Why I celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month

Photo by Jennifer Whitney

My family first came to the U.S. in the early 1900s. With roots across the Atlantic Ocean in Galicia, Spain and — through my beautiful blended family — in Matehuala, Mexico, I am the intersection of two immigrant stories.

Moving to the U.S. and being an immigrant in this country is not the same as it was in the 20th century. For many of us, the feeling of excitement that accompanied calling the United States home has now been replaced with fear. Legislation like Senate Bill 4 in Texas, which allows police officers to ask about immigration status when an individual is arrested or detained (even in a traffic stop), is just one example.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in conversations about policy and the system as a whole, but we cannot forget that how we choose to address immigration as a country is also personal: It directly affects the lives of millions of people. At the YWCA, we provide mental health counseling services to women, men and children in the Greater Austin area. Many were born in the United States, while others were not. We witness the problems that stem from our broken immigration system and how fear of deportation plagues immigrants and their U.S.-born family members in our own communities.

Research has proven that actions such as anti-immigration legislation and discrimination can affect an individual’s physical and mental well-being. A study by the University of Michigan found this impact can be so severe that trauma associated with immigration can also affect infants. Furthermore, victims and witnesses of domestic violence are too scared to report crimes due to fear of deportation. According to police, Houston has seen a 43 percent drop in the number of Hispanics reporting sexual assaults in the first three months of this year.

This is Immigrant Heritage Month, a nationwide effort to gather and share inspirational stories of immigration in America. Immigrant Heritage Month is not only a celebration of culture and diversity. It is a moment to recognize people who have beat the odds and overcome barriers of inequity and injustice to contribute to the greater good of “us” as a nation. It is a time to honor the resilience of the immigrant spirit. This effort should not be supported by only those who are immigrants, but by neighbors, colleagues and friends who stand with the immigrant community.

Why do I stand with immigrants? Because I come from a long line of them. Because I am an immigrant myself. Like countless others before us, my family, too, arrived at Ellis Island with an entrepreneurial spirit that made the American Dream possible. Every individual — regardless of where you are from or what your background may be — should stand with immigrants. They have not only shaped our nation’s culture, but have driven our economy forward. They are us. We are them. Today, immigrants continue to help keep America competitive on a global scale and drive innovation forward, making up 20 percent of our nation’s entrepreneurs.

As we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month, I urge you to get to know people who are different from you. Take a moment to listen to someone’s story. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Learn about heritages other than your own. Be vocal. Demand a modernized immigration system that will not only support immigrants who have become a fundamental fiber of our national story, but will strengthen millions of families, communities, our economy and country for years to come.

Ángela-Jo Touza-Medina

Executive director, YWCA Greater Austin