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?