9 Personal Immigration Stories That Speak To America's True Nature Of Acceptance

This nation of immigrants should not forget its roots.

President Trump's first executive orders followed through on his campaign promises to clamp down hard on immigrants and refugees entering the U.S. Many Americans are employing the powerful tool of personal history to combat the xenophobia and racism that seems to have swept into power. The outpour of immigration stories from all corners of the country, many of them deeply emotional, speaks to how deeply intertwined America's immigration culture is with its character and spirit. 

This past week, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian posted an open letter to the website's more than 240 million users telling of his family's journey to America. "I am the son of an undocumented immigrant from Germany and the great grandson of refugees who fled the Armenian Genocide," Ohanian wrote. He encouraged other American Reddit users —  immigrants, children of immigrants, or children's children of immigrants — to share their families' stories in the comments section. Here are some of the most compelling ones. 

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1. "Let’s not forget that we’ve thrived as a nation because we’ve been a beacon for the courageous — the tired, the poor, the tempest-tossed."

"After two weeks abroad, I was looking forward to returning to the U.S. this weekend, but as I got off the plane at LAX on Sunday, I wasn't sure what country I was coming back to.

President Trump's recent executive order is not only potentially unconstitutional, but deeply un-American. We are a nation of immigrants, after all. In the tech world, we often talk about a startup's 'unfair advantage' that allows it to beat competitors. Welcoming immigrants and refugees has been our country's unfair advantage, and coming from an immigrant family has been mine as an entrepreneur.

As many of you know, I am the son of an undocumented immigrant from Germany and the great grandson of refugees who fled the Armenian Genocide.

A little over a century ago, a Turkish soldier decided my great grandfather was too young to kill after cutting down his parents in front of him; instead of turning the sword on the boy, the soldier sent him to an orphanage. Many Armenians, including my great grandmother, found sanctuary in Aleppo, Syria—before the two reconnected and found their way to Ellis Island. Thankfully they weren't retained, rather they found this message:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

My great grandfather didn't speak much English, but he worked hard, and was able to get a job at Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company in Binghamton, NY. That was his family's golden door. And though he and my great grandmother had four children, all born in the U.S., immigration continued to reshape their family, generation after generation. The one son they had—my grandfather (here's his AMA) — volunteered to serve in the Second World War and married a French-Armenian immigrant. And my mother, a native of Hamburg, Germany, decided to leave her friends, family, and education behind after falling in love with my father, who was born in San Francisco.

She got a student visa, came to the U.S. and then worked as an au pair, uprooting her entire life for love in a foreign land. She overstayed her visa. She should have left, but she didn't. After she and my father married, she received a green card, which she kept for over a decade until she became a citizen. I grew up speaking German, but she insisted I focus on my English in order to be successful. She eventually got her citizenship and I'll never forget her swearing in ceremony.

If you've never seen people taking the pledge of allegiance for the first time as U.S. Citizens, it will move you: a room full of people who can really appreciate what I was lucky enough to grow up with, simply by being born in Brooklyn. It thrills me to write reference letters for enterprising founders who are looking to get visas to start their companies here, to create value and jobs for these United States.

My forebears were brave refugees who found a home in this country. I've always been proud to live in a country that said yes to these shell-shocked immigrants from a strange land, that created a path for a woman who wanted only to work hard and start a family here.

Without them, there's no me, and there's no Reddit. We are Americans. Let's not forget that we've thrived as a nation because we've been a beacon for the courageous—the tired, the poor, the tempest-tossed.

Right now, Lady Liberty's lamp is dimming, which is why it's more important than ever that we speak out and show up to support all those for whom it shines—past, present, and future. I ask you to do this however you see fit, whether it's calling your representative (this works, it's how we defeated SOPA + PIPA), marching in protest, donating to the ACLU, or voting, of course, and not just for Presidential elections.

Our platform, like our country, thrives the more people and communities we have within it. Reddit, Inc. will continue to welcome all citizens of the world to our digital community and our office."

— Alexis (kn0thing)

2. "I'm incredibly thankful for the United State's refugee program because I literally wouldn't be alive without it."

"Both my parents grew up during the Khmer Rouge. When my father was a teenager he had to cross the border into Thailand and then back to Cambodia just to gather food for my family. Not only did he have miles to hike but he was also under the threat of being killed by Pol Pot's men or Thai soldiers. When he was 14 he threatened several Thai soldiers with a hand grenade just so he could take home a watermelon. Two of his sisters starved to death. My mom witnessed kids stepping on land mines and people being executed on the spot. My grandfather was executed by firing squad for being a teacher. Luckily both of my parents made it into Red Cross refugee camps. Both of them eventually moved here to the US where they met and had me and my brother. I'm incredibly thankful for the United State's refugee program because I literally wouldn't be alive without it. Now I'm 19 years old and ready to become an educated productive member of society. Although our country may have its problems, I still could not be any more prouder to be a United State's citizen."

Zexui

3. "He pushed himself into the local college; sometimes ate pigeons caught in his dorm room; drove $300 cars; and graduated with a Bachelors in Engineering."

"The year is 1975 and the Vietnam War has ended. My grandfather has been sent to a Reeducation camp, and my father at 17 years old becomes the man of the house. His uncle and him lease a 20ft fishing boat and for the next 9 months they learn how to operate, sail and feed themselves. Finally one night, he takes his crew, along with 200 others, and sneaks their way out of Vietnam to Malaysia.

After 3 days at sea, they finally see the coast. They start to enter the cove when the authorities using war boats shoo them away back into international waters.

This how I know my father, even at the age is 17, will always be smarter than me. He tells them to keep circling the in-land until they find the richest, most expensive resort they can find. Then, just before dawn, they sneak closely to the white sandy beaches, drop off the women and children quickly, go back out 100 ft and sink the boat. By the time the authorities have discovered them: there are 200 people floating on to the beach, boat sinking, and about 25 white tourists watching this commotion. The authorities cannot afford the bad press and allow them into Malaysia as refugees.

After 9 months, an American church sponsored him to come to America, legally. They paid for his plane ticket, and gave him a place to live and donated clothes (added this edit due to some confusions in the comments)

My father eventually made to America and landed in the dead of Boston's winter with $5 cash, an address, and is wearing shorts no less. Thankfully, a kind American gives him a jacket as he exits the airport.

At 19 years old, owning $5, a borrowed jacket, and without knowing English; he pushed himself into the local college; sometimes ate pigeons caught in his dorm room; drove $300 cars; and graduated with a Bachelors in Engineering and has played a small but integral part in creating the first personal computers."

G1trogFr0g

4. "This weekend has brought back all of those memories of being scared of being found out as an undocumented kid."

"Amnesty works. Here's my story:

My mom carried me, almost 5, and my newborn baby brother on a plane from South America to the US in 1979 to join her husband who had been here six months. They came for economic opportunity, traveling on visitor visas they let expire and working under relatives' social security numbers (who had since moved out of the country).

My mom cleaned houses for a Mexican family business and I remember going with her on days I couldn't go to school, watching her break her back cleaning for other people. The business owner's son had a small industrial equipment company who needed a receptionist and they have her a chance. She taught herself English and within 12 years was a VP managing a major portion of the company's accounts. She also taught herself Portuguese to be ale to communicate and travel to work with their Brazilian customers.

In the meantime she and my dad applied for permanent legal residence under the 1986 amnesty program. I was 12. I was scared because I'd known we were 'illegal' and that coming forward there was a risk we'd get sent back. (That happened to my aunt - she had violated a law no one knew about having to do with when she arrived in the US and she had to leave for a year with her newborn daughter). Thankfully we got our green cards.

My dad didn't do so well- he worked at a steel factory for a while until he was laid off. He was a driven entrepreneur at heart but no matter what business he tried they never took off. His most successful attempt were gluten-free cookies that got picked up at the local Whole Foods but he couldn't take his business to scale and it went bad.

For lots of normal reasons, my parents split a couple of years after we got our green cards. My mom worked two to three jobs always, every night, every weekend, while holding her 9 to 5. My dad kept pouring money into doomed businesses so it was up to her to make it all work for me, my brother, and my new sister.

Almost forty years since we came here illegally, I'm now a lawyer working at a small nonprofit (were the ones who'd been fighting against Steve Mnuchin before he was nominated to Treasury Secretary and have been feeding our research to the Senate dems in the last few weeks). I'm married to a wonderful woman and we've been trying to get pregnant for a few years now. My brother is in tech- one of the early, never went to college techies who rode the booms and busts and now still techs with his also techie husband in San Francisco. My sister has two beautiful kids and a husband; he's a graphic designer, she's an x-ray technician at a major sports university.

In 2002, I became a citizen. It was less than a year since 9/11 and again, I was scared that the national reaction might mean even green cardholders weren't safe so I applied for naturalization as quickly as I could. I was sworn in with hundreds of other immigrants at a ceremony in Faneuil Hall in Boston- one of the most historic buildings in this country. I was a grown adult, crying like a kid with emotion. And still, in the moment between when they had us hand in our green cards, walking down the line to pick up our naturalization certificates, I felt in limbo. I thought, if something happens right now, I'm not safe.

This weekend has brought back all of those memories of being scared of being found out as an undocumented kid, of being told never to lose or hand over my green card to anyone because it was my protection, of that moment when I didn't have it and even though I knew my citizenship was literally a few yards away, I was terrified. (As was the elderly lady behind me who asked me whether it was true that we really had to hand over the green card and wasn't that dangerous?)

I don't know to end this comment except to say that I feel incredibly lucky. It was not for any reason personal to anyone in my family that we were never the target of policies like the ones being ordered and carried it today. We're no more hardworking or intelligent or law abiding than most other immigrants, so why do they get this while we got lucky?"

 — kakavl

5. "She contributed in every possible way that a citizen could, but she kept her Spanish and Venezuelan dual citizenship...because she was aware that the American Dream was not guaranteed."

"My mother was (past tense because she passed away) an immigrant from Venezuela. She came to start her life over after living in poverty and marrying a much older man when she was 19 just to get out of her abusive and suffocating life with her mother. She had a son with her first husband but soon realized she couldn't make a good life for him there and she needed to get as far from her now ex husband who was stalking her with the help of her mother.

She moved to the US with a boyfriend, nothing to their names but a beaten down car which they used to get their first jobs delivering newspapers in the morning before anyone was awake. She did that until she could afford to go to National University in San Diego and get her degree in human resources. That's where she met my dad, a 4th generation Californian, but technically just as much an American born of immigrants as she was. In fact his great great grandfather came from Norway on the first ship around the world looking for a better life.

They eventually got married and had me and then my younger brother. We were born in California, and my mom was the main source of income while my dad started his own business. When my dad's business became substantial enough to support us when I was about 12, she switched to a more part time job while also being an extremely hands on mother. She joined the PTA, ran the elementary school newsletter, drove us to and from school and extracurricular activities, made every meal, took care of the house, the pets, made tons of friends, was known in the community as someone who would step in when there was a need that needed to be met.

She contributed in every possible way that a citizen could, but she kept her Spanish and Venezuelan dual citizenship (she was born in Spain and moved to Venezuela as a child to escape Franco, that's a whole other story), because she was aware that the American Dream was not guaranteed. She always said she'd become a citizen if Hillary ever ran for president though. She was very aware and invested in American politics, which was why it scared her to see how quickly and terribly things could change for Americans, citizens and immigrants alike, and why she kept her foreign citizenships.

She was one "tough cookie" (she loved that American saying). She passed away when I was 15 but she lives in me, my brother, my half brother, her sister and brother in law, their kids (all of whom are now American citizens from Venezuela and have jobs and houses and businesses, or are American students), and all the people she touched. I identify as a product of a hard ass, brave, funny, loving, and incredibly proud immigrant. This country is lucky as hell to have had her for 22 years of her life."

timetospeakY

6. "There is right now the equivalent of my father as a Syrian kid out there right now."

"Astronomer here! I just had a colleague in the Netherlands who is a kickass astronomer forced to turn down an invited talk to a prestigious institute in the USA. Which would be an amazing career boost and really help out science in the USA as well... but he happens to be Iranian in addition to Dutch, because his father is, so he can't come give his invited talk. This is so fucking awful on so many levels.

My own family's immigrant story because you asked: I am a first generation American, born from Hungarian parents. My father was born in a refugee camp in Austria after WW2- his first crib was a flour crate, my grandfather with two PhDs worked in a rock quarry for pennies, and they got sponsored to Canada when my dad was 3. At the time the USA also discriminated against nationalities for immigration- my family was on the "losing side" of WW2 so were not allowed entry even though they were against the war, of course. But my father moved to the USA with his family in high school the year the law was changed (my grandfather immediately got university teaching jobs until he died), and my dad started a small business that provided for many Americans many times over the initial investment.

My mom came over in the 1980s, as a defector from communism, and married my father. So basically turning her back on her home, at the time with no idea on when she'd ever return. She ultimately got a graduate degree in education and raised some pretty awesome children who are productive citizens (if I may say so), and we are all proud to be Americans.

It makes me so sad now to know that there is right now the equivalent of my father as a Syrian kid out there right now, for whom once again the door is closed."

Andromeda321

7. "The day I became a citizen was one of the proudest days in my life."

"I'm a foreigner who has become a naturalized citizen of the United States.

My parents, both of whom hold doctorate degrees, brought our family here when I was 5 years old. My father was escaping a brutal civil war in Africa.

A 'terrorist state.'

We had green cards, which meant that we could live here permanently.

But after many years living in this country, we wanted to take it a step further. We all applied for citizenship.

It's not always an easy (or cheap) process. My dad made it first, then my mom. When I was 18 (having lived the past 13 years in the US) I was finally approved for citizenship.

The day I became a citizen was one of the proudest days in my life. I was sworn in, given an American flag pendant, and the next day I signed up for selective service (puts your name in the drawing for military draft, should that ever happen again).

My parents are both doctors. I and my sister earned masters degrees and work in the medical field. My other sister earned her doctorate and is a college professor.

We are good citizens. We pay our taxes. No one in my family has been in legal trouble. My sister has spent years volunteering at a homeless shelter, I have spent years volunteering at a free clinic for low-income people who don't have health care. My other sister is a foster parent and works with troubled and abused children.

I may be arrogant in saying this, but I feel like we have paid our dues, that we have given back as much as we have gotten.

Green cards are hard to get. WE WERE VETTED. You don't just show up and say, 'I'd like three green cards please.'

And citizenship takes effort for years, and diligence, and money.

We aren't citizens just because we happened to be born in Kentucky or Pennsylvania or Ohio.

We are citizens because we love this country enough that we are willing to make the effort over years (and spend thousands of dollars) just so we can have that little flag on our lapel and have the pride to say we are American.

Is THAT the kind of person Trump wants to keep out?"

moby323

8. "I see lots of immigrants in my city, many Ugandans and Central Americans, and I see my mother and me in every mother and son that walk hand in hand."

"My mother's parents were undocumented from Mexico. My grandpa enlisted and served as a radio operator in the pacific in WW2. He returned and was a high school janitor in San Bernardino California; the whole school loved him and celebrated him when he retired. My grandma raised a large family and they've all found success in life.

But my mother was the only child to leave the state. She married my father, a premed student at the time, and moved to Boston and raised a wonderful family. I'm half white / half Mexican. My mom was always much darker. In our affluent NE neighborhood she was often mistaken for a maid, people assumed she didn't speak English, and worse they assumed I wasn't her child because our skin tone was different.

But she never got angry, she never got mad. She taught me love and tolerance and forgiveness and respect. She always looked like an outsider, but she was the lynchpin of every community she was involved in.

She was killed in the skies above Manhattan, she was a passenger on flight 11 on September 11th. I lived in NYC at the time and watched the first tower fall, unaware the mother was already gone. She was the daughter of undocumented immigrants, a short brown Mexican woman and she died horrifically in a terrorist attack because she was American.

She taught me well. My patriotism increased but my skepticism of jingoism did as well. I celebrate the America that allowed me to exist, the grandson of a woman who walked barefoot from Mexico and swam the Rio Grande. The grandson of two sets of grandfather's that fought fascism, my Dad's dad flew a Flying Fortress over Germany. My father is a well respected doctor and my mother was love filled social worker. I am married to an immigrant and I fiercely love the country that took in my grandparents and my wife.

I see lots of immigrants in my city, many Ugandans and Central Americans, and I see my mother and me in every mother and son that walk hand in hand.

This ban is un-American. This ban is a betrayal to my ancestors and a betrayal to my mother who unwillingly gave her life for her country. So much violence has been done in the name of my peace loving mother, I will not let state sanctioned intolerance and bigotry to be done in her name as well."

Mutch

9. "When Trump talks about refugees, he's talking about my family."

"My story:

In 1989, thanks to a Jewish refugee resettlement non-profit, a father, mother, and their almost two year old boy came to Upstate NY, America as religious refugees from the Soviet Union. They spent almost 4 months escaping and waiting for their visas in both Austria and Italy. They had a few suitcases, a couple hundred dollars, and literally no idea where they were going, they just knew that they HAD to go there.

The parents delivered newspapers, did maintenance in hotels, fixed houses, and worked retail. The mother, with just a basic grasp of the English language, got a computer science masters degree and a job that would end up employing her for now almost 20 years.

After arriving in the US, they had a daughter. She was the first in the entire extended family to be born as a natural American citizen.

The little boy and that little girl learned English from Disney and from their Sega Genesis. They both graduated college from that same school their immigrant mother got her master's from, and are now successful in their respective fields. That son and that daughter would have barely had a chance in this world without the determination and bravery of their parents. And would not be here without the help of the United States accepting people in with open arms.

My name is Thellamajew. I am the proud daughter of refugees.

When Trump talks about refugees, he's talking about my family. My brother, my mother, my aunt, my grandparents. He is talking about my 102 year old great grandmother who saw the atrocities of WWII. A time when refugees were turned back on the boats they came on.

I will not stand for this. I will fight. I will reach out to non profit refugee groups and do whatever I have in my power to not let history repeat itself.

I hope, the next time you hear the word refugee you take a moment to really think about what that means and what coming to a place of freedom means to those people. And please. Please. Please. Remember that we are all humans. Be on the right side of history this time."

thellamajew

Cover image via a katz / Shutterstock

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