Prof. Elizabeth Keyes: A love letter to my clients and Hamilton

Professor Elizabeth Keyes contributed the following post to the ImmigrationProf Blog:

Barack, Lin-Manuel, Juan. Seeds in the garden planted so long ago by another man who was young, scrappy and hungry and who then accomplished extraordinary things. The first two you know, and there they were free-styling at the White House last month. One, the child of a Kenyan immigrant and an American who became President. The other, the child of Puerto Rican parents who is, so far, a Tony, Grammy and Macarthur genius award winner. But who is Juan, and can’t we get back to Hamilton? (Please?)

Juan is my client. An undocumented immigrant. And Hamilton is his story. Yes, the musical tells a specific story, about a specific man in a different era. But it is a quintessential story of immigration, hunger, and accomplishment, and that story is Juan’s, too. Almost precisely, but for one important difference. I’ll get to that in a moment. (Wait for it.)

With Hamilton, we all fall in love with the characters and the performers and the music in equal measure. But as an immigration lawyer, I also very powerfully felt my heart soar with gratitude and recognition about something much more specific: Here was the story of an immigrant disdained as a “Creole bastard,” being told with unabashed glory and pride. The love and respect that the Hamilton cast show in their narrative is akin to the love and respect that I feel for Juan and so many of my clients who so seldom feel the love and respect from anyone.

From the first song, asking us to spot Hamilton, “another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom” to the show-stopping moment at the Battle of Yorktown where he and Lafayette reconnect and—with deserved pride—nod their heads and say “immigrants…we get the job done,” Hamilton is an immigrant story, featuring the ambitious young person with little more than a “top-notch brain,” who makes his way here and thrives in a land full of opportunity for anyone bold enough to seize it.

Hamilton’s story is helped by the laws of his day. When he arrived in the United States in 1772 or 1773, there was no immigration law that prevented him from coming. He was a British subject, who could travel freely among all parts of the world that Britain controlled—and much beyond it as well, if he wished. When he and Lafayette came, there was no such thing as being “undocumented” or immigrating illegally because there were no such laws to break and no visas to acquire. States had some rules about who could arrive, and sometimes charged fees on arriving passengers, but that was about it until the late 19th century, when we started excluding Asians, then poor people, then LGBT people, and so on and so on.

In his more open era, Hamilton could and did lay immediate claim to his country, shifting from loyal, royal subject to American as easily as he breathed. Ron Chernow, in the biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to ultimately create Hamilton, writes:

Few immigrants have renounced their past more unequivocally or adopted their new country more wholeheartedly. ‘I am neither merchant nor farmer,’ he now wrote, just a year and a half after leaving St. Croix. ‘I address you because I wish well to my country.’

“My” country. Hamilton claimed America as his, in 1774. As he could. As he was legally able to do.

By 1777, Hamilton became General George Washington’s chief aide-de-camp, and Chernow evokes the power of his transformation of identity:

Once again, the young immigrant had been transported to another sphere…The high-level service completed Hamilton’s rapid metamorphosis into a full-blooded American. The Continental Army was a national institution and helped make Hamilton the optimal person to articulate a vision of American nationalism, his vision sharpened by the immigrant’s special love for his new country.

How does someone metamorphose into a full-blooded American today? Not through valiant service, although for some, that remains a possibility—Margaret Stock, another Macarthur genius award recipient and a senatorial candidate from Alaska, made that connection to the Pentagon when she rapidly pushed through the idea that some immigrants with legal status could acquire citizenship rapidly in exchange for providing valuable military service to the nation. Hamilton’s heirs, certainly.

But for most, there is no metamorphosis available, and that is where Juan’s story differs from Hamilton’s. But what a story his is. Juan came to the U.S. from a place where he just could not get the education he wanted. He had finished high school, and came here in his late teens, intent on getting further. Literally the day after he arrived, he started loading and unloading trucks at a nearby hardware store, earning the precious dollars he needed to go to school. He hasn’t stopped working since, but he also managed to go to community college, and then transfer to a four-year university. No big deal, but he graduated from that university summa cum laude. While studying in a second language. While working full-time. Young, scrappy, hungry…you see it, right? (I’ve written about him before, so see here if you want to read more.)

Being a non-stop person himself, Juan applied to graduate school, and he now goes to a prestigious one on the scholarship he earned from being so danged studious. Like Hamilton, there are a million things he hasn’t done, but just you wait. I expect him to reinvent the world one day, and when he does, I will be so proud to have known him.

But unlike A.Ham claiming citizenship in his new country, Juan cannot. Paths to legal status in the United States are achingly narrow for all, and treacherously easy to fall off. Nowhere is this more true than for people of color living in communities that are over-policed, for immigrants with limited English skills who accept guilty pleas for crimes they may not have committed, without fully understanding the consequences of those pleas. I could go on. But let it suffice to say that there is a deep, sometimes painful, beauty in the immigrant story being told as passionately and evocatively as it is by the richly diverse case of Hamilton, when our enforcement policies today target so many people who look like that cast.

Juan, like many thousands of young people, is too busy studying to get into trouble—until the day he forgets to replace a headlight on their car, gets pulled over by the police in an immigrant-unfriendly town or county, run through an immigration database that may reveal his lack of status, and placed in removal proceedings. If that happens to Juan, I will be there with him, fighting for him. Most immigrants in removal proceedings are not fortunate enough to have a lawyer. They leave, and with their departures we lose people who could have contributed vibrantly to our nation.

Imagine America if Hamilton had been deported for lacking papers. We make all manner of things deportable offenses these days, and it doesn’t matter if everything is “legal in Jersey” if the federal government says, say, dueling is a deportable offense. We would have lost a man who, by the time of his engagement to Eliza Schuyler in 1780, even his future father-in-law recognized as American. Philip Schuyler told Eliza that Hamilton was “the ornament of his country.”

His country. America. A place where even an orphaned immigrant can make a difference. How do we treat these immigrants today? With contempt (sometimes literally). With jail. With life in the shadows. With hope after hope of political accommodation dashed by a Congress which responds to the worst voices of fear, and not the call of Hamilton’s own legacy.

Juan, too, is an ornament of his country, as are the DREAMers who are reinventing our idea of citizenship by claiming their American-ness so forcefully. In this, and in their project of redefining who America is, and who Americans are, they are Hamilton’s heirs. They are the seeds he planted in a garden 250 years ago when he walked off that boat in New York.

As depicted by the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton kept searching for ways to do more for the country he loved, and to take advantage of every opportunity this country gave him. Thankfully, people like George Washington judged him for his talent, and not for his place of birth. Might we do the same for young, scrappy, and hungry Juan, and so many like him. If we could see them as Hamilton’s heirs, that would be enough. And if we could reform our laws to let them be the Americans in law that they already are in their hearts, that would be enough. It’s only a matter of time.

Learn more about Professor Keyes.

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