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An NPR Correspondent's Immigrant Experience: 'American Dreams, American Nightmares'

"Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares," by Aarti Namdev Shahani. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)
"Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares," by Aarti Namdev Shahani. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Who belongs in America? NPR correspondent Aarti Namdev Shahani asks the question in a new memoir about her immigrant experience.


Aarti Namdev Shahani, author of the memoir “ Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares.” NPR business correspondent based in Silicon Valley. ( @aarti411)

Interview Highlights

On her hesitation to write “Here We Are,” and her family’s story

“The hesitation came in the years before I finally decided I was going to write it. There was a lot of hesitation. You know, I had spent my life, pretty much from age 16 to 30, with my father’s legal problems constantly hanging over our heads. … Once we got [to America] and we thought that we were established here, Dad opened up a store. He actually opened up a small business on the exact same street where he used to shovel snow for $4 an hour. So, you know, I was achieving my dream, being a precocious kid in school, and he was his own small business owner. One day, Dad got arrested. He was at Rikers Island [Prison], and apparently he had sold watches and calculators to the Cali drug cartel.

“It was shocking. I was, as a kid, interested in becoming a prosecutor, so I was actually ashamed of Dad. I didn’t know how to wrap my head around my ideals of justice, and what my father had been accused of. And then, what slowly happened over the years — this was by no means immediate — what slowly happened was that, while dad agreed to take a guilty plea — because his lawyer urged him to — the eight-month sentence … ended up spiraling into legal problems that lasted until I was 30. And, I basically grew up in the shadow of a legal case that would not go away. And, that seemed determined to destroy my family. And, I wanted to keep my family together.”

On how the immigrant experience in the United States has changed

“Certainly, having a green card makes you more secure than being undocumented. But, part of what I’m doing in my memoir, ‘Here We Are,’ is tracking how the value of the green card really plummeted, and having that legal status means a lot less than it used to. And, that is not because of changes under Donald Trump, by the way. That’s because of changes that happened under President Bill Clinton, in the ‘90s. My family was at the forefront of a new trend in American history, that new trend is delegalization.

“Meaning, as was in my father’s case — and the case of many people I’ve met along the way — you can have your green card, you can have kids who are U.S. citizens, a spouse who’s a U.S. citizen. But, if you have any kind of run-ins with the law — I mean, I’m talking about misdemeanors as well. I’m talking about things that don’t even carry any jail time. Just about any kind of interaction with the criminal justice system, and you were flung into a proceeding that is — by the way — it’s not a criminal proceeding, it’s a civil proceeding.

“You have no public defender, and the laws which Clinton [signed] are such that you cannot ask a judge to look at you, and consider your life, and weigh whether or not you should be deported. It is an automatic system. And, so, in a lot of ways, what I’m tracking in ‘Here We Are’ is how the U.S. built a mass deportation system. We’ve heard the term mass incarceration. We know what it means. I think we now need to wrap our heads around how that’s extended for immigrants, and to mass deportation.”

On the trauma immigrants face 

“There is so much to be learned in the pain that we go through, and the trials that we face. But, they’re hard to talk about. And, so, they often get lost. So, I think, in part — it’s our parents, or our own lives – we’re so busy trying to make it. But, in part, it’s just painful to revisit.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from Here We Are by Aarti Shahani

Publishers Weekly: “ Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares” — “In this tragedy-tinged debut memoir, NPR technology correspondent Shahani discusses her father’s 1996 arrest for selling electronics to the Cali cartel of Colombia and the ways in which these events shaped Shahani’s life. Shahani’s family immigrated from India to New York City in 1981, where her father opened a wholesale electronics store and began selling such items as calculators and watches to customers who he later learned were cartel members. His arrest set in motion a legal nightmare that sent the author on a mission to prevent her father, who wasn’t a U.S. citizen, from being deported and to help other families in similar predicaments. Shahani discovers years after her father accepted a plea bargain and served eight months at Rikers Island that he may not have had to serve time at all had his lawyer worked harder to show that the case was thin. In a conversational tone, the book exposes the ugliness of the criminal justice system, which pressures defendants to take plea bargains. The author discusses becoming a journalist and building the kind of successful career her father never had and ends with a letter to her father, who eventually became a U.S. citizen and ‘whose ups and down taught me how the world really works.’ This timely, bittersweet immigration story will resonate powerfully with readers.”

Vox: “ The disastrous, forgotten 1996 law that created today’s immigration problem” — “Both sides of the aisle agree that the current US immigration system is broken. It’s why immigration’s stayed a hot-button political issue and policy debate, and part of what has made Donald Trump the likely 2016 Republican nominee for president.

“But the system hasn’t always been broken. Or rather, it hasn’t always been broken in this particular way.

“Everyone remembers that in 1986, President Ronald Reagan passed an ‘amnesty’ law. But what most people don’t know is that in 1996 — fresh off the heels of signing welfare reform, and two years after signing the ‘crime bill’ — President Bill Clinton signed a bill that overhauled immigration enforcement in the US and laid the groundwork for the massive deportation machine that exists today.

“Both welfare reform and the crime bills Clinton signed have been relitigated during a contentious Democratic primary, but the 1996 immigration bill — the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act — hasn’t.”

From Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Shahani. Copyright (c) 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.

Anna Bauman produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.