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My Big American Family

May Chen shares the story of her immigration to America.

Nearly everyone in America has an immigration story to share. Our voices are louder when we speak together, so please share your stories and highlight the work that’s being done in your communities. Together we can achieve commonsense immigration reform.

My Big American Family

Ms. Chen is pictured with her father. (Personal Chen Family Photo)

May (mei) means America (mei-guo) in Mandarin. My grandfather gave me this name because I was the first in my family to be born in America. My parents both came to the United States as students, my father from China and my mother from Hong Kong. My father arrived in America in 1939 as a 19 year old. His hard work started from day one, first as a college student, then as he worked various jobs to get by, including working for the U.S. Army during World War II.

As a child, I grew up in a suburb of Boston in a community populated with very few Asians. Our family was one of just a few Asian families in our neighborhood. Once my father and his brother were able to sponsor their siblings from Hong Kong and China, who had been separated from each other for decades, we were finally able to enjoy family gatherings with aunts, uncles and cousins. Holidays were no longer just our immediate family and we could enjoy our Asian American Thanksgiving of turkey, along with Chinese sticky rice stuffing and side dishes, with our big American family. Together, we were able to embrace the best of both worlds.

I became passionate about immigration policy through helping thousands of immigrants in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) apply for citizenship, family petitions, and legalization through the 1986 legislation.  Immigration laws and history have a deep impact on our families and communities. The path to citizenship and the broad inclusion of families were deeply personal and important in my life.  My hope is that one day, current and future generations of immigrants can enjoy the rights and benefits of family reunification that my family was able to experience, as they strive for their own American dreams and American families.

May Y. Chen is a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Ms. Chen is also an adjunct professor at the City University of New York.