Consideration for your fellow man
Wouldn’t hurt anybody, sure fits in with my plan
Over the border, there lies the promised land
So don’t tell anybody what I wanna’ do
If they find out you know that they’ll never let me through
It’s no fun being an illegal alien
It’s no fun being an illegal alien*
- Banks/Collins/Rutherford Illegal Alien
* This is the song lyric I originally chose for this post. In light of recent events, I considered not using it and replacing it with Marin Niemoller's First They Came. I chose to use the original song title and use a paraphrased version of the poem later in the text.
After almost a year of paperwork, application fees, medical exams, and a see-saw of emotions, we have finally been approved for residency status in New Zealand. So, this post was going to be a happy one. Unfortunately, recent events at our southern border caused by our government's heartless and brutal policies have caused my thoughts to take an ugly turn. Few, if any, of my posts have been political; however, I just can't write about my immigration journey without thinking of the journeys taken by others and how they are being portrayed in the news today. I previously wrote about our interactions with a group of Afghan refugees in New Zealand (Link: New Wheels and New Opportunities), but this time it's personal.
I first became an immigrant in 1990, moving from Canada to the United States. I arrived on a student visa, so the transition was relatively easy. I transferred schools, went to grad school, then changed visas when I went to work. Each and every time, there was a finite time window in which I would be considered a "legal" immigrant. I was on a student visa once again for medical school and then I got married and became a Permanent Resident ... yep, I have a Green Card! While I am definitely an immigrant, I am also a Canadian. When I moved from there, culturally it was not that dissimilar to the US. Kinda' like Kiwis and Aussies ... unless you are one of them, they are pretty much indistinguishable. Sweet as, I just pissed off three different nationalities in only two sentences!
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless,
Tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
- Emma Lazarus New Colossus
I always intended to become a US citizen, but now that we are moving to New Zealand, that point is moot. Few of us have done anything to "earn" or "deserve" our citizenship or residency. We simply won the lottery through no effort of our own. Mostly, we are just lucky (or unlucky) to have been born on one side of a border or another. Becoming a US Permanent Resident took several months, about $4K, and the ability to take time off work to attend appointments and interviews. Becoming a New Zealand resident took almost a year, and our total output so far is close to $9K and still climbing. I suppose I could make an argument that I have "earned" my status by passing extensive background checks and spending thousands of dollars in the process, but I can not argue that my pathway has been made much easier by the fact that I am white, male, educated, articulate, and affluent. I know how to navigate the system. While I did not come the the US (or New Zealand) as a refugee, if I had been any combination of female, dark-skinned, poor, and did not speak English, I would be unlikely to be where I am today.
We should treat those who come seeking refuge/asylum with kindness, dignity, and respect. Not because it's right or moral. Not because God, or Jesus, or Allah, or The Great Spaghetti Monster In The Sky commands us to, but because it is who we ought to be. While we have lost our way and it is not who we are today, it is who we used to be, and it is who we should strive to be in the future. I am not advocating for an open border policy. I am saying that we should treat migrants like the desperate human beings they are, and if they don't qualify for amnesty, asylum, or immigration, turn them away. But be nice. "If somebody gets in your face and calls you a cocksucker, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won't walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can't walk him, one of the others will help you, and you'll both be nice. I want you to be nice until it's time not to be nice."
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
-Martin Niemoller First They Came
I know from the process of becoming a New Zealand resident how difficult it is to meet criteria. It took months and thousands of dollars, and an incredible effort. I wonder how many of those who advocate for a “merit-based” immigration policy in the US would ever have been allowed in under those conditions. How many have visited a favela outside of Rio, not as a tourist but as the guest of a local, sitting and breaking bread with them as I have. Or how many have seen 14 year-old boys carrying automatic weapons and "guarding" a family business in Honduras as I have. How many have seen crude concrete walls and windowsills topped with broken bottles to help keep out intruders, behind which families barricade themselves after dark? And how many have seen people living in landfill sites, sifting through the day's detritus trying to find something of value that they can then trade for money to buy food.
These are desperate people fleeing desperate situations. The people I met made less than the equivalent of about $10 US per week. Can you imagine what it takes to save enough money for the journey, always afraid that your meager savings will be stolen or extorted from you? They often can't afford to take their entire family. Can you imagine the heartbreak when one parent has to grab their youngest child and flee while leaving the rest of the family behind? Hardship in the journey is not a possibility, but a guarantee. Can you imagine how terrible your life must be to risk rape, robbery, and murder along the way knowing that you might not be granted the asylum you seek? And can you imagine the horror when you finally arrive only to have your child taken from you and sent thousands of miles away from you with no hope of contacting them? These are the people who we see on the news. This is their plight.
I started this post a few months ago as we were going through our own immigration process, was motivated to finish it when we finalized our visa applications for New Zealand, then stalled out as immigration issues came to the foreground in the news. Today is now July 4th ... a day of celebration for the USA's earliest beginnings, and a day when we ponder what it means to be "American". While I moved to the USA 28 years ago, I never became a citizen. At first I was held back by the expense and logistics. Once we knew we would be moving to New Zealand, there was no longer an impetus to complete the process. So, while I have never been an "American", I have lived here and have been steeped in its culture for almost 3 decades. As such, I have a few closing thoughts, both for this blog post and as we prepare to leave to another country.
People who come to our borders seeking asylum, and those who cross the border illegally and then try to obtain legal status are not "jumping the line". Much like the grocery store check-out, there are many lanes that lead to legal immigration. I have known this to be true immigrating to America, as well as New Zealand. We choose the lane that best suits our circumstances and the speed at which our lane moves has no influence on, and is not influenced by, what is happening in the other lanes. On a side note, a curious quirk of the rules means that you must be on American soil to claim asylum. As we turn people aside at the border, never allowing them to meet criteria for entrance, some turn to crossing illegally so that their case can be heard.
Immigrating to another country isn't cheap, nor is it simple or easy. I am not saying that it should be. By necessity, it is an incredibly complex system. Those who profess otherwise either don't understand the system, or they are being purposefully disingenuous. It is a simple thing to be kind, respectful, and understanding. How we treat those less fortunate than we are who turn to us for help says more about us than it does them. The thing that has made the USA attractive to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses, as well as the world's best and brightest, has been a promise. It is the promise of safety, security, and opportunity. Of late, we haven't lived up to that promise. We are losing out on an entire generation of immigrants ... people who helped to make America great in the first place.
Thank you, and goodnight ...