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My parents love to reminisce about how cold it was the night I was born. My mother went into labor at a New Year’s Eve party, and they drove through the bone-chilling cold to the suburban Twin Cities hospital where I was born. It’s hardly the backdrop that two natives of southern India could have imagined for the arrival of the first child of a new generation.
I often think about the combination of grassroots advocacy, individual determination, and sheer happenstance that resulted in my being born a citizen in this frozen tundra. I am a citizen because of those who fought and died for the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I am a citizen because of the activists and policymakers who eliminated bans on immigration from Asia and passed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. I am a citizen because my father came from a relatively privileged religious, caste, and educational background, which afforded him choices to stay in India if he wished or to immigrate to the United States to attend the University of Minnesota, as he ultimately chose.
I’ve been thinking about—and questioning—this combination of circumstances even more in light of the tragic deaths of Jagdish Patel, 39; his wife, Vaishali Patel, 37; their daughter, Vihangi Patel, 11, and their son, Dharmik Patel, 3, who froze to death at the Minnesota-Canada border.
Why did this family—unlike my father—feel they had no choice but to come to the United States? Political persecution? Economic hardship? Natural disasters? Family reunification? A combination?
Why did these parents—who, like my parents, before they immigrated—had probably never experienced below-freezing temperatures or snow, feel they had no choice but to bundle up their children and attempt to cross the border into the United States?
Because, despite having relatives who have sponsored them, they were tired of waiting in the decades-long line for Indian immigrants to be reunited with their family?
Because, despite their willingness to work in one of the many jobs in the United States which currently lie vacant, there is no employment-based visa category available for them?
Or because, despite the suffering they have endured, they were afraid they would not meet the United States’ exacting standards for asylum?
The Patel family’s lives were cut short escaping home, chasing a dream, or both. They and the hundreds of other immigrants who die attempting to cross a U.S. border each year are human beings whose stories must be heard.
We also owe it to these individuals, the ones who have attempted to cross before them, and those who undoubtedly will attempt to do so in the future, to ensure that we move toward a global economy and domestic immigration system that work for all. The New York Times has reported that, in the past year, there has been a significant uptick in migrants from across the world—including Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and India—trying to cross U.S. borders without authorization.
And here in the United States, there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, half a million of them from India—the fourth most common country of origin among the undocumented.
There are those who say that, if we are a country of laws, there will be consequences for those who break those laws, like the Patel family. In a situation like this, though, the most important point is not that we are a country of laws, but rather, that we are a democracy whose people can change those laws when they simply don’t work.
That’s what happened in the 1960s. Americans realized that our prior, race-based immigration system, which essentially barred my family and other families from Asia and Africa from immigrating to the United States, was unjust and detrimental to the country’s long-term political and economic health.
We can and must change our system again so that no more babies die along the borders of the Rio Grande or miles away from the state where I was born a citizen in the cold.
Veena Iyer is the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.