A ‘Zero-Generation’ American on What Shakes Him to the Core

by Diana Drake

As KWHS was reporting an article on the partial U.S. government shutdown and the debate over the proposed $5.7-billion financing of a southern border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, we were introduced to Juan Amaya. Amaya is a consultant at JÜV Consulting, a firm that helps established companies to better understand Generation Z, which is the term used for today’s high school students and young college undergrads. Amaya, who is 18 and a recent graduate of Sachem East High School on Long Island, N.Y., is a freshman at Columbia University in New York City.

In this interview, Amaya offers his unique perspective on the immigration debate that has quite literally shut down parts of the U.S. government since December 22, 2018, and elevated an ongoing international conversation around foreigners traveling to and living in America.

You can read this KWHS article for a more comprehensive look at the current policies related to people from other countries living and working in the U.S., policies that have largely been described as “anti-immigrant.” We recognize that this is one perspective and welcome you to log in and deepen the conversation in the comment section following this article. 

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Do you have a personal connection in some way to the immigration issues that are making headlines – everything from Congress and President Donald Trump’s inability to reach an agreement over the proposed $5.7-billion financing of a southern border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, to increased enforcement and other realities affecting both legal and illegal immigrants already living in the U.S.?

Juan Amaya: I was born in Colombia and immigrated here to the United States at the age of 2, and my family settled on Long Island in New York, an hour from New York City. In terms of my immigrant experience, it resembles a lot of the immigrants I know. I grew up undocumented, which is another obstacle in and of itself, but I now have the privilege and blessing of being a permanent resident. I grew up in a predominantly white area and, consequently, I felt a lot of isolation because I didn’t have a community or a classroom that shared that experience with me. Therefore, I had to grow to be proud of living one life at home and another in school, to be proud of speaking another language, to be proud of starting a life in America from scratch (and trying to succeed with the little I had).

Lastly, my immigrant experience has shaped my identity because I was torn between what place to call home growing up. Was it America, where I had no family besides my immediate one, where not everyone spoke my language? Or was it in Colombia, which I know little about and, at some points, felt like a mere filler on my birth certificate? Because of this, I found myself in a group called zero-generation Americans, who were born in one country and forced to grow up elsewhere, forever stuck between two worlds. So, now, I can say I am a proud zero-generation American and a member of Generation Z!

KWHS: How do you respond to what is considered to be the current anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S.? This has developed through so many policies and political moves, including the outcry to ‘build a wall,’ restricting student and work visas for international students, challenging the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, separating families at the border, deportation, and more.

Amaya: To be quite honest, it blows my mind as much as it breaks my heart. This nation’s history is rich with immigration and so, for me, it comes with surprise the way in which many Americans nowadays react to immigrants, especially because no one is native to this land with the exception of indigenous people; everyone is an immigrant to the land but them.

In looking at the news, particularly the news that pertains to immigration, I see myself reflected in it, as well as a lot of the baggage and trauma that comes with being an immigrant. I see the many deportations of my people, which have affected and broken my family up. I see the ways in which the current administration disenfranchises my family and the larger community of immigrants by denying us welfare, or by limiting programs like DACA, TPS [Temporary Protected Status], and U-visas. Immigrants are as equally human as citizens are, despite our treatment in the eyes of many governments around the world. After a long, arduous process of obtaining citizenship, it is only until then that we can represent ourselves in a larger political body. Before that, we are forced into a political limbo, defenseless and at the mercy of other voters and government members.

However, what shakes me to my core is the separation of families at the U.S-Mexico border and, more importantly, the death of Jackeline Caal Maquin and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, two children who died weeks from one another in Border Patrol custody back in December. To best describe how I feel regarding the matter, there is a saying my mother always said: “Cuando muere tus padres, te vuelves huérfano. Cuando muere tu pareja, te vuelves vuido/a. Pero cuando muere tu hijo/a, no existe una palabra para describir el dolor de tu perdida.” Translated, it says: “When your parents die, you become an orphan. When your partner dies, you become a widow. However, when your child dies, there exists no word to describe the pain of your loss.” I find it unforgivable and atrocious the way in which the xenophobic sentiment in America has escalated to this point. We, as a country, have failed those two children. They were equally as deserving of the opportunities and resources that this country offers.

“If we analyze and fix the racism behind statements and narratives…we can lessen the potency of xenophobic sentiments against immigrants.” — Juan Amaya

KWHS: Generation Z has been described as uniquely diverse, both ethnically and racially. Do you believe that makes you uniquely positioned to champion the strengths of diversity in the U.S. culture? If so, how are you doing that? How are you leveraging that strength in a time when people are questioning the skills that “foreigners” bring to our economy and our society?

Amaya: Personally, I think working at JÜV Consulting is a great example of the ways in which Generation Z is taking steps toward championing our strengths. In working at JÜV, I am essentially a representative of sorts for Generation Z; my fellow consultants and I offer insight on which trends are popular, which memes are funny, etc. However, we are, by our very nature, also promoting the richness and diversity of Generation Z and the many sub-groups that make it up. In being a member of this progressive generation, every single one of us is intrinsically multifaceted; we find ourselves at the intersection of so many identities. I, personally, am proud to be a member of so many communities: Latinx, immigrant, low-income, and LGBTQ+. Therefore, in looking at the leaders of JÜV, such as Ziad Ahmed, Nadya Okamoto, and Deja Foxx (just to name a few), as well as consultants like me, you are ensured that people like us are advocating for the different perspectives that make up Generation Z and making sure that these perspectives and sensitivities are heard in company offices.

KWHS: Do you have a perspective on immigration reform? How do we fix what’s broken?

Amaya: I oftentimes think about how to solve these issues, but it’s tough to do so because it takes masses of people to create changes at the institutional level and, plus, it’s hard to think about how to fix something that you are currently battling. Above all else, your main priority in these situations is to survive.

However, a first step we all should take is analyzing the xenophobia that pervades our society and, particularly, to whom it is being directed towards. The best example of this is President Trump calling places such as Africa and Central America “s***hole countries” and saying he would prefer to have more immigrants “from Norway.” In this, we see a racial bias against immigrants of color that propagates a certain type of narrative, one that is fueled with hate and inaccuracy. Therefore, if we analyze and fix the racism behind statements and narratives like these, we can lessen the potency of xenophobic sentiments against immigrants. With that in mind, one way to move towards a solution is moving past the tired tropes and stereotypes of immigrants and realizing that they are not sub-human, but rather extremely human; vulnerable and desperate to work hard and provide for their families. In doing so, we as a nation can see that immigration, particularly seeking asylum (protection in another country when you feel your life is endangered in your own), is not a privilege but a right. Just like Emily Lazarus said: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” We cannot accomplish that if our arms are crossed and a wall is built tall enough to blind our eyes.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What resonates most with you in this interview with Juan Amaya? In other words, does something he says connect strongly with what you do or don’t believe? Why or why not? Feel free to log in and share your ideas with other KWHS readers in the Comment section. We promise to respond!

The interview alludes to the fact that Generation Z is uniquely diverse. How will that influence your role in the workplace? In society? In positions of leadership? Why might this be a true strength?

How do you think the U.S. should fix what’s wrong with its immigration system? What are your suggestions for improving policies and laws?

5 comments on “A ‘Zero-Generation’ American on What Shakes Him to the Core

  1. I feel one of the most powerful quotes in this interview is “In looking at the news, particularly the news that pertains to immigration, I see myself reflected in it, as well as a lot of the baggage and trauma that comes with being an immigrant.” I think the conversation surrounding immigration in the U.S. right now is affecting many people on so many levels, not just those who are targeted by ICE or who may seem to be the most vulnerable populations. It could well be the person sitting next to you in class or playing against you on the soccer field who is internalizing the immigration debate. Politics aside, the humanity of this issue is deep and, for some, devastating. I also want to settle for a moment on this notion of identity that Juan addresses. I’m reminded of University of Pennsylvania Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, who writes about the “5 I’s” of self-reflection, the first of which is identity. How do you see yourself and how do others see you? This aspect of self-awareness is so powerful to helping us move forward and truly understand our place in this world and what motivates us to make the world a better place or improve our own lives. What is your authentic identity and how does it shape your world view? Great questions as we begin to make decisions about our future.

  2. I am a first-generation immigrant, and I wholeheartedly agree with Juan. Being an immigrant in this diverse country is not as easy as one would assume. I personally experienced dozens of discriminatory words and acts since day one of my American journey. I’ve been called “chonky” and “slant-eye” in public because I am an Asian immigrant. Classmates make fun of my accent, and strangers offer me bananas as a joke. As Juan said, immigrants “are not sub-human, but rather extremely human”. Every human being deserves the right to be respected and treated with love without being judged on their skin color or origin. Racism is a problem, and it should not be ignored.

    Not only do xenophobic sentiments against immigrant exist on a community level, but it also takes a huge part in governmental politics and economic measures. It is urgent to enhance the immigration policy on the country level to provide a national anti-racism momentum and fundamentally resolve various barriers for immigrants. The 548-mile southern border wall between the US and Mexico proposed by the Trump administration is now irreversibly proven economically and socially harmful. According to a study conducted by Stanford and Dartmouth researchers, the $5.7-billion project cost roughly $7 per taxpayer in the US. The border wall isn’t solely expensive, it also lacks economic return. The wall only reduced 0.6% of total Mexican-born workers coming into the US on the cost of income loss among college-educated US workers. The southern border wall construction project clearly has not met its expectation of reducing migration and undoubtedly put unnecessary economic pressure on average American citizens. Additionally, it tears families apart, passes forward a xenophobic message, and serves as a barrier towards a more equal society. The government should consider an alternate measure that would bring more benefits than the border wall while utilizing less budget. By implementing trade policies that encourage trade between Mexico and the US, the government can bring economic gain to workers in all income levels in both countries. More importantly, it will foster collaboration between the two countries and send an anti-xenophobia message.

    The wall is just among one of the many xenophobic approaches toward immigrants. Other measures such as limits on DACA, TPS, and U-visas really place immigrants in a “defenseless” position, as Juan puts it. As the government serves as a symbol and standard that many citizens look up to, it’s necessary to establish antixenophobic sentiment on the national level to fundamentally set a justice role model for everyone to follow. On our generation Z’s shoulder, the responsibility to acknowledge the diverse population and recognize the xenophobic sentiments will allow us to fight for the future in which all immigrants – despite race, skin color, and origin – will be treated equally as a human that deserves every single right that all humans should naturally and lawfully own.

  3. Cue the mic drop, and let’s give a hand to Juan Amaya, whose discussion of immigration policies and xenophobia in America continue to be relevant today, especially following the surge of Asian-American hate crimes amidst, and still after, the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Amaya discusses his experience being born to Latinx immigrants and being a Latinx immigrant himself. While Amaya primarily focuses on the anti-immigration policies in the U.S. and government efforts that have harmed immigrants, another big part of immigrant experience is the societal mindset regarding immigration. Briefly mentioned by Amaya, there are many persisting negative stereotypes that frame immigrants as people that seek to undermine American society in some way, such as via the job economy. It is important to recognize when these stereotypes are being perpetuated, and how they may influence the anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S.

    It’s all the more pertinent to consider the effects of xenophobic ideas in current times. At the start of the Covid pandemic, there was a surge in anti-Asian crimes, as a result of people blaming Asian immigrants for bringing the virus to the U.S. For a time, it was featured quite heavily in the news. I remember seeing Instagram posts pop up on my feed, big white text over a censored screenshot from a video. Two swipes later, the video was put on full display, sometimes depicting a quick, intentional shove to an old Asian elder, sometimes shaking as the recorder flees from the scene. As an Asian American myself, with a targeted shooting occurring just at one of the stops where I transfer trains, it felt as though I could no longer be safe. I stayed away from the train tracks, stopped listening to music on my way home so I could be alert, and kept taking glances at the people around me – regardless of who they were or what they were doing.

    These experiences are not unique to me, as many other Asian-Americans have had to take precautions to avoid becoming a target themselves. We may not have been immigrants ourselves, but our connection to them aligns us with anti-immigration rhetoric. When I see posts and comments on social media from strangers I have never met but feel terribly connected to and have conversations with my friends over the phone, all detailing experiences of being told “Go back to China!” (towards people who are not even Chinese, no less) and that Asians deserve the hate they’re getting because they are at fault for taking up jobs or bringing over the virus, I can’t be surprised.

    With the increase in voices from Gen Z, and those from minorities like Amaya, we have taken a small step towards dismantling the societal bias against immigration and being fully critical of the xenophobic sentiment in America. America, a country often fled to by immigrants in search for a better life, shames them for doing so. National and political changes, in our governments and our jobs, will not make a difference unless we also change the mindset of fellow U.S. citizens, on both Asian-Americans and immigration as a whole. If the future of the world rests in the hands of future generations, and in the current Gen-Z, shouldn’t their voices be loudest and most worthy of being heard?

    Many thanks to KWHS for bringing attention to this crucial issue and giving a voice to a Gen-Z minority!

    • Hi Jade! I truly loved reading your comment regarding xenophobia and I found many points to have resonated with me and I wanted to share them with you.

      I’ve always wanted to discuss the topic of xenophobia in the covid stages or even after the pandemic. Your third paragraph really struck home, especially this sentence: “I stayed away from the train tracks, stopped listening to music on my way home so I could be alert, and kept taking glances at the people around me”. I remember clearly all the talks my parents would give me before I left the house, it was always some variation of “stay safe”. I remember clearly always going to the very end of subway stations because there were fewer people there. I remember clearly the scared look on my parent’s faces whenever I spoke Mandarin in public.

      Those were just some of the precautions that Chinese people had to take during the covid stages. But this brings up a bigger theme, Sinophobia. What is Sinophobia? In simple terms, an anti-Chinese sentiment. In your comment, you describe Instagram videos featuring Asian hate crimes. I found that those types of videos were vastly spread across social media, but for me, usually on TikTok. Most of my FYP, for you page, were videos of violent hate crimes towards Asian people in America or videos depicting the various riots and protests in China. But when I looked into the comments of those videos, I didn’t find people’s sympathy, remorse, or even pity. Instead, the comments were filled with a Chinese phrase, “bing chi ling”. Now, what did “bing chi ling” mean? Translated, it means ice cream but how did it become such a popularized meme? It started with a video of John Cena holding up ice cream and talking in Mandarin. The video spread like wildfire on TikTok and soon after people would copy and paste “bing chi ling” on any video regarding Chinese people or Chinese characters, no matter how important the video was. Soon, that phrase would translate into almost a synonym for “Chinese”. The amount of unparalleled disgust I felt when I saw the comments being filled with “that’s not very bing chi ling of you” under videos of Chinese people crying out in protests and riots in China. This wasn’t just one or two people, videos would be flooded with thousands of comments of “bing chi ling” and some would reach tens of thousands of likes. This “meme” would spread to real life, I remember in schools, students would mock the language by saying “bing chi ling” paired with some random gibberish whenever they saw a remotely Asian person.
      Now this wasn’t just a joke as many claim it to be, it was a blatant display of Sinophobia.
      Insidious works of Sinophobia are planted everywhere. But because it’s everywhere, it seems like it’s nowhere. When something is everywhere and constantly in our faces, it can paradoxically lose its impact or importance in our perception. Sinophobia is so normalized and ingrained into America, it seems like it’s overflowing and ready to spill out at any mention of China. To build onto this, Chinese items are always regarded as “cheap” and “low quality”. And it’s evident through people’s reactions to seeing “made in China” on items. Chinese brands barely get any sales unless they rebrand themselves as Korean or Japanese.
      Another point you bring up is regarding immigration and America’s perception of immigrants. “America, a country often fled to by immigrants in search for a better life, shames them for doing so.” I could not have said it better, Jade! America prides itself on being the home of immigrants and the diversity the country holds, yet when immigrants come here, they are scoffed at and looked down upon. Immigration has always been a contentious issue in the United States. During times of economic downturn or uncertainty, there tends to be a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act reflects this perfectly. The act established an absolute 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States, it was later extended with the Geary Act in 1892 and the Geary Act Extension in 1902, making it last a total of 61 years. The reason is as you stated, because they were “stealing jobs from Americans”. This act stands as a reminder of the discriminatory treatment faced by Chinese immigrants and the struggles for equal rights and fair treatment for all immigrants in the United States.

      Xenophobia holds America in an unbelievably strong chokehold. Just as you said, “with an increase of voices from Gen Z” let’s make a future where no student needs to fear being pushed in the tracks for their ethnicity.

  4. Dinner always goes either one of two ways.

    One, my mother is already tired and frustrated: whether it’s over the little things or not-so-little things doesn’t matter; both evoke the same exasperation. As a result, she cries out to my father when we sit down, exhausted from his day at work.

    Two, during dinner, my mother’s stress overwhelms her, and she lashes out at my father for the little things that have long spiraled out of our control.

    In some twisted form, she is the boy who cried wolf, unable to do anything, as she drowns in endless worries. The result is a surplus of problems: our lack of a green card, my brother’s college frenzy coming in the fall, his departure to a ‘home’ country he has not seen since birth if he cannot find a job in time, student debt, and the possible underpayment of my father’s work as a software engineer, whose ten years on the job have garnered him just one promotion as far as I remember.

    In “A ‘Zero-Generation’ American on What Shakes Him to the Core,” Diana Drake interviews Juan Amaya, a Colombian immigrant. Although the article examines the execution of Trump’s wall from a different perspective, the same ideas presented stand just as important today.

    The process of applying for citizenship is a tedious procession- for us, even after ten plus years, a green card has yet to be seen. Yet, to represent ourselves in the shifting political environment of America, citizenship is of absolute necessity. In fact, before that, we are ”defenseless and at the mercy of other voters and government members.”

    Unlike my father, who received a working visa and was adequate in English, my mother struggled in the job-searching environment. In the end, she could only run a small art class in the dining room of our home. The difference between the two is clear as day: not only did the startup of my mother’s business heavily rely on the wage of my father’s job, her earnings couldn’t cover our essential costs and ended up as meager savings in the bank. She doesn’t have Social Security either; in our family of four, only my father does.

    In other words, effort wasn’t the deciding part of the equation.

    Whether you were a citizen was.

    On the surface, the debate on immigration is black and white. While it is undeniable that a sudden influx of citizens will disrupt the economy, our division between consequences fails to recognize the larger picture. By “realizing that they are not sub-human, but rather extremely human; vulnerable and desperate to work hard,” immigration becomes a story of empathy and compassion, not a political argument.

    America needs its people; the difference is how we handle the issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *