the United States were naturalized citizens, compared to 51% of the total foreign-born population. Further, Cubans have mostly resettled in Florida, which has granted the community an outsized voice in national elections — and rarely do the majority side with other immigrants. Truly, every general election cycle, my chatty home goes mute with shame as we watch the Florida election results come in overwhelmingly favoring Republicans. 

We see one administration after another, including the current one, bumble, not just through its immigration policy, but also on how to “sell it” to the American people. I ask myself, why does our country deny folks fleeing the same situations in Central America the opportunity we Cubans have been granted? The answers are ugly: it truly is about class, race and accrued xenophobia. This prejudice is quintessentially un-American and a double blow to immigrant families because from the cradle we are taught to worship the Constitution and our freedoms. Even during the era of Trump, we were aware that our dissent was a privilege. Despite the former president’s relentless denigration of people like us, which stung so bitterly that we cursed his name, we could do that here. However, those stuck inside Cuba could not speak the word ”Castro.” Instead, they learned to discreetly stroke their chins to indicate “the bearded one.”

We waste so much potential by refusing to understand how immigration strengthens our country. Immigrants work hard. They pay taxes. They have that fierce sense of community that many here for generations have lost. Daniel often tells me that as difficult as it was to come to the U.S., “this Cubanito would have never laid eyes on a computer, if it wasn’t for Fidel’s perfidy.” Instead of our current defensive framework, we need to see the families on the border pleading for help without racist fears and embrace the opportunity they represent. They are ever an asset to the United States. They have the fortitude, resilience and determination to start over that generational Americans, in their accrued first-world security, often lack.

Photos courtesy of the author.

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Vivian is a writer and activist. The daughter and wife of Cuban immigrants, she grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She lives in the beautiful mountains of Reno, Nevada. Vivian is committed to giving voice to humanitarian principles and working to hear them reflected in law and in the larger state and national dialogue. She has lived with multiple sclerosis for 20 years.

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