My Immigration Story

by Ashley Emerson Mendoza

My immigration story starts out here in the United States. When people ask me about my ethnicity, I have always struggled in coming up with an answer. The most accurate answer is “American,” although I used to feel plain saying that. Originally from England and Ireland, most of my family has been in the US for many generations, in some instances traceable back to the 1500s. Through old records and photographs, my family has learned that my ancestors helped found colonies and cities in Connecticut, coexisted with Native Americans, ventured west and came back, and had streets named after them in upstate New York.

The first encounter I had with the issue of immigration was when I was studying abroad in Paris, France.  When I first arrived, I was thrilled to see the stereotypical French on the run with baguettes, or couples holding hands as they strolled alongside the Seine. As I spent more time in Paris, I came to treasure other little observations, such as the rollerbladers that set up near Notre Dame to display their tricks, and children floating rented miniature sailboats in the fountains at the Jardin de Luxembourg. I also took to putting spicy Dijon mustard on my bread in the place of butter with meals. I quickly became a self-proclaimed Francophile, obsessed with mastering the Parisian accent and sophisticated French style.

I was fortunate to witness not only the outward beauty of France, but also the inner grit and spirit of the French people during my time in France. While I was exploring the monuments and museums of Paris, the country was in the midst of an ongoing struggle with high unemployment. As a solution, the government attempted to create more jobs by deregulating labor in the bill “Loi pour l’égalité des chances,” or the “Equal Opportunity Law.” The youth of France rebelled against this bill due to its negative effect on their future job stability. As the youth movement gained momentum, several Sorbonne campuses shut down due to student strikes (Les grèves, as they called them). One day when I arrived at my Sorbonne campus to attend class, desks and chairs had been piled high, blockading the doors to the buildings. Soon, massive marches through the center of Paris were organized, and violence began to break out; I witnessed as several of my friends who were marching in the demonstrations were tear-gassed by the police. The youth of France was putting its tenacious spirit on full display.

Later, after watching a television interview with these protestors alongside my host mother, our differing opinions sparked my interest. I took comfort in living with this very proper seventy-four year-old French native who smoothed the wrinkles from my bedspread and cooked amazing cream sauces. I was unsettled, however, when I discovered that she considered the high unemployment in France to be largely the fault of immigrants for taking jobs away from the French. I did not agree with how she focused her blame on this one group rather than on the multiple social and political factors that contributed to the unemployment crisis. As the end of my stay drew near, my host mother and I again talked politics. I told her one of my majors was political science, and she shared a brochure of her favorite presidential candidate for the upcoming 2007 elections with me.  The candidate had an extreme platform. As I read through it, I strongly disagreed with his stance on several issues—in particular, immigration. It proposed that France should only allow immigrants into the country if they serve a purpose (for example, highly qualified scientists), and not to join family members or for other reasons. Although he was not elected, his proposed policies made me wonder how America (and other countries) treated immigrants.

After I returned to the US with my new global perspective, my curiosity led me to secure an internship at the Boston office of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy had been a strong supporter of immigration reform, having been a leader in pushing through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; later becoming Chair of the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Refugees; and co-sponsoring the 2005 Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act with John McCain (which unfortunately never made it to a Senate vote). When I began interning in the summer of 2007, Kennedy was a major force behind the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which eventually failed to pass a cloture vote in the Senate despite strong bipartisan support. In this exciting and fast-changing political environment, I kept my eyes and ears open as the staff researched immigration issues and advocated for reform. It was here I began to grasp the structure of the US immigration system.

In the fall of 2007, I moved to New York to attend law school. After having travelled internationally, I felt the need to live in a cultural metropolis where I could encounter and experience new cultures. I quickly integrated my interest in immigration into my legal education, and interned with Daryanani Law Group in 2008. Here I began to learn the practicalities of our immigration system and how to navigate it. I was offered a position after my graduation, and I happily embraced immigration law as my career path.

From my beloved hot-pot meals in Chinatown to exquisite art installations by foreign artists at city galleries to several close personal friends, my life is enriched by immigrants. Gaining a global perspective has given me an appreciation for other cultures, and also for my own ethnicity. I no longer feel that I am just a plain American girl, but instead that my unique heritage helps to make up part of the larger diverse and interesting picture. I am just one drop in the melting pot, and that’s the way I like it.