Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • Four years after arriving in the United States,

  • like any typical 16-year-old,

  • I went to get my driver's permit.

  • After I showed the clerk my immigration papers, my green card,

  • she told me it was fake.

  • "Don't come back here again," she said.

  • That's how I found out I was in America illegally.

  • And I'm still here illegally.

  • I'm a journalist and filmmaker.

  • I live in stories.

  • And what I've learned

  • that what most people don't understand about immigration

  • is what they don't understand about themselves:

  • their families' old migration stories and the processes they had to go through

  • before green cards and walls even existed,

  • or what shaped their understanding of citizenship itself.

  • I was born in the Philippines.

  • When I was 12, my mother sent me to live with her parents,

  • my grandparents,

  • or, as we say in Tagalog, lolo and lola.

  • Lolo's name was Teofilo.

  • When he legally emigrated to America and became a naturalized citizen,

  • he changed his name from Teofilo to Ted,

  • after Ted Danson from the TV show "Cheers."

  • Can't get any more American than that.

  • Lolo's favorite song was Frank Sinatra's "My Way,"

  • and when it came to figuring out how to get his only grandson, me,

  • to America,

  • he decided to do it his way.

  • According to Lolo, there was no easy and simple way to get me here,

  • so Lolo saved up 4,500 dollars --

  • that's a lot of money for a security guard

  • who made no more than eight dollars an hour --

  • to pay for the fake green card

  • and for a smuggler to bring me to the US.

  • So that's how I got here.

  • I can't tell you how many times people tell me that their ancestors

  • came to America "the right way,"

  • to which I remind them,

  • America's definition of "the right way"

  • has been changing ever since the first ship of settlers dropped anchor.

  • America as we know it is more than a piece of land,

  • particularly because the land that now makes up the United States of America

  • used to belong to other people in other countries.

  • America as we know it is also more than a nation of immigrants.

  • There are two groups of Americans who are not immigrants:

  • Native Americans, who were indigenous to this land

  • and who were killed in acts of genocide;

  • and African Americans, who were kidnapped, shipped and enslaved

  • to build this country.

  • America is, above all, an idea,

  • however unrealized and imperfect,

  • one that only exists because the first settlers came here freely

  • without worry of citizenship.

  • So, where did you come from?

  • How did you get here?

  • Who paid?

  • All across America, in front of diverse audiences --

  • conservatives and progressives,

  • high school students and senior citizens --

  • I've asked those questions.

  • As a person of color, I always get asked where I'm from,

  • as in, "Where are you from from?"

  • So I've asked white people where they're from from, too.

  • After asking a student at the University of Georgia

  • where he was from,

  • he said, "I'm American."

  • "I know," I said, "but where are you from?"

  • "I'm white," he replied.

  • "But white is not a country," I said.

  • "Where are your ancestors from?"

  • When he replied with a shrug,

  • I said,

  • "Well, where did you come from?

  • How did you get here? Who paid?"

  • He couldn't answer.

  • I don't think you can talk about America as America

  • without answering those three core questions.

  • Immigration is America's lifeline,

  • how this country has replenished itself for centuries,

  • from the settlers and the revolutionaries who populated the original 13 colonies

  • to the millions of immigrants, predominantly from Europe,

  • who relentlessly colonized this land.

  • Even though Native Americans were already here

  • and had their own tribal identities and ideas about citizenship,

  • they were not considered US citizens until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.

  • The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act that Black Americans fought for

  • inspired the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act,

  • which ended America's race-based exclusionary system

  • that had lasted for 40 years.

  • I could go on and on here,

  • but my point, my larger point, is this:

  • How much do any of us,

  • whether immigrants of the past or the present,

  • know of these crucial parts of American history?

  • How much of this history makes up the actual US citizenship test?

  • Have you ever seen it?

  • It's a mostly oral test,

  • and government officers ask applicants up to 10 of the 100 questions.

  • To pass, applicants must get at least six answers right.

  • I looked at the test recently,

  • and I was aghast at the questions posed

  • and what constitutes acceptable answers to the glaring omissions.

  • There's a question about the Statue of Liberty and where it is.

  • There's no question about Ellis Island,

  • about the United States as an immigrant nation

  • and the countless anti-immigrant laws that were passed.

  • There's nothing about Native American history.

  • There's a question about what Martin Luther King, Jr. did,

  • but largely, there's inadequate and irresponsible contexts

  • about African Americans.

  • Here's an example.

  • Question number 74 under the American history section

  • asks applicants to "name one problem that led to the Civil War."

  • There are three acceptable answers:

  • slavery,

  • states' rights,

  • economic reasons.

  • Did my Lola and Lolo get that question?

  • If they did get the question,

  • do they even understand the history behind it?

  • How about my uncles and aunties and cousins

  • and millions of other immigrants who had to take that test

  • to become Americans?

  • What do immigrants know about America before we get here?

  • What kind of citizenship are we applying for?

  • And is that the same kind of citizenship we actually want to be a part of?

  • Come to think of it -- I've been thinking a lot about this --

  • what does dignified citizenship look like?

  • How can I ask for it when I just arrived here 26 years ago,

  • when Black and Native people

  • who have been here in America for hundreds of years

  • are still waiting for theirs?

  • One of my favorite writers is Toni Morrison.

  • In 1996, a year before I found out I was in the country illegally,

  • my eighth-grade class was assigned to read "The Bluest Eye,"

  • Morrison's first book.

  • Instantly, the book challenged me to ask hard questions.

  • Why does Pecola Breedlove,

  • this young Black girl at the center of the book,

  • why did she want blue eyes?

  • Who told her to want it?

  • Why did she believe them?

  • Morrison said she wrote the book to illustrate what happens

  • when a person surrenders to what she called "the master narrative."

  • "Definitions," Morrison said, "belong to the definers, not the defined."

  • Once I realized that I was here illegally,

  • I convinced myself that if I was not a legal citizen by birth or by law,

  • another kind of citizenship was possible.

  • Citizenship as participation:

  • I engage.

  • I engage with all kinds of Americans, even Americans who don't want me here.

  • Citizenship as contribution:

  • I give back to my community in whatever ways I can.

  • As an undocumented entrepreneur -- and yes, there is such a thing --

  • I've employed many US citizens.

  • Citizenship as education:

  • We can't wait for others to educate us about the past

  • and how we got to this present.

  • We have to educate ourselves and our circles.

  • Citizenship as something greater than myself:

  • We are, I think, individually and collectively,

  • rewriting the master narrative of America.

  • The people who were once defined are now doing the defining.

  • They're asking the questions that need to be asked.

  • A core part of that redefinition

  • is how we define not only who is an American

  • but what constitutes citizenship.

  • Which, to me, is our responsibility to each other.

  • So consider your own personal narrative

  • and ask yourself:

  • Where did you come from?

  • How did you get here?

  • Who paid?