What Needs to Change in Conversations About Immigrants

A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with some friends. We were talking about the U.S. military involvement around the world. At some point I intervened and said something like "you guys are not aware of..." "You guys..." As if I wasn't one of them. I have lived in the U.S. for over fourteen years. How long will it take to become an American? Five more years? Maybe ten? Or did I become an American when I got my citizenship?

There are many different kinds of immigrants. And I am not going to categorize them because I have no idea what those categories are. But I can tell you that the process of emigrating never ends. You think you have finally fit in, and then someone refers to something that happened before you came... and you are out again. You think you've hidden your accent and then you say something that reveals it, and you get the question: Where are you from? (subtext is: you are obviously not from here, therefore you are not American). How long before I can say?: I am from right here.

When we talk about immigration there are usually two positions (to simplify things to an absurd extent): You are either pro-immigration, or you are against it. Being pro-immigration generally means that you don't want to deport millions of people, you'd like to offer a path to citizenship to those who are undocumented, and you also don't think it's a bad thing that half of the world wants to live in the U.S. The U.S. is great, of course they want to come here. Let's ignore the fact that the world is inundated with information, popular culture, food, TV shows, even popular expressions from the U.S. Could that have something to do with it? Being anti-immigration generally means that you want to stop people from coming to the U.S. illegally, that you are not all that happy that there are legal ways to immigrate, and that people who want to come here don't really love America and are also a little... suspicious, to say the least (in the way President Obama is suspicious to Giuliani).

Now that I've told you a bunch of things you already knew, I will get into why I am writing about this. Being an immigrant has never been easy for me. And I am sure it's not easy for most of the people who have to leave the place where they grew up and abandon friends and family. Starting a new life in a different country means building an alternative identity, feeling disoriented every other day, not being sure where you belong, and in the worst cases... not belonging anywhere. I can't even say that I came because I had to. I did it because I wanted to, and then one thing led to another, and fourteen years later I am still here. But many people leave their native countries because they don't have a better alternative. They are simply desperate. So then... why is no one talking about creating ways for these people to have alternatives? Do I mean making sure that people are not so hopeless that they feel the need to risk their lives to come to the U.S. or to Europe? Yes, that is what I mean. And what does that entail? I have no idea, but politicians should figure it out. If someone told me that I had to give up part of my salary and well being in order for people around the world to have decent living conditions, I would sign up for it. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently made his case for reparations. Yeah, that insane idea that society should balance a historic injustice. Well, this is my much shorter and not nearly as sophisticated case for international reparations. Western countries are partially responsible for the deplorable economic state of many countries around the world. How about we commit to making sure people can have a decent life in their countries? Who is talking about that? Western countries should implement policies to ensure the proper development of the economies of countries that now send their citizens in the quest for a better life in the U.S. or Europe.

I used to say that if you asked an immigrant what her or his dream is, they would say: to save enough money to go back, buy a house, and live in peace. I am not so sure of that any longer. Enough years away from your native country will make you confused enough about who you are, that you might end up not having a remote idea of what your dreams are. So let's stop talking about the experience of being an immigrant as some kind of privilege some lucky people enjoy. It is a difficult and complicated lifelong experience.