I’ve been told that America is the greatest country in the world since I was a toddler, hearing it repeatedly from my German grandparents who had lived and worked in New York City in the 1920s and then returned to Germany in 1935; they shared their stories with the rest of our family. Little did I know then that I would someday become an American. In the late 1970s, we were sponsored by my aunt who had married an American soldier after the war. I was 12 years old when we came, and I’ll tell you something: I did not want to leave Germany, even to move to the greatest country in the world, because I did not want to leave my friends. We came anyway, because who listens to a 12-year-old?
When we moved, my parents worked long hours doing menial jobs because their skills did not transfer here and my mother spoke no English. We lived with my aunt and her husband in a two-bedroom house for almost a year. During that time, I studied. First came English – I knew very little and wanted desperately to belong. Within a year, I was runner-up in the school Spelling Bee and lo and behold I had friends. Second came everything else – I knew if I worked hard, got good grades and “applied myself,” I would have opportunities. Within two years, I was a leader in every extra-curricular activity I could get my hands on, from student government to choir to the speech & debate team. I parlayed those opportunities into graduating with honors from one of America’s most selective colleges. My parents scrimped and saved, and I worked on and off campus to afford the tuition. Then I went to law school and worked hard some more.
Upon graduation, I chose to become an immigration lawyer. I did not go into it for the money – it is not usually a very lucrative specialty – but because I thought I could help others achieve their own American Dream which was so generously granted to me. For 25 years, I have proudly represented immigrants coming here through family or work. In my spare time, I have taught hundreds of law students from all over the world the rule of law and respect for democratic institutions. I am not a believer in “open borders,” but I am someone who knows that our country is enriched by almost all of immigrants who seek to be a part of this great nation.
I have accomplished a lot. But if I met and shared my story with the president or the attorney general, or others who have been espousing the pejorative term “chain migration,” how would they react? I would love to see their faces – would they backpedal or would they double down? I do not know that my one story would change their minds. But here’s the thing. It’s not just me. There are so many successful immigrants who came here because of the family-based immigration system. And that is the real tragedy – the term “chain migration” dismisses the families who benefit from family-based immigration and the benefits they bring to this country. Do a simple Google or Yahoo search (both have immigrant founders) to see how all our daily lives are enriched because of the work of immigrants and their belief in this country. I certainly wish the Trump administration would do the same research!
I know there are many things that make life difficult in America today – a changing job market, feelings of alienation, and distrust of many institutions, to name a few. But I – and people like me – are not the cause of these ills. In fact, we share them with every native-born American. Immigrants have been integral to America’s past and present. Please, let us continue to share the struggles and find the solutions for our future, together.
Watch Dagmar share more of her personal story in this month’s AILA Interview of the Month: