Trump’s Birthright Citizenship threat brings up lies from history

A World War II swearing in ceremony of Filipino military recruits rushed to draft and citizenship. (Photo in public domain and provided by Filipino American National Historical Society Archives.)

President Donald Trump’s recent statement that he would undo Birthright Citizenship with an executive order finally made me do something I don’t do — lie to my kids.

It’s been a roller coaster seeing the executive branch’s effects on the world, but I’ve been keeping up with my kids’ questions and concerns. In particular, for the last couple years I’ve been very open with addressing race and equity problems with my children. Our nation is troubled, and race problems are real.

In our home, my wife and I try not to shelter our young elementary schoolers too much. From my parental lens I see them as fun, curious, and clever enough to grasp hard topics. For myself, a father’s duty is giving children the truth in a way they can understand. A family morning in my home begins with breakfast and TV news.

Over the weekend, I explained there is no reason to hate Jewish people. Period. No one is coming after us.

But a few days later I had to lie to my little girl.

From the hallway my wife and I talked about Trump’s announcement that he would remove birthright citizenship. Our daughter asked what we were discussing and I gave her a white lie, a similar refrain that parents give their children, “We weren’t saying anything. It’s nothing important.”

A few minutes later, she and her brother taunted both of us from the other room: “Deportation, deportation!”

That small instant in the hallway may not have been a big deal, but that lie was the result of global history shaping our home.

Our nuclear family has a lot of variety. I am a mixed race Filipino American. My wife is a Korean American adoptee. Our children are Asian American. When our children ask me to describe their ethnicity, I give two answers because they are both correct. I break down my European and Asia Pacific ancestry. I end with the absolute statement: “No matter what you are 100 percent American. Don’t let anyone treat you like a foreigner.”

This is the single most common stereotype we as parents have dealt with our whole adult lives, and a lesson to bring up with our kids. Still, the constant foreigner syndrome persists to affect us. My home has been nowhere but America. I am a citizen whose American family history begins with colonialism, and second class status as U.S. nationals. My wife, an adoptee from South Korea, has known nothing but white America, brought here by the grace and love of strangers.

My children, born of a foreign mother in Seattle, know nothing but the Pacific Northwest.

Unfortunately, the President’s proposed executive order can make my kids’ claims as Americans a dubious statement in the eyes of other citizens.

United States policy has always influenced the composition of American identities, including for my children. On my wife’s side, the Korean War resulted in orphans and then Americans setting up adoption services. During the 1980s political and social instability affected Gwangju in militant South Korea, which affected the security of families there. Because of that history, our children have three sets of grandparents instead of just two, because my wife, like other American adoptees from Korea, reconnected with her birth family.

But several cases have shown that this promise to Korean American adoptees is not guaranteed, with several adoptees losing citizenship through clerical errors or neglect to their U.S. naturalization, and no fault of their own. The deportation of Adam Crapser, and the tragedy of Phillip Clay can attest that citizenship is not guaranteed. What an adoptee parent has said to their children could be a lie.

Bigger forces affected the Americanness of Filipino Americans as well. In 1898 the United States won the Spanish American War and claimed the Philippine Islands as a foreign territory. Eventually all Filipinos were classified as U.S. nationals, given rights to work and travel in the U.S. but not full citizenship. It was an official form of government second class citizenship. Then in World War II the U.S. told Filipinos they can become citizens. But right after the war, President Harry Truman signed the Rescission Act of 1946, taking away the right of Filipino American veterans to claim U.S. citizenship. Over 260,000 soldiers served in the U.S. Army. America lied about their commitment to soldiers.

A flag and medals case of a World War II Filipino veteran of a guerilla unit of the U.S. military. The U.S. military told men in the Philippines — at the time, a territory of the U.S. — during World War II that they could become U.S. citizens if they enlisted. That was rescinded shortly after the end of the war and the Philippines became an independent nation. (Photo by Devin Israel Cabanilla.)

Both my wife and I are in the U.S. because, in the larger scale, the U.S. came to us. The choice was structurally made for us by history. I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful for this American life. On our last vacation we visited her adoption agency in South Korea. It was painfully obvious we were American, from our clothing, to our mannerisms and our loud voices.

But, our American cultural and social identity don’t count as much when we come back home. America is full of reminders that we are foreigners if we look different.

The president’s roller coaster of policy against foreigners and illegal immigrants has been a rough experience. However it is nothing that our people in Asian America haven’t experienced before. It is a shallow hope to believe our citizenship is permanent, or a right. The United States has repetitively disavowed our rights.

I can tell my kids all these reasons for knowing what has shaped our lives to end up here. But I can’t admit to them that people are trying to take American dreams away from our peoples again. My kids are fifth generation Asian Americans through my mother — their grandmother. My father’s first relative left the Philippines for Seattle in 1920. After my family’s five generations and nearly 100 years in the United States, maybe it is a lie for me to say to my children they are just as American as everyone else. It feels like half of America is against us. We look different.

I will explain to my kids, there is no reason for America treating us different. Period. But that has been a lie. Political forces have come after us before and they are coming after us now.

However, I will keep lying about America until we make these lies true again. I will keep lying about their Americanness until they make it true for themselves. This struggle is not a two year or four year effort. We do not live a lie.