So, Ma was trying to explain something to me about Grandma and when they grew up, but I couldn't pay attention to her because I was five years old, and I was petrified. I had just seen The Green Lady. Now, about a week earlier, I'd watched that movie "Godzilla," the one about that huge lizard-like beast storming a major city, and the thought of a green monster coming for me was stuck in my mind. And yet there I was, at the tip of Lower Manhattan with my mom, just staring at her: her horns, her muscles—all of it just frightened me. And I didn't know whether she was a monster or a hero. So I decided to consult the Google of the day—"Ma! Ma!"
My mother explained that The Green Lady is actually the Statue of Liberty and that she was waving immigrants in. Now, the part of her explanation that really messed with my young head was the fact that, according to Ma, long before us, The Green Lady was actually brown, brown like me, and that she changed colors over the years, much like America. Now, the part that really is intriguing about this is that when she changed colors, she made me think about myself. Now, it all made sense to me, because as a first-generation American, I was surrounded by immigrants. In fact, within my immediate social circle of the people who support me, who enrich my life, at least two are foreign-born. My life as a US citizen is in many ways shaped by newcomers, and chances are, so is yours.
There are more than 40 million immigrants in the USA. According to census data, a quarter of the nation's children have at least one foreign-born parent. I know all these statistics because I study global migration patterns. I'm a journalist, and for the last few years, I've been documenting the lives of US citizens who've lost people to deportation. And the numbers are enormous. From 2008 to 2016, more than three million people were "ordered removed"—that's the technical term for being deported. There is an economic, a political, a psychological and an emotional cost to those deportations—the moments when these circles are broken.
I once asked a US soldier, "Why did you volunteer to fight this war?" And she told me, "Because I'm proud to defend my country." But I pressed to know—"Really, when you're on base, and you hear bombs exploding in the distance, and you see soldiers coming back who are gravely injured, in that moment, when you know you could be next, what does 'my country' mean?"
She looked at me. "My country is my wife, my family, my friends, my soldiers." What she was telling me is that "my country" is a collection of these strong relationships; these social circles.
When the social circles are weakened, a country itself is weaker. We're missing a crucial aspect in the debate about immigration policy. Rather than focusing on individuals, we should focus on the circles around them, because these are the people who are left behind: the voters, the taxpayers, the ones who are suffering that loss. And it's not just the children of the deported who are impacted. You have brothers and sisters who are separated by borders. You have classmates, teachers, law enforcement officers, technologists, scientists, doctors, who are all scrambling to make sense of new realities when their social circles are broken. These are the real lives behind all these statistics that dominate discussions about immigration policy. But we don't often think about them. And I'm trying to change that.
Here's just one of the real-life stories that I've collected. And it still haunts me. I met Ramon and his son in 2016, the same year both of them were being ordered out of the country. Ramon was being deported to Latin America, while his son, who was a sergeant in the US military, was being deployed. Deported...deployed. If you just look at Ramon's case, it wouldn't be clear how deeply connected to the country he is. But consider his son: a US citizen defending a country that's banished his father. The social circle is what's key here.
Here's another example that illustrates those critical bonds. A group of citizens in Philadelphia were concerned about their jobs, because the legal owner of the restaurant where they worked was an undocumented immigrant, and immigration officials had picked him up. They rallied behind him. An immigration lawyer argued he was too important to the local community to be deported. At the hearing, they even submitted restaurant reviews—restaurant reviews! In the end, a judge exercised what's called "judicial discretion" and allowed him to stay in the country, but only because they considered the social circle.
There are 23 million noncitizens in the USA, according to verifiable federal data. And that doesn't include the undocumented, because numbers for that population are at best complex estimates. Let's just work with what we have. That's 23 million social circles—about 100 million individuals whose lives could be impacted by deportation. And the stress of it all is trickling down through the population. A 2017 poll by UCLA of LA County residents found that 30 percent of citizens in LA County are stressed about deportation, not because they themselves could be removed, but rather, because members of their social circle were at risk.
I am not suggesting that no one should ever be deported; don't confuse me with that. But what I am saying is that we need to look at the bigger picture. If you are within the sound of my voice, I want you to close your eyes for a moment and examine your own social circle. Who are your foreign-born? What would it feel like if the circle were broken?
Share your story. I'm building a global archive of first-person accounts and linking them with mapping technology, so that we can see exactly where these circles break, because this is not just an American issue. There are a quarter-billion migrants around the world; people living, loving and learning in countries where they were not born. And in my career, in my life, I've been one of them: in China, in Africa, in Europe. And each time I become one of these foreigners—one of these strange-looking guys in a new land—I can't help but think back to that day when I was in Lower Manhattan with my mom all those decades ago, when I was scared, and I had just spotted that green lady. And I guess the question that I keep on thinking about when I see her and all the younger replicas of her that are so obviously brown, and even the paintings that showcase her in the beginning as not quite green—when I look at all of that, the question that my research seeks to answer becomes, to me, the same one that confounded me all those years ago: Is she a monster or a hero?