Like 44 million people in the United States, I am a proud, first-generation immigrant. But the United States has only 11 people serving in the U.S. House of Representatives today with firsthand experience immigrating here. Only one is Republican. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat representing Hawaii, is the only immigrant serving in the U.S. Senate.
Maybe that explains why Congress still has not ended the brutal family separation policies turning the stomachs and calling to the moral conscience of so many—and why it has taken weeks to convince President Donald Trump to take any action at all.
The North of Ireland was my first homeland, but I chose to leave after it was torn asunder by violent civil war. I still remember the soldiers who came into my home when I was 10 years old and separated me and my siblings from each other and our parents. I can still feel the terror of not knowing whether I’d ever see them again.
This is the fear and agony more than 2,300 children have felt since April as a result of the Trump administration’s inhumane zero-tolerance policies for families crossing the southern border. These children have been ripped from the arms of their mothers and fathers because this administration has decided to separate all families. And experts say the new executive order is unlikely to make a substantial difference for the rights of immigrant families; nor will it help those children already separated from their parents.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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When I escaped the Troubles of the North of Ireland I found the United States, fell in love with a U.S. soldier named Steven Browning, married, and settled on Long Island. Coming to the United States presented opportunities unimaginable as a scared young girl in the midst of civil war. I was welcomed and felt safe. The sight of soldiers filled me with confidence rather than dread, and the U.S. flag was a reminder that I was, at last, safe and secure.
Many of those now risking the arduous journey to our country are following the promise of the same flag, guided by the same promise that I once imagined: a chance for a better life, a safer home, a future filled with opportunity. Instead of accepting and welcoming them, we have torn apart their families and terrorized them with uncertainty.
Today, violence frighteningly similar to the kind I experienced as a young girl in the North of Ireland dominates life in much of Central and South America. It is no more surprising that those parents are seeking refuge than it was that thousands of Irish came here to escape famine and civil war. They are doing what we would all do for our families, what many of our ancestors did: coming to the United States in search of a better life.
When I came to the United States I was afforded the opportunity to join a community and grow a family. I became a school bus driver, trusted with the care of children. I became part of the bedrock of my community, and ran for local political office—me! An immigrant! For 20 years I served the Suffolk County Legislature’s 3rd Legislative District, where people of many races and nationalities mingled in a single community. And now I am running for Congress.
It is time for Congress to look like the United States. Americans are people who have come from many places carrying our dreams in our hearts and our children in our arms. Think how different our laws could be if our lawmakers were those people.
I believe we are a nation of infinite possibilities. At the same time, I understand we are not a nation of infinite resources. This is the time for common-sense immigration reform that strikes a balance between openness and security; between our desire to help and our realistic ability to absorb new arrivals. Zero tolerance is not common sense. Family separation is not common sense.
The stakes are too high to offer easy solutions to tough problems. Given that children are not at the table to speak for themselves, we must never play politics with their future, no matter how tough it is to get to the solutions we need. Take health care, which affects everyone in the country, including immigrants. As a former school bus driver and steward with the union, I know how difficult it is to negotiate for fair and affordable care. Everyone must be at the table in these discussions—insurance companies, employers, and workers.
Furthermore, the public policies supported by elected officials reveal the truth of where they stand on family. For example, the Trump administration has been dividing families at the border, even as many who profess to be against abortion and for “family” remain silent. Along with believing in keeping immigrant families together, I am 100 percent pro-choice; we should never compromise on reproductive health or allow the congressional attacks on Planned Parenthood to continue. I stood with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) as he announced the country’s most comprehensive paid family leave policy, so families don’t have to choose between food and caring for their loved ones.
And when it comes to children’s continued needs, I can say that growing up in Belfast during armed conflict taught me that seeing a tank or an armed soldier in front of your school does not make you feel safer. As the wife of a veteran and decorated New York City Police Detective and the mother of two active duty soldiers, I support the Second Amendment. And yes, I know how to shoot a gun too. But we must stand with students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and others across the country. I believe common sense means supporting bans on military-style assault weapons, and expanding the criminal background check system to cover all commercial firearm sales, including those at gun shows and over the internet.
I am an immigrant. I am an American. I remember what brought me here. I am ready to work together to move forward into a more secure and just future.