Voting My Conscience to Honor My Father
by Ariana Ornelas Smyth
My father recently told us that his mother was illiterate. I am embarrassed to admit that I was not aware of this. At the tender age of four, my father, who was raised on the Portuguese island of Madeira off the coast of Africa, was often sent to the village market to buy food and supplies. His mother, unable to write down a shopping list for my father to present to the grocer, made my father memorize the items to be purchased. Despite his best efforts to remember everything on the list, he inevitably would forget something. My father was easily distracted during the long walk to the market – the neighborhood dogs were much more vicious than the garden variety we have here in the US and, mostly, he was barefoot – and the beleaguered child had a solemn trek home, knowing that he would be sent back to fetch the missing item(s).
Today, my father has a Ph.D. and is a professor at a prestigious state university. He is far from illiterate and has overcome his legacy. He will be the first to tell you that when he immigrated to the US in the early sixties with his family when he was fifteen, he had no idea that he would one day be in the position that he is in. (Professors at public colleges are not the 1%, but they do have cultural and intellectual capital and live comfortably.) However, he did have a vision of upward mobility – one that was not unreasonable nor quixotic (for the time). It never occurred to him that he would be prohibited from enjoying such mobility because of his immigration status.
My father’s story is not all that unique for a certain generation of immigrants, but today’s politics have put that dream in jeopardy. (This has been made more evident by the Supreme Court’s recent split decision, which blocked Obama’s immigration plan to spare millions of immigrants from deportation).
Today, as I walked down a path adjacent to a construction site, I noticed that the 15 landscapers baking in the 90-degree heat were speaking Spanish to one another. One worker noticed the newborn strapped to my chest and smiled. I took this as an invitation and struck up a conversation asking about what they were building on the site (admittedly, this was motivated by my curiosity regarding recent development in the area. I live in Pittsburgh near East Liberty – a part of the city that is transitioning with the arrival of Google and other tech companies).
At one point in the conversation, I asked him the generic question posed to all foreign nationals – where are you from? He replied, "Mexico." It was a rather mundane query and the response was not at all surprising, but it left me with chills. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but as I walked away, it struck me. Here was a man, doing strenuous physical labor on a Saturday to make my neighborhood more beautiful, in a former Steel town built on the backs of immigrants – and he happened to be from Mexico – yes, the country that will be separated from the US by a wall (to, in Trump’s words, keep out the "criminals" and "rapists") should Trump become our next president. This wall – this impenetrable barrier of hate and intolerance – did not exist for my father.
It was enough to remind me, yet again, of why Trump – a man committed to rolling back many of the advances in constitutional jurisprudence and civil rights should we permit him – is so dangerous and why we must do everything humanly possible to defeat him. It also occurred to me that in all probability my father would not be permitted to enter this country legally if he were fifteen today and he too might face deportation like many unauthorized immigrants in the US were he to remain without a path to citizenship at his disposal.
Obama’s executive action would have deferred deportation for DREAMers and for those unauthorized immigrants who are also parents to citizens or legal residents (as a means to keep families together). Yet this limited opportunity, like so many others, was recently quashed by the Supreme Court – hopes crushed under the weight of a divided ideology. A Trump presidency will only further divide Americans. There is only one indelible truth here – we are a country of immigrants. Hillary recognizes this and she has continued to support Obama’s initiatives and has vowed to lobby for comprehensive reforms. She understands that there cannot be meaningful reform without citizenship. For Hillary, protecting our borders is not the same as closing the doors to the many immigrants that have enriched American society and boosted our influence in the world.
Over the course of the Primary, dogmatic Sanders supporters who have embraced the "Bernie or Bust" sentiment have invoked the "I must vote my conscience" defense as a justification for potentially not voting for Hillary in November, even as they acknowledge that a vote for a third party candidate or for no candidate at all in the general election is constructively a vote for Trump. But now that Hillary and Trump are the presumptive nominees, the only option left for these folks is "Hillary or Trump." I hope they don’t really prefer Trump – a huge Bust for the nation, the world, and Bernie’s principles – over Hillary.
As I recall staring into the eyes of the Mexican landscaper today, I think of my father, and of the figurative bridge to the US that rescued him from poverty. I think of the jingoism and nativism spreading like wildfire across the US and Europe that threaten to destroy these bridges between nations and harkens back to an epoch of world politics better left in the past. And I think that in this presidential election, I too will vote my conscience, to honor my father, for Hillary.
Ariana Ornelas Smyth, a healthcare regulatory attorney in Pittsburgh, is the proud daughter of immigrants.