On Being an Immigrant

I wasn’t going to write about immigration today. I wanted instead to comment on the by-election in Calgary-Greenway and the US primaries in Arizona and Utah. But.

Yesterday I was caught up in a conversation about illegal immigrants in the United States. Many people – some who I know – find the current state of immigration affairs frustrating and even maddening. They can’t understand why people – primarily brown people though no one is impolite enough to point out ethnicity – can’t just access legal channels that would allow them to enter and build lives in the country.

Probably foolishly (okay, totally foolish and even stupid on my part) I entered the conversation.

Facebook is a slightly better venue for discussion of complex issues than say Twitter, which sucks sweaty donkey balls for it, but it’s still problematic. The problem part being that you start off talking with one or two other people and all is going well when someone hijacks it with a rant about how wrong you are and it’s a quick descent into the shitty bowels of Internet hell from there on.

Accessing legal entry to any country for the purpose of living there permanently is a multi-stepped process with rules that are usually not as transparent as they initially seem.

It can be costly and will be time-consuming, personally invasive and probably will make you feel very unworthy at least once.

By design immigration falls somewhere between grueling and jumping through flaming hoops. If it wasn’t, people would vote with their feet to better countries at rates that would overcrowd a few and depopulate many.

I am an immigrant to Canada, and I taught ESL (English as Second Language) when I was in the American Midwest, so I have more than a passing familiarity with the systems.

Coming to Canada was relatively easy for me. I’m white. I was a US citizen. I’m educated. And I was married to a Canadian citizen.

I showed up at the border, answered a few question, was given a few instructions on what to do next and handed a stamped VISA.

A VISA is the first step in entering any country and in Canada there are many avenues for acquiring one. We are an immigrant nation and since the 1970’s, we sort of pride ourselves on it.

The United States calls itself an immigrant nation, but it’s relationship with immigration has always been on a sliding scale between problematic and hostile. Currently, they are in an animosity stage again.

Illegal immigrants number around 11 million, which in a country of 300plus million is a pittance of the population but given the continued sluggishness of their economy, and the fact that globalization has ballooned their lower and working poor classes, illegal migration has taken on the out-sized outrage of people who are in desperate need of someone to blame.

There are many reasons for the fact that most undocumented migrants can’t legally access the immigration process, but the process has never been overly accessible, so that’s not new.

What’s new – since the 1980’s – is the slow strangulation of the US and Mexican border thanks to the “war on drugs”.

During the 20th century, migrant workers from Mexico, primarily, flowed fairly easily back and forth. It followed the seasons and the work. For the most part, these migrants did not live in the US nor did they want to.

The crack down on the border, however, forced many to relocate to the US in order to be able to continue working and over time, as children were born in the US and families put down roots, the populations grew and started to be noticed. Not in a good way. Especially when globalization saw manufacturing jobs leave the country and working class Americans were now competing with much cheaper foreign labor for the same jobs.

This is an over-simplified explanation, but it’s meant to explain how people got to the US and why something that wasn’t a problem 50 years ago is “suddenly” a huge problem.

Some people seem to think that it’s so black and white that the solution is “get in line and get legal or go back to your country”. It’s not.

The best example I can think of is a kid in one of my English classes whose family came to the Iowa city where I taught when he was about 11 from Guatemala or Ecuador.

It was turmoil that sent them north not economics, and it was fear that kept them from going back.

Jorge had just turned 18. His English was okay, but he’d been thrown into an American school system at a point in his education where his ability to read and write in Spanish wasn’t stellar and expected to pick up a second language – English – with very minimal instruction. Consequently, he struggled in school and was unlikely to graduate from high school on time.

Discouraged, he began to look for work but didn’t have a Social Security number, so even when he found work, the lack of that single card kept him from getting the job.

He came to me one afternoon and asked if I knew how he could get a Social Security number.

“You get one when you are born and your parents apply for the card,” I said.

“I wasn’t born here,” he told me.

He looked at his shoes and then back at me. His smile was sad.

“My friends say you can buy one.”

He was really asking me if I knew who he could go to in order to do that. I can’t begin to tell you how I felt in that moment.

He was a big kid. Taller than I am and fairly beefy. Strong and he could be quite intimidating until you got to know him. But he was the sweetest guy. Polite. Soft-spoken. A hard-worker and always happy and willing to help out when asked (he was too shy to offer).

Jorge was not the only student in my class who was undocumented. There were several. One girl who had disappeared a week or so earlier and I had just learned that she’d been forced to return to Mexico to stay with relatives to avoid deportation. Her immediate family was still in the country though moved on with her younger siblings, who were US citizens, to another town.

“I don’t know how you would do that,” I told him.

He looked at his shoes again. Shoulders sagging. He was smiling in his sad way when he looked up.

“You should ask Miguel,” I said.

Miguel as another student who I was fairly certain was also undocumented. He had loose ties to the local gang scene. Was probably a drug dealer. A goofy, happy-go-lucky kid who – for reasons that escape me – was fond enough of me to not give me a hard time in class, the way he did some of my colleagues.

Jorge nodded again. Asking Miguel for help would mean stepping over a line that Jorge – to my knowledge – didn’t cross.

He thanked me and then he left.

I never saw him again.

Weeks later, another student would confirm that Jorge had left the state and was believed to be heading south. Whether he returned to his country or sought refuge with relatives in the Southwest, I never found out.

Jorge, and kids like him, make up a sizable number of the illegal immigrants that people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz vilify on a regular basis. Young people who are in the US because they were brought there by parents. Many were quite young and don’t remember the country where they were born. Often don’t speak much or any Spanish. Indistinguishable from native-born Americans in any way you can imagine.

I don’t have a lot of patience with the idea that they are horrible people and threats to the employment and good life prospects of other Americans. And I know for a fact that short of joining the military, they have no access to the VISAs they would need to start the process to become first permanent residents and then possibly citizens.

Becoming a permanent resident of any country is a process that is not easy, but it’s a process that is easily accessible only by people who already have a certain amount of privilege.

I had privilege and that’s why I could come to Canada and become a resident and then a citizen. I don’t take that for granted. I know exactly how lucky I am.

And because of kids like Jorge (and Miguel and Tran, a Vietnamese girl who wanted to be a nurse, and Katie, a Russian whose parents died of AIDS, and Mohamed, a Bosnian refugee, and Ahmed, Pablo,  and room full of others) I know that immigrating to the United States is not a black/white thing.

It shouldn’t be reduced to a meme or talking point.

And because of that, I am doomed to arguing fruitlessly on Facebook at about it.

One response to “On Being an Immigrant

  1. One vignette… Each story is different, and for those trapped in this quagmire, it must be terrifying. i’ve stayed off FB conversations. i ranted last november, and ended up with trolls alighting into the conversation.

    fuck that.

    i am now volunteering with the local Catholic Social Services refugee resettlement project. They have the mission in our town to resettle legal immigrants, who have somehow navigated the gauntlet and land in west central Ohio.

    my first job? helping clean a duplex in preparation for an arriving family from Eritrea. Nine. Left with only the clothes on their backs, were coming in for a transitional stop where paperwork can be sorted. i cleaned the kitchen cabinets of a 3 bedroom half-double. Mouse turds. Not cushy at all. i then spent several hours assembling Ikea bunk beds.

    my current gig? Aligning immigrant children with the bicycle co-op. Finding resources for training, helmets, locks.

    i have no time for pointless rants – i was going insane trying to open the eyes of the willfully ignorant. i choose to channel my rage and become boots on the ground. it doesn’t help those who are trapped in the undocumented muck, but at least i’m doing something.

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