As the immigration debate rages on, I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with immigration.

Growing up, I always thought of America as a destination. A place where most people, regardless of where they lived, wanted to be.

My parents are from Nigeria, and our house in Ogden, Utah served as a boundary between Africa and America. Over the years, my family hosted dozens of people from West Africa who hoped to become Americans, and my parents would counsel them on the correct forms to file, the people they should see, and even the correct way to speak.

In our modest Ellis Island in the western part of the country, we spoke rapidly in many tongues around the dinner table, we ate hamburgers with Nigerian food, and Whitney Houston’s voice was backed, sometimes incongruously, by Sunny Ade’s pulsating rhythms.

Unfortunately, most of the people who stayed with us eventually had to leave. We would see them off at the airport with great sadness, because we always felt as if we were turning them away at the gate.

My story bears two realities about immigration. First, there are immigrants who aren’t Mexican. Much of the debate around immigration focuses on undocumented workers–those whose presence isn’t captured on government spreadsheets.

The official illegal immigrant count in 2009 was 10.8 million. Of those, almost 62 percent, or 6.65 million, were from Mexico. However, in 2009 there was a higher percentage of non-immigrants (students, workers, and other “temporary immigrants”) from Europe than North America–which includes Mexico–and more immigrants from Asia were granted legal permanent resident status than from North America. (These numbers come from the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.) A significant number of Africans visit each year as well: Almost 130,000 Africans were granted legal permanent status in 2009 alone.

Our discussion about immigration would benefit from a more comprehensive discussion of who these immigrants are–and why so many taxpaying, productive Mexicans are forced to cower beneath the shroud of illegality.

Second, most immigrants share one desire. They wish to become Americans.

Crassly stated, the current immigration debate revolves around our apparent need to prevent Mexicans from overrunning our southern border. Both left and right seem to accept this basic premise. Even when the left speaks of “amnesty,” it evokes the language of criminality.

Unfortunately, racism and xenophobia tend to imbue the immigration debate and the issue’s media coverage. After all, why do we rarely hear of the Eastern European who has overstayed her visa? Or the Chinese worker whose child is being educated at a public school?

The current debate is an extension of an ongoing conversation we’ve been having among ourselves about race and American identity since the founding of our nation. Imagine how this conversation would change if we focused instead on the aspirations of those who arrive in our country–legally or otherwise–as opposed to our perception of them?

All of the immigrants I’ve ever known, including my parents and the many people they’ve hosted over the years, are unified by their desire to become a part of the American story. Each is drawn to the American promise of opportunity.

Arizona’s new immigration law, which enables the police to detain anyone suspected of entering the country illegally and has triggered the mobilization of its opponents and supporters, offers the nation an opportunity to finally confront immigration reform in a comprehensive, fair manner.

Our patchwork reforms aren’t working. We need a system that responds to the realities of immigration in this country while rejecting the knee-jerk discrimination that the Arizona law represents.

Even the most ardent supports of Arizona’s approach to immigration must make peace with the fact that our nation includes many kinds of people. Let’s maintain the hope and promise of Ellis Island by recognizing that the term “American” has never had a static definition.

It evolves as we do.

Tope Folarin is the 2010 Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a community of public scholars and organizers linking peace, justice, and the environment in the U.S. and globally.

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