July Fourth. Glenn Ellyn, Illinois. My friends and I had just finished barbequing. As dusk approached, we hopped into my car to go see the fireworks at Lake Ellyn. After spending more time than we should have trying to find a parking spot, we rushed over to Lake Ellyn as the fireworks began before us. After getting slightly lost, we resorted to jumping fences to get to the lake, but when we got there it was all worth it. Hundreds of people stood there in silence watching the beauty of the fireworks over the lake.
Everyone was captured by the way the fireworks reflected off the lake, and the clear night sky acted like an empty canvas to be painted on. When you look up into the sky everything stops. At that moment in time there is nothing better you could be doing but to watch in silence. It was a moment of reflection that brought forth feelings of gratitude to be living in such a great country and joy for the chance to enjoy life with friends and family.
Many of our conversations regarding undocumented immigrants are concerned with politics. Depending on what political party we are affiliated with, we will often defend those policies till the end. Some will argue that we cannot allow illegal immigrants to reap the hard earned benefits of the American people. Others will defend their position by arguing that illegal immigrants are marginalized people who live their lives without any benefit of being recognized residents of this country. Depending on your view, you probably will take one position or the other. Or you will find yourself in the middle being able to sympathize with both arguments, and you wish there was only a politician who could combine the two sides. During this whole conversation, I think we neglect a crucial part of the discussion—the identities that are at stake.
Many of the things that define us are outside of our control. Our origin and place of birth, for example, determine so much of who we become. Sometimes kids complain about how they should be able to choose their parents, and I’m sure those parents sometimes wish the same thing about their kids! But we can’t pick and choose things like that, and without out consent we are born into the world, into a family into a community, and into certain cultures, ideas, and beliefs.
I did not choose to be born in Walita. But I was. I did not choose to be Ethiopian. But I am. The Ethiopian community marked me without my permission. I was formed by a culture I inherited, a heritage, history, and philosophical belief, which I did not choose. For the rest of my life I will be marked by the Walita, Soddo, Ethiopia community, which are things outside of my control. My body will long to dance like a Guragea at the beat of the drums my ears are so familiar with, and I will rejoice when I hear sounds that I have grown up to. My tongue will water to the smell of Tibs. My heart will melt at the sight of plateaus. These all are trivial things, and yet, they are signs of what has marked the empty canvas of my identity.
In the same way, many undocumented immigrants are defined by conditions and settings they did not choose. Without their permission, they were brought to the USA. Just like any kid in America, they grew up saying the pledge of allegiance, came to love July Fourth fireworks, hot dogs, and everything that makes America “America.” For many, their lives have been shaped in and by the United States. The way they see and understand the world is defined by America.
I am writing these things in an attempt to help people enter the mindset of an immigrant. For many of us who never have encounters with undocumented immigrants, we forget how similar they are to us— how their lives are so interwoven with ours in this ever-connected world. They are not that different from us. Many of the values American society holds dear are shared among immigrants, regardless of their legal status. The many immigrants who come to this great country everyday truly live out the “American dream.” To say that all undocumented immigrants are “alien” to us is certainly an unjust generalization.
When we consider immigration issues, we must be willing to understand and see undocumented immigrants who have come to embrace the “identity principles of America.” We must be willing to understand that, like us, many are American from the inside out even if their legal status says otherwise. If this is the case, as we reflect on our own identities and the identities of the immigrants around us, maybe we should not hastily assume “us” versus “them,” but rather “us” versus “us” because so many immigrants are Americans in every color of the imagination except, perhaps, the one that affords them rights.
 Walita is a region in Ethiopia.
 One of many tribes in Ethiopia, they are known for their tribal dances.
 A traditional meal in Ethiopia.
Yaphet Tedla is studying Economics with a minor in Math and International Relations at Wheaton College. He was born in Ethiopia and raised in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. He is very interested in where politics and economics intersect. After graduation, he hopes to pursue post-graduate study in Public Policy to further his understanding of how these two fields interact with one another.
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