In My Own Words: Viewing immigration from the other side

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The political debates about immigration continue and it’s unlikely the issue will ever be completely resolved – if only because each generation of Americans faces a different set of circumstances. What we rarely talk about during these debates is what these immigrants feel about our country. It’s certainly something I’ve rarely take into consideration, which is why Roya Hakakian’s “A Beginner’s Guide to America: For Immigrants and the Curious” (Alfred A. Knopf) was so thought provoking. Hakakian, who was born to an Iranian Jewish family, came to the United States in 1985 seeking political asylum. Her work is not really for immigrants, though, and, while at first it sounds like a critique, it’s really a love letter to her new home. 

If you want to appreciate our country, perhaps the best way may be to see it through a stranger’s eyes. For example, we take free speech for granted. Oh, we may fight over cancel culture or people’s rights to use certain phrases, but the sheer fact that we can have this debate shows just how lucky we are. We’re not looking over our shoulders knowing that our government will make us disappear if we write or say something of which it disapproves. Take a minute to think about this. It’s difficult to imagine your life any other way, isn’t it? That basic right, which is ingrained in our psyche, is something that Hakakian found amazing. Maybe we should take a minute to feel the same.

She also notes that when most immigrants arrive in the U.S., freedom of speech strikes them as the most important part of their new life. Yet, what Hakakian found even more amazing was the other part of freedom: the freedom to do mundane things, for example, to dress however you like; kiss in public – with no one paying you any heed; or to lie on the grass in the park undisturbed. The non-interference with religious practice also surprises her, as does women being allowed to decide how best to live their lives. 

What we also need to remember is that many immigrants did not want to leave their native lands. They’d hoped to make them better places, although that rarely happens, and were forced to flee for their lives. It becomes clear as time passes that few will be able to return to what was once a beloved homeland. The world they left will not embrace them if they try. At times, they may feel betrayed by their new home, such as when U.S. policy changes and the leader of our country sees their hated dictator as an ally against another enemy. But the fact that policy can change without the violent overthrow of our government just proves they are safe in their new home. 

While Hakakian’s work is unlikely change anyone’s mind about U.S. immigration policy, she does offer words of wisdom we should heed: “America cannot alone solve the problem of the current or forthcoming refugees; no single country or continent can. Nations must come together to affect the forces that are causing displacement at their root.” Refugees are a complex problem with no one easy or simple answer. But, at least we who were born in the U.S. haven’t had to give up our homes, leaves our families and face danger to escape tyrants. Yes, America is far from perfect. That’s something both Hakakian and I know. But it is unlike almost any other place in the world and that’s something we need to acknowledge, even as we struggle to make our homeland a more perfect place.