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.

My Nephew, Alex P. Keaton

Sympathy card

Sympathy card (Photo credit: artnoose)

It’s no secret that my younger nephew, N2 is a Republican. During the election of 2008, he used to yell rebuttals at Obama signs as they drove by and while he has outgrown that, he took yesterday’s election results a bit hard.

“Who won?” he asked my sister when she roused him for school.

“Well, N2,” she said, gently, “Obama won.”

He was mute for a moment and then, “But how? Why? Don’t they understand?”

Because for N2, this election was about the economy. It was about taxes and the 53%, which is where he firmly plants himself and his parents.

There were no vagina politics or healthcare concerns for him. He doesn’t have a vagina, and healthcare for him is a moot point. His parents are middle-class and professionally white-collar.

More to the point, he lives in an area of the country that has an unemployment rate of less than 5%. Jobs actually go begging.

Oh, there is poverty. He’s never seen it himself though he’s driven past it on his way to his paternal grandmother’s. It exists just off the edge of the peripheral vision of the city.  Some endemic and some uprooted from Chicago when that city tore down its low income housing and the inhabitants fled to the river cities along the border Illinois and Iowa border.

Like a lot of people in my hometown, N2 has limited patience with those of the generational poverty crowd. Needing help and even taking it is fine but it isn’t a first resort and certainly isn’t something you do forever and then pass on to kids and grandkids.

You work hard. You follow the rules. Pay your taxes and save and you live a good life because you’ve done the things necessary to make it happen. That’s how his father does it. That’s how his grandfather did it. That’s how N2 plans to do it.

He doesn’t think it is fair that some people get to skirt around the self-restraint, work, sacrifice, and in a lot of ways, he is not wrong.

It’s like that bible story of the prodigal son, who demands his inheritance and then pisses it away, crawling back later when he has nothing left. His father, instead of taking the kid up on his offer of working to make it up, simply hands him more. When the prodigal’s older brother expresses some rightful resentment, he is told not to be such a jerk.

That’s how N2 sees it. The rules for him are different, more demanding and requiring that he shoulder his own weight and pony up for the slackers besides.

And while it is a little more complicated than that, he is just eleven. Life is concrete and nuance-less, and some of us never really leave the idea of middle school fairness behind. Which is also not all that bad a thing.

After his mother calmed him down and got him out the door to the bus stop, his dad joined him and N2 ranted himself up into a frenzy again.

“I just don’t get it.”

And though it’s tempting to try to explain the politics of social values, race, gender and those who consider themselves too educated and too far up the food chain to dirty themselves worrying about anything as grimy, slimy as economic realities, it would be a waste of time.

N2 is a simple guy in the making. Family first. Work ethic. Loyalty to friends and community. Politics is and always will be local for him.

And that’s not a terrible thing.

Those who puzzled along with N2 yesterday, maybe still today, are not concerned with the great social agenda as much as they are with impact of a sputtering economy on their families and communities. It’s not wrong to care about those things either.

I ran across FB updates and op-ed/blog posts reminding these people “hey, I lived under Bush and survived, so just shut the fuck up and do the same as I did”, which they’ve forgotten was whine and whinge and carry on like toddlers more often than not. Though they seem to think they were the Dalai Lama and Jon Stewart rolled into one during Bush/Cheney, I remember it differently.

“My condolences,” I said to N2 when he appeared in the background as I chatted to my sister and mother on FaceTime.


“She’s saying she is sorry that Romney lost,” my sis translated.

“Oh, thanks,” he smiled.

That’s all people want. To know that you know their disappointment and respect their right to it. Saying, “I know you are disappointed just like the time I was but I wasn’t as big a baby as you are being” is not empathy. Just saying.

That is Enough

English: Logo for the Our America Initiative

English: Logo for the Our America Initiative (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometime later today (except for this blog and photobombing my own FB feed), I head offline for a few days. I can pretty much count on no one around here feeding me POTUS election results because, frankly, no one in my neck of Canada really cares all that much. While the folks out East gobble up election coverage with the same hysteria that Americans do, we out here in the hinterlands just don’t dwell close enough (apart from Vancouver) to worry over much about the cry baby/sore loser fears, and we puzzle a bit about all the smug gloating. Canadians really don’t do either and consider it one of those undesirable American traits that feed our own sense of superiority – only quietly. Arched eyebrow, slight eye roll and maybe a slightly inaudible cluck of the tongue.

So, if I manage to avoid accidental contact with print media, I might be able to remain ignorant of who is POTUS until my mother arrives for her visit.

That’s my focus of the next several days. My mommy is coming to visit me. The only member of my family and friend set who will brave the trip up to bask in my company. No one else really loves me enough, which is why we trek down there once a year, enduring questionable sleep and GMO-laden foods.

I think my plan is a sound one. I stole it from another FB friend who is employing a similar tactic though she plans to be gone for weeks. Living in Michigan, I don’t know how she will manage blissful ignorance but I admire her spirit.

She is one of the few FB friends I have who didn’t either unfriend me or hide my feed during the last few months as I railed against the lack of fact, tact and general disregard for buying in totally to the age of soundbite and meme politics. One person even blocked me from posting on the blog s/he writes, which is interesting given how infrequently I comment anywhere in the blogosphere anymore.

It’s been an ugly wrap up to a interminably long POTUS cycle (two years and $6billion dollars – they should be asking for forgiveness for such a waste of time and resource), and in the end, nothing much will change. No Mayan end of the world. No zombies. No notably shifts in culture or socioeconomic levels.

When I compare it to a Canadian election cycle – six mercifully short weeks at the end of which politicians actually go back to work – I could weep.

Biggest awareness moment for me is that I have changed. Enough that I need to do some real thinking about quite a few things.

In the past reactionary, lesser evil politics worked well enough for me. Now? Not so much.

I used to be a big supporter of women’s rights but I see now that it is a distraction issue and that civil/human rights issues and laws that don’t distinguish gender, religion, or “race” is really where effort must be put. It only serves the masters when we scramble for scraps and fight amongst each other.

One of my feed updates today said that I just don’t care about how anyone feels – good or bad – tomorrow in terms of the POTUS election aftermath. A friend noted that I seemed to care a lot, but she read it wrong. I care about all the issues that weren’t discussed as folks bought wholesale into the little details they think are at stake and about the continuing degradation of the voting process in the US, but the drama and the gloating tomorrow – because it will be out of proportion, mean-spirited in a personal way that will ruin friendships and hurt family relations – I don’t care about that.

This election isn’t personal in an intimate sense for me, but it is a watershed.

If your guy won, congrats though I still think that he will have no great impact on events to come. They are bigger than he is and the Europeans, Canadians, Chinese, Russians and all the rest have it right – America doesn’t matter as much as she thinks she does.

If your guy lost, I am sorry. Nothing bad is going to result though. Your life is going to be pretty much the same as it was last week and last year. A POTUS can’t really create jobs or fix economies or stop hurricanes from inundating neighborhoods that really just sit too close to the sea now that the climate is shifting (and he can’t do anything about that either). Chin up. People have lived under POTUS’s they didn’t vote for before and even believed was the anti-Christ. They survived without any visible scarring, so take heart.

I will cheer a bit in Gary Johnson gets enough votes to qualify the Libertarians as a real party with a right to federal funding for their candidates. A third-party emerging from this farce is a bright spot to be sure.

Enjoy the election theatre this evening. I am going to teach a yoga class , read a few chapters of The Mark of Athena to Dee before tucking her in. take a long shower with my husband and then curl up with my iPad to finish a book about Henry VII. Fascinatingly, we can virtually nowhere since the days when paranoid monarchs ruled us through fear and favoritism.

Tomorrow is another day for thinking about things. Scarlett may have been self-interested, but she had her priorities straight.