Am I an unequal citizen of America?

At my daughter’s college graduation ceremony last week in Middletown, Conn., an older, nattily dressed white gentleman seated in the row ahead of us turned and asked, “Do you live in America?” I was surprised by the question and wary of its intent but nodded my head, and the man launched into an explanation of how he had started a business producing and selling a brand of Indian yogurt with two other Indian-American immigrants. It became apparent that he’d wanted to tell us about his yogurt business, with his initial question as the lead-in. He delightedly asked my family and me to “Google” him.

At a formal lunch with my daughter’s friends and their families the night before, a parent asked me when my daughters had come to the country. When I said they had been born here, the parent apologized for her question. Later, when I remarked about how Connecticut was a long way from San Francisco, the same parent chose to counter with, “but closer than India.”

It’s true. I am brown and visibly immigrant. My children are brown and invisibly American. Our ethnicity exposes us to questions and comments exactly like these. It’s also true that both questions had no malicious meaning and possibly came from genuinely nice individuals. And yet, they made me uncomfortable.

The idea of citizenship is tied deeply to our personhood and social formation. When we are questioned about our identity, we are questioned about our loyalties, which leads to the question of citizenship equality. Are we all equal citizens? Do some of us have a stronger claim to American membership than others?

In his book, “The Ethics of Immigration” (which was assigned reading for my graduating daughter, and which I began to read on my flight back from Connecticut), Joseph H. Carens writes that “the democratic ideal of equal citizenship entails much more than formal legal equality.” Carens lists some of the entailments as the freedom to live life as citizens choose; a rough equality of opportunity in education and economic life; having a voice in the shaping of rules that affect all residents; and interacting with fellow citizens on terms of mutual respect and fairness.

Carens calls immigrant citizens a “vulnerable minority,” as they differ from the majority in physical appearance, religion, language and cultural markers including attire, accent and food. And any of these differences in cultural behavior takes away from our ability to be equal citizens.

In my own case, as an immigrant citizen living in the Bay Area, I’m only on very rare occasions made aware of my vulnerability. So, I don’t believe it’s a steady state. However, I understand the term could apply to others. The point, though, is that these arguments and reflections have become particularly important under the present administration, when the idea of unequal citizenship is brought up again and again.

When citizen NFL players kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police violence against communities of color, their citizenship is called into question. Talking to Brian Kilmeade of “Fox and Friends,” President Donald Trump remarked that NFL players who don’t stand for the anthem “shouldn’t be in the country.”

The idea of assimilation and integration as yardsticks for acceptability into the good citizenship network also comes up frequently.

Back before he occupied the White House, in a conversation with Sean Hannity of Fox News on June 15, 2016, Trump remarked about the Muslim community’s lack of assimilation. “Assimilation has been very hard. It’s almost — I won’t say nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. And I’m talking about second and third generation.” This statement from Trump directly targeted the American Muslim community’s sense of belonging, even attacking those who’ve called America home for generations.

This kind of rhetoric perpetuates the idea of unequal citizenship at a time when we are becoming more and more diverse as a nation and as a population.

American Progress published a status report on immigration in 2017 that found 43.3 million foreign-born people live in the United States. Out of this number, 20.7 million are naturalized U.S. citizens. The report stated that, in 2015, the most number of immigrants, 11.6 million — 26.9 percent — were from Mexico, 2.7 million from China, 2.4 million from India and 2 million from the Phillipines, to name the top four countries. The report also said more Mexican immigrants are returning home than arriving in the U.S.

In San Francisco, the U.S. Census announced a surge of 8,000 immigrants in 2017 population estimates. In an analysis of these numbers, Paragon Real Estate Group found that while more local San Francisco residents are moving to other states, the foreign migration into San Francisco is largely responsible for the surge reported by the U.S. Census.

As millions of America’s immigrants become U.S. citizens, we need to have the vocabulary to include them into our everyday conversations and interactions without eroding their sense of national participation.

As Carens states, “One obvious way to promote the inclusion of immigrants is to establish rules that prohibit discrimination on the basis of characteristics that tend to distinguish citizens of immigrant origin from other citizens.”

The yogurt businessman at the graduation ceremony only asked us, the people of Indian descent, about our American residency. So, how would you have responded?

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

Jaya Padmanabhan
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Jaya Padmanabhan

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