After my father died in Honduras in 1990, I sponsored my widowed mother for permanent residency in the United States. She was 67, I was her only child and my three children were her only grandchildren. Of course I had to bring her here.
I was doing what most children with aging parents, in any country, try to do: take care of them as they once took care of us. Fortunately, the wisdom of U.S. immigration law then allowed her to enter with a green card under the family-reunification visa preference, now under attack as “chain migration” by opponents of legal immigration, including President Donald Trump.
I was able to sponsor her because I was a U.S. citizen, born and raised here. No doubt some would also consider me to be an “anchor baby,” although my nonimmigrant parents were here legally when I was born. We used to be called “first-generation Americans,” but anchor baby apparently resonates better for fearmongering purposes.
The Trump administration’s proposals to end most family-unification preferences would have kept me from helping my mother, and if they become law, they’ll keep countless Americans from doing the same for their loved ones. The president wants to end visa preferences for parents, adult children or siblings of immigrants — only underage kids or spouses would qualify for family visas.
In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, he said that would “protect the nuclear family” and that the changes he’s proposed are necessary for “our security and our future.” But no one would have been better off if immigration law had forced my mother to stay in Honduras.
In 1996, after a divorce, I found myself a single father, trying to raise three ’tweens and teens on my own. My mother saved my life. In many ways, she saved my children’s lives as well. She was the after-school presence, always there to greet them and keep them out of trouble. We did a good job: All three graduated from good colleges — the University of Pennsylvania, Duke and the University of Pittsburgh.
Without my mother here, I would have had to decline the greatest professional opportunity of my life in 2001: the chance to work in the White House as a special assistant for economic policy to President George W. Bush. What had been a few hours a day of after-school care that my mother handled became many hours a day and often late nights, as anyone who has worked in the White House will attest. Had she not been here, I could never have met the demands of that job with kids still in high school.
In 2002, we celebrated my mother obtaining her U.S. citizenship with lunch in the White House Mess, something we couldn’t do until then because of security restrictions. We sat there and wished my father had lived to see this — his son working in the White House. My father, born to a single mother in a poor mountain town in Honduras, got a college education only because Rotary International gave him a scholarship at 27 to come study here.
In some ways, my family was an atypical foreign family: My parents had spent 20 years working here on G4 visas that are granted to employees of international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank, where they worked before taking overseas posts and ultimately retiring back to Honduras. In other ways, though, they are the stereotypical American immigrant story: They came here to improve their lot in life. They were luckier than most and better educated than many. But that education took place only after my parents arrived here. They came with only a high school education and no assets. They left this world with much more, but you couldn’t have predicted that when they first came to the United States.
Now the Trump administration is deriding family reunification as “chain migration,” a term intended to belittle the contributions that immigrants make. “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” Trump claimed Tuesday — a claim that isn’t true, as current law only allows citizens or permanent residents to sponsor immediate relatives. Some of his allies, such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, don’t even want people like me to be citizens in the first place: My parents were not citizens or permanent residents when I was born, and King has introduced legislation to prevent children of people like them from becoming citizens at birth.
I ask only that people look at me and my family, especially my mother, as part of the contribution that immigrants make to America. Both my parents were born in Honduras (no doubt one of the countries the president had in mind when he made a scatological reference to the countries of origin of many immigrants). Thanks to the compassion and vision of our current policies, though, my mother made a lasting contribution to our nation. No one looking at us would ever think “Norwegian.” But surely they would think that we embody the American spirit.
Carlos Bonilla worked in the White House in the George W. Bush administration. He is an aviation analyst in Washington, D.C. He wrote this for the Washington Post.