The Collective Immigrant Struggle- What GOP Presidential Hopefuls Have in Common With First Gens

While no story is a carbon copy of another, immigrant experiences are full of commonalities—survival tactics and struggles with identity—found in the experiences of people across cultures. GOP presidential candidates, among the harshest critics of amnesty and reform, have themselves exhibited some of these behaviors. 

The Obama administration’s sidestepping congress to implement by executive memo policies that would grant amnesty to up to 5 million illegal immigrants has unleashed a struggle that, now on its way to the Supreme Court, will undoubtedly become one of the defining moments of his presidential legacy.

Phrases like “path to citizenship” are inadequate in humanizing the modern immigrant experience. Images of Syrian refugees barred from asylum confront us with the visceral reality of being barred from nations that would provide means to a safer, economically sustainable life. It should also remind the American people of the 1.3 million immigrants in the US who live in limbo due to stalled immigration policies. The lives of these individuals are more than laws and political jargon. The immigrant and first generation experience is intrinsic to the American identity in a way that is more urgent than we usually acknowledge.  

In 2007, actor and playwright Ngozi Anyanwu, 33, had an idea to create a theatrical piece about first generation Nigerians. As the third child of Nigerian immigrants raised in Bucks County, PA, she dreamed of sharing her story of being first generation on stage.

After multiple workshop performances in NYC, first generation audience members from various backgrounds related that the play resounded with them in specific, personal ways.

“Whether you were Nigerian or not, first generation or not, you got it. I think the thing was, ‘What do we struggle with as people?’ Everyone struggles with identity in some way, shape, or form,” says Anyanwu.

Struggles with identity are the maneuvering that ensues is a common aspect of the immigrant experience. Presidential candidate Donald Trump is the descendant of Scottish and German immigrants. His father, Friedrich Trump, so successfully lied about his German ancestry that his own children believed him. Donald Trump had to correct his claim of Swedish ancestry made in his bestseller, “How to Make a Deal.

Call it selective identification or blatant dishonesty, the tales of Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz fighting alongside Fidel Castro are dubious at best. Claiming to be present at the execution of Fred Pais and being called a “wishful thinker” by a member of Castro’s staff, reminds us of the desperation to be known, accepted, and praised in the country of immigration.

A first generation person is loosely defined as the child of immigrants. The designation has sub categories including 1.5 and 1.75, terms coined by Ruben G. Rumbaut, a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at UC Irvine.  A 1.5 gen is a person who migrated during or before the early teens and still has clear memory of the country of birth.

Hansol Choi, 27, a Korean 1.5 from Las Angeles migrated to the states when she was 7 years old with her parents and younger brother. She describes her journey to claiming 1.5 as a need to honor both heritages. Though she is a naturalized citizen, she maintains a duality of identity that she states is best described by the 1.5 generation designation. Choi described going by Ashley—a name given to her by an aunt to help her assimilate in America—as a teenager because she felt awkward having a Korean name in her church.  Though the members were predominately Korean, people Choi’s age had been in the states longer and typically didn’t have Korean accents or go by Korean names. 

Genet Lakew, an Ethiopian digital content manager from Addis Ababa who migrated to the US when she was 8 spoke about the nuances of first generation people. “I’m always paying attention to those differences based on when they came here. Someone who came when they were five or eight versus someone who came when they were thirteen or fourteen—you can definitely pick up on certain differences based on their values and how they look at the world.”

Constant duality, living in between an old world and a new one, and the desire to assimilate co-mingled with the conflicting pressure to never forget one’s heritage are realities among first generation people that have a particular effect on school children.

Commenting on the experience of children in schools, Anjoli Santiago, a program director at The Liberty LEADS School in Manhattan states, “It seems the students are in a constant state of transition from home life to school life, in languages, in behaviors, and attire. Between this and their developmental stage (for 5-9th graders) students can be easily traumatized and want to disconnect from family or friends. This is an important stage for seeking and creating identity. This is a time that I've witnessed many students fantasize a different heritage, family, and history.”  

Though Marco Rubio seems to be adept in managing his dual identity on the campaign trail, comfortably speaking Spanish when appropriate, he naturally expresses exasperation when challenged about speaking Spanish. Even the most charismatic candidate hiccups when confronted with managing aspects of his identity in front of would be voters who adamantly identify with ostensible American purity. 

While some struggle to prove the veracity of an American identity, others know that solely identifying as American will never be a viable option. Asaki Kuruma, 32, a Japanese immigrant from Yokohama, who moved to Philadelphia when she was twenty years old, relates her identity struggles are compounded by a family history of immigration. “I don’t know what my identity is anymore. I am the descendent of immigrants. My parents are Korean, but we were raised as Japanese.” After her student visa expired and she was unable to find work in her field of study, she lived as an illegal for years. When asked if she identifies any part of herself as American, she says, “No. I don’t think I ever will.”

The multibillionaire, Donald Trump, who would build an ornate door to keep out Mexican immigrants can’t deny the remnants of desperation in his own lineage.

The family man, Marco Rubio, whose immigration plan will screen immigrants based on skills, not on keeping families together, uses his grandfather’s dying wish as a sentimental catalyst and ignores the economic sense of immigration policy that upholds family ties. Noted opponent of amnesty, Ted Cruz disparages Obama’s desire to fundamentally change the nation, yet conveniently forgets that his father supposedly sought to “fundamentally change” Cuba.

One could forgive these oversights and choose to view them as akin to the complications of dual identity and the desperation to be accepted that is a hallmark of first generation and immigrant people. But maybe that would be a step too far. After all, the candidates display no such consideration conveniently ignoring the ways the immigrant experience is theirs.