Note: this post, by Brazilian-American political activist and commentator Julia Song, originally appeared as part of CNN’s “Fractured States of America” series.
(CNN)I am a political activist by nature. In my home country of Brazil, I helped organize peaceful protests against government corruption and abuses of power. At the time — way back in 2013 — Brazil was plagued by scandal, with much of the population living in poverty. And yet the country’s politicians, the source of so much of the scandal, continued to push agendas that benefited themselves and few others.
But with excessive spending on the World Cup draining the country’s already depleted resources, I was able to find a path forward with Brazilians from across the political spectrum. Our collective protests helped lead to a government investigation into corruption. Ultimately, many politicians went to prison, and the country’s president — Dilma Rousseff — was impeached.
Shortly after the protests, I moved to the United States on a family visa, where I was granted temporary residency, allowing me the right to work. I then began a four-year-long process to gain full citizenship, navigating the complexities and the financial costs of the American immigration bureaucracy.
Arriving to this new country, I thought that my activism days were behind me. But then I noticed a growing political divide between the elites, or establishment politicians, and working-class Americans just trying to get by. Sensing the disconnect — and the growing power of the political elite — I began using the power of social media to raise awareness of the issue, first on Instagram, and then on Twitter.
I advocated for my belief in a smaller government that guarantees more individual freedoms — and allows everyday Americans a chance at success. If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m a Republican, and I support President Donald Trump’s emphasis on fighting for ordinary Americans.
It was this reemergence in politics — and the divisive rhetoric that often animates it — that motivated me to partake in a Living Room Conversation’s session on immigration. I did so at the invitation of Sue Googe, a fellow Republican and former candidate for North Carolina’s 4th District.
Seeing how politically divided America had become — and fearful of its resemblance to parts of Brazil — I knew I had been given a rare opportunity. While Sue and I took a conservative approach to immigration, emphasizing the need to preserve our American values and rule of law, three Democrats argued a more liberal position. One, in particular, stood out to me — Rremida Shkoza, an Albanian refugee to the United States.
Rremida, like Sue, had grown up under a communist regime. While Rremida’s family fled Albania, Sue had fled China — but both shared a deep fear and suspicion of communist rule. I, who had experienced Brazilian socialism — which bore eerie similarities to communism with its emphasis on dangerously large government — was also skeptical, having experienced a government descent into corruption.
But while Sue and I felt that Democratic socialism — and its liberalism on open borders and expanded government — was a threat to American democracy, Rremida seemed to think it was the solution to many of our problems. Having fled a dictatorship, Rremida felt that the United States had an obligation to keep its doors open to any and all asylum seekers. And while she acknowledged all people entering the United States should be vetted, she believed the government, in an expanded form, could accommodate those in need of refuge and freedom.
While I disagreed with her approach, I, too, see the humanitarian issue with refugees seeking asylum. And I lamented the fact that Republicans, while feeling for refugees, fail to clearly express that sentiment publicly.
But, unlike Rremida, I know the cost of illegal immigration on the system. As I attempt to navigate the legal system with my family, I bear the heavy weight of having to divide precious resources with immigrants who did not come here through legal means. In Brazil, my mother and brother both depend on each other for income, and while I would love to bring them here to escape the violence, it is almost impossible to bring one without the other. But to bring them here together — following all federal guidelines — could take years, as American courts battle growing immigration backlogs.
This is why I told Rremida and her fellow Democrats that the solution to immigration begins by improving the legal system — and channeling the necessary resources to continue to bring the brightest minds across the globe to the US. But it also means cracking down on illegal immigration, building a wall if needed, to dissuade people from coming via that route and jamming up the judicial system with their immigration claims.
Rremida, though not entirely agreeing, seemed to understand how my family’s experience was impacting my view of the system. While she may not have endorsed building a wall, she agreed that the distribution of resources on immigration was problematic.
Still, despite our differences, I felt she and I shared a common set of values — compassion, patriotism and a belief that our shared country could be a better version of itself. We may disagree on how to accomplish this — through a border wall or increased refugee intake, for example — and we may even disagree on the priorities of the federal government, but we agreed that illegal immigration is a challenge, and comprehensive immigration reform is vital to solving that problem.
To know a Democrat also cares about the issue of immigration, but may have a different approach to reforming the system, helps me make peace with our policy differences. Instead of being a faceless liberal, Rremida is now a fellow American with a unique set of experiences that color the way she sees the world — and the role she thinks America should play in it. And our ability to meet in the same living room, to get out of our red vs. blue silos, gives me a tremendous amount of hope.
Among the biggest takeaways, I learned that much of the ground work for bridging political divides starts in homes across America. It starts at the community level, where Americans who are already united by ties to a specific place can come together and hash out their differences.