Dear Pope Francis: Remember Latinos Are Americans, Too

Dear Pope Francis,

It's hard to overstate the excitement many Latino Catholics - like me - feel about this week's papal visit. A Pope for whom Spanish is his first language, from South America, and deeply rooted in the theology of social justice so predominant in Latin culture: this is the Pope we've been waiting for.

This Pope will make 16 speeches while here in the United States, 14 of them in Spanish. We know from his itinerary and what has been revealed by the Vatican about this trip that there will be much talk of human rights for immigrants. This is important and welcomed by the Latino community.

But there's a pitfall to be avoided, a trap laid by the likes of Donald Trump: it's essential to recognize that the vast, vast majority of Latinos here are Americans.

You wouldn't know it from the news coverage or the Republican debates. It's no wonder that one in three Americans tell pollsters they believe most Latinos here are undocumented. The reality? There are 55 million American Latinos of whom almost all are US citizens or becoming citizens, and more than half of us were born here.

This is a well-travelled Pope who in his 78 years has never been to the United States. For people who don't know this country - and even for many Americans - it's easy to imagine America as a white country with a diverse minority population and many immigrants. In fact, that seems to be how many Republican primary voters regard this country. But, it's wrong.

America is an idea. No one can be more American because of their ethnicity or when their parents arrived. When you stand before the judge and the flag (as I did with my mom when I was nine years old), raise your right hand, and pledge allegiance as a citizen, you're as American as George Washington.

Sure, you might celebrate Thanksgiving with tacos or Christmas with tamales, as we do in my family, but don't ever let anyone tell you that makes you less American.

But society does tell us that. It tells our kids they're foreign when they're not; it makes speaking our language seem unpatriotic; and, worst of all, it drives us away from our God-given right as citizens to vote.

Less than half of the Latinos eligible to vote do so. I work in voter registration and there are lots of reasons I can give for it. But at the bottom, at the core of it, is a lie so pernicious we don't even dare whisper it: "you're not really an American." It's a lie that gets reinforced every time a politician conflates thousands of immigrants crossing the border with the tens of millions of Americans of Latino descent, which is to say, all the time. And it's an opportunity too: this Pope, seeing America with fresh eyes for the first time, could just say what he sees. That this is our country and we must claim it in the voting booth.