According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 25 percent of practicing physicians in this country are foreign-trained, with many of them working in the nation’s most vulnerable areas — places like my city and in rural America. Rural counties overwhelmingly voted for President Trump; with his election, they may now lose their health insurance, and their doctors.
What our country stands to lose by walls and bans, in talent, drive, creativity and entrepreneurship, is staggering, but the personal toll is greater. In 1980, my family arrived here full of hope, trading a future of war, fascism and oppression for one of peace, freedom and opportunity. My parents are secular progressives, dissidents who opposed Saddam Hussein’s increasingly murderous and autocratic regime. A future in Iraq might have included imprisonment or death at the hands of the government. It is through these everyday-grateful immigrant eyes that I first saw our country as a 4-year-old and still see it today.
As a young immigrant, I may have been scared, and my school lunches looked and smelled different (no one knew what hummus or falafel was back then), but I was embraced in the suburban Detroit community where I grew up as one of the few brown kids.
The ban, and other equally ignominious limitations to immigration that may be on their way, ignore the contributions of our immigrants. Perhaps these limitations are an effort to return us to a make-believe “Leave It to Beaver” past. Whatever the motivation, my family and millions just like us are intertwined in the fabric of America. My mom taught English to recent immigrants, while my dad worked for General Motors as an engineer for 31 years, designing custom alloys. Together, they instilled in me and my brother an ethic of social justice and service-oriented work while providing us with a better life. The American dream was our reality.
Today, people still want to come to America, as it remains the epitome of freedom and prosperity, the richest country that ever was, and blessed by tranquillity. Immigrants know that the laws here shelter diversity, protect rights and property, and provide the opportunity for economic prosperity. America is as great as ever. And as immigrants we understand it is our obligation to continue making it great for all of us, no matter where we came from.
Now, though, there are little girls who look just like I did at that age, who see their place in the American dream fading away, which makes me wonder what we all stand to lose. Perhaps we are losing the kid who breaks the code of cancer; or the one who figures out how to make our economy grow better, to lessen inequality and provide more fulfilling jobs; or maybe the kid who starts the next great tech start-up. Six of America’s seven 2016 Nobel Prize winners were immigrants. In a previous generation, immigrant autoworkers became the backbone of the United Auto Workers, which was empowered by the Flint sit-down strike in the winter of 1936-37.
I grew up in an America that embraced, supported and celebrated me and my striving for a better life. I grew up confident and competent and keenly aware as an immigrant from a broken country that there is injustice in the world and understanding the need to always fight for justice. Indeed, this is what has guided and framed my work in Flint, where the children I treat woke to a nightmare of usurped democracy, environmental injustice and criminal government neglect.
For my Flint kids, the immediate daily struggle continues. Even now, more than a year after the city’s water problems were discovered, people here must rely on filtered and bottled water. We are still seeking the long-term government support to make sure kids here succeed. And while I’m glad I was there to help bring the Flint water crisis to light, I can’t help wondering if, with new limits on immigration, we are losing the next pediatrician who will expose a future public health disaster.
The sanctuary our nation provides benefits all of us, but that is not why we do it. It is the right thing to do. It was right yesterday and it is right in this moment, too. The “mother of exiles” has always embraced our children.
Today, there is a little brown girl like me, stuck beyond our border but hoping to come to this country. She is scared and tired. But her fresh eyes are wide, she is strong and hopeful, and she dreams our American dream.
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