I am an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, a published author, a father and a husband. But to Donald Trump I am a problem he derisively calls “anchor baby.” If elected he promises to try and end birthright citizenship while indiscriminately deporting 11 million undocumented people. But people are born in this country, to non-citizen parents, for all sorts of reasons. Each of them has a unique story.
My story starts innocently enough. My father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, then a young and rising Kenyan writer, was offered a temporary teaching position at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1970. Leaving my elder brothers and sister behind in the care of my grandmother, my father and mother made their way to Evanston, where I was born a year later. Shortly after his appointment was over, they made their way back to Kenya, with me in tow. With all things being equal, I would have lived there my whole life.
But the United States, in a bid to stop a communist domino effect in Africa, was giving financial and military support to the growing Kenyan dictatorship of Jomo Kenyatta. My father, led by his conscience, lent his pen to calling out the contradictions of what a soon-to-be-assassinated politician called a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Kenyatta threw him into political detention in 1977. When Kenyatta died in 1978, the new President, Daniel Arap Moi, in a gesture of new beginning, released all the political detainees. But he too grew repressive. Eventually Moi forced my father into exile in 1982. I did not see my father for eight years.
The hardships that come from being a pariah political family followed: threatening phone calls in the dead of the night, my father being denounced and his effigies burned on live TV, political thugs breaking into our home in the middle of the night, economic hardships as my mother, suddenly the sole breadwinner, tried to feed, clothe and educate her family in the midst of fear, silence and uncertainty.
None of my siblings, all born in Kenya, could get Kenyan passports – the government essentially saw them as hostages. But I walked into the US embassy at the age of nineteen, showed my birth certificate, and in two or three weeks had a US passport that the dictatorship could not confiscate. In 1990, I was the first of my siblings to leave Moi’s Kenya. Inundated by all this talk about anchor babies as usurpers of the American dream, these memories have flooded back.
The proud Kenyan writer was forced to leave his country because of national and international politics not of his making. And it was international politics not of our making that rescued my family, along with millions of others, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. With the specter of communism gone and a disintegrating Soviet Union, the US could finally withhold financial and military aid to the Moi dictatorship. International and internal pressure forced him to slowly allow for democracy. By the time I was graduating college in 1994, most of my siblings, armed with Kenyan passports, were in the United States to further their studies.
There were costs. I was not there when my mother, who stayed behind, died. Or when later my grandmother, uncles, aunts, and friends died. My head knows that my presence would not have stopped people from suffering, or dying, but my heart has no way of knowing it. Had I been in Kenya, at least there would have been a finality, a torturous coming to terms with the finality of it all. In my dreams my mother is always alive.
This is not to say my life stopped when I came back to the country of my birth. After college and working odd jobs (dishwashing, mail sorter, waiter, truck loader, adjunct teacher etc) for a number of years, I went to graduate school. I got married, had a child, and became a professor. In other words I grew roots here, in the country where I was born. This is my home as much as Kenya is, and there is no way of changing that.
And yet that is not to say life here has been perfect for immigrants and for the 45.3 million people living in poverty. To put the US poverty rate in perspective, Kenya has a population of 44.35; the American poor equal the whole population of Kenya and then some. And then the racism; the police violence against black people and poor whites that has led me to carry the ACLU police app on my phone, ready to record any meeting with a police officer. A fear that is very reminiscent of the fear I felt whenever I came across a Kenyan police officer.
But at least the poor birth right citizens, poor blacks and poor whites have some protection, if only in theory and always after the fact, from the law and constitution. Undocumented workers are the most vulnerable because they are not shielded, no matter how thinly, by the law. And if they loose the empathy and goodwill from American citizens, Trump, even if he does not win the presidency, will have lost the battle but won the war. Without the American people defending the humanity of the undocumented workers and their children, walls will be built and millions driven from their homes. National and international politics will have, once again, come calling for millions of families in the form of xenophobia.
What Trump and his supporters will not acknowledge is that they are adding trauma to people who are already traumatized in small and big ways by tragic events in their countries of origin. And that they are adding a sense of insecurity to a group of productive citizens and non citizens who already feel a tenuous sense of belonging because their name, religion, accent, or how they simply look or dress, marks them as outsiders.
Trump is right – the American dream is turning into a nightmare – but it is because he is the one haunting it.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor at Cornell University and the author of Mrs. Shaw, Black Star Nairobi, Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming poetry collection, Logotherapy.