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For comprehensive immigration solution, we Americans must see our part of the problem

E.J.R. David
OPINION: Perhaps considering the effects that American foreign policy appears to have on immigration, as it is experienced by Alaskans or an individual like Jose Antonio Vargas (pictured), might lead to a truly comprehensive immigration solution. Brent McDonald / The New York Times

Approximately 57,000 Alaskans are foreign-born, about 7.5 percent of state population, and an additional estimated 5,000 Alaskans are "undocumented." The largest immigrant group in Alaska are Asians, the third largest racial group in the state after Whites and Natives. Approximately half of the Asian population in Alaska is Filipino (the other 12-plus Asian ethnic groups split the remaining half). Also, unlike most other states, where Mexicans make up the largest immigrant ethnic group, Filipinos are the largest immigrant ethnic group in Alaska, with the large-scale migration of Filipinos to the state beginning in the early 1900s when the Philippines was a U.S. colony. So, chances are that every Alaskan knows someone who is foreign-born, Filipino, or both.

So how can this relatively unique Alaska characteristic inform America's national immigration concern? What can the historical and contemporary experiences of our Filipino-Alaskan relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors add to the national discussion about immigration reform? Let's start by talking about the most visible person of Filipino heritage right now (beside Manny Pacquiao) -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas -- who was born in the Philippines but was smuggled by his family into the U.S. as a child.

Jose Antonio Vargas and the national immigration issue

Vargas has been the public face of immigration reform over the past few years, as he exposes the holes of U.S. immigration policies by revealing the struggles that he and millions of other undocumented Americans are experiencing. The enormity and complexity of the immigration issue has received more attention recently with CNN's documentary about Vargas being aired on a prime-time Sunday slot, and the wide-scale media coverage on the influx of border children.

A few days ago, after visiting with and advocating for the border children in Texas,  Vargas was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers as he tried to board a plane to Los Angeles. This marked the first time that Vargas was interrogated by federal immigration officers since he "came out" about his undocumented status approximately two years ago.

Although Vargas was eventually released, the struggles facing him and the millions of other undocumented Americans remain, and the need for comprehensive immigration reform has become even much more apparent and imperative. Whatever form this immigration policy reform ends up taking, the process needs to consider and incorporate the likelihood that perhaps Americans -- or more specifically, our foreign policies and impositions on various countries in the past and in modern times -- might also be parts of the "immigration problem." With this acknowledgement, then maybe we can come up with a truly comprehensive "immigration solution."

Let me highlight some things about the experiences of Vargas and the millions of other immigrants in the U.S., which may shed some light on that point.

America 'went there' first

Vargas is a productive member of the American society, someone who was educated in the U.S., has paid taxes, employed Americans, and contributed to the common good. The US. has been his home for more than 20 years -- and given the U.S. long military, political, economic, and cultural involvement in the Philippines -- America definitely has always been in Vargas' heart.

The U.S. colonization of the Philippines and the resulting Americanization and American-dependence of modern-day Philippine culture, standards, worldview, and economy, have created a context wherein it is almost inevitable for most Filipinos to culturally and economically struggle. Such a post-colonial context also makes it so that, in order for Filipinos to rise from such hardships, they, like many other immigrant groups throughout history, need to become as Americanized as much as possible. And what better way there is to Americanize and succeed than to be in America -- or so goes the message that the Filipino masses receive.

Indeed, in a study that is a part of a 2013 American Psychological Association journal special issue on immigration my colleague, Dr. Kevin Nadal, and I found that 96 percent of Filipino immigrants in the U.S. have experienced Filipino cultural denigration and American idealization while they were still living in the Philippines. Thus, Vargas was born in a context wherein people saw America as a very viable and attractive option for social mobility, to escape the perceived hopelessness in the Philippines. And this is largely due to what America did, and is still doing, to the Philippines.

Vargas' experiences and circumstances are not unique. The Filipino immigrant experience is not unique. There are millions of other productive undocumented Americans in the U.S., and they too are from countries that have been colonized, militarized, or significantly influenced by the U.S. in one way or another. U.S. colonialism and other forms of American cultural, military, or economic imposition -- both historically and contemporarily -- on various countries throughout the world need to be acknowledged and incorporated into how we think about the immigration issue, so that we can more completely understand immigrants' realities and experiences.

Just as the case for Vargas and the millions of Filipino immigrants for whom American colonialism plays an important factor, the Latino, African, and other Asian immigration experiences need to be framed and understood in terms of U.S. colonialism and U.S. foreign policies.

For instance, it is not a coincidence that the majority of the border children are coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador -- countries that the U.S. was heavily involved in during the Contra wars, which led to the civil wars, economic instability, poverty, and extreme violence in these countries that are now being cited as the main reasons why the border children have fled and are seeking refuge in the U.S. The U.S. has, at the very least, significantly contributed to the hopelessness that is currently being felt by many people in these Central American countries.

Let's look at ourselves, too

People do not just wake up one day all of a sudden wanting to leave their home countries -- everything and everyone they know and are familiar with -- and move into the U.S. Immigrants are not genetically programmed to want to risk their lives -- and those of their loved ones -- just to cross America's borders. There is no such thing as an inborn "I gotta get to America even if it's a very dangerous journey that means leaving everything I love behind" instinct.

We need to broaden our conceptualization of the immigration experiences of historically colonized or "American-influenced" countries, and consider how such American interventions and impositions may have influenced peoples' immigration into the U.S.

With the "immigration problem," we need to look at the environment -- the historical and contemporary contexts. We need to consider that, perhaps, the U.S. brought this "immigration problem" unto itself. That, perhaps, we also need to look at ourselves and our policies as contributing to this problem. Even further, perhaps our solutions to this problem need to go beyond simply blaming and punishing the victims of our policies. Then, once we have looked at all the major players -- or, dare I say culprits -- perhaps a truly comprehensive "immigration solution" can be achieved.

E.J.R. David Ph.D., is the author of two books and is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he also serves as Director of the Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology (ANCAP) program. At 14, his parents sent him and his younger brother, 8 at the time, from the Philippines to the U.S. When they arrived at their port of entry, they learned that they had the proper documentation. Although millions of others are not as lucky as he was to have papers, Dr. David believes their lives and experiences are not of any less value.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.