Let me say right from the beginning I do not know what I am talking about. Oh, sure, I did some research but everything goes ten different ways on this topic and at the end of it I knew less than I did at the start—which was nothing. Should anyone in the comments section below challenge me to a battle of wits, fair warning, I am unarmed.
Now, that said, my immigration policy is simple. Let ‘em all in. That, I cheerfully admit, likely makes for poor public policy. Nonetheless, it is my instinct, based on my collection of immigrant stories. I’m pretty forward when I hear an accent. I want to know about it so I ask. The stories come easily. Almost everyone is eager to tell me how they got to America, and why. The why is simple: freedom, opportunity, a dream they wanted fulfilled. How they got here is always different. Stories do not make for good public policy either, but they are nice to hear.
• I met an English woman who spent eight years becoming a citizen of the United States. She possibly could have done things somewhat faster had her father technically not been a U.S. citizen. He was born in the United States to an English couple who returned to Great Britain while he was yet an infant. Years later she filled out her permanent U.S. visa application and listed her father’s place of birth as Chicago. Well, what with this, that, something else, and yet another thing she finally was required to produce her father in person with his birth certificate to the U.S. embassy in London and, for further verification, had to have an American cousin show up at the same time to identify her English cousin as the kid born in Chicago. This required rousting her father from his retirement home and flying the cousin to Heathrow. It took all that and a mound of paper to get her permanent visa. After the usual residency period on a green card, she took her oath of citizenship three years ago.
• And there was the English guy from Enterprise who delivered me to my rental car. He and an American girl had just married the year before. They met some while after he arrived. He had just gotten his green card, but he had to lie to get it. Had he come to the U.S. with the intention of marrying her and put that on his original visa application, he would have been okay. But his stated reason for a visa wasn’t marriage; it was work. When he applied for a permanent residence card the immigration agent noted the problem and blandly asked him, slowly, “Your original intention was in fact a visa application related to marriage, yes, and someone checked the wrong box?”
• I know an Indian Sikh woman who honors Christmas every year with a tree, a real tree, not an artificial one. She is clear about that. It is part of what makes her feel like an American, but it was ten years getting to the United States before she could put a tree up. When I met her she was midway in her five-year residency period. Her application for U.S. entry was rebuffed. She could not gain direct entry to the United States from India—wrong skills, wrong something, I forget—but she could get to Canada, which was pretty close. She lived in Toronto for those ten years. Canada, a member of the Commonwealth with India, placed fewer barriers in her way and from there, once all her Canadian credentials finally were in place, she moved to the Kansas City south side.
• My Vietnamese son Düñg became Karl (his choice) at his adoption in 1983. The State of Nebraska vital statistics bureau issued him a birth certificate, one which names me at age sixteen as his natural father. (There’s something to talk about.) It is the only birth certificate he has ever had. Following university graduation he presented it to immigration officials seeking citizenship. They said it did not count; he still needed a green card, residency period, citizenship test, and an oath.
• A New York taxi driver was telling me how he left his teaching job in Pakistan for the opportunity to come to America. He liked driving a taxi better than teaching, and it let him meet people. “You left your homeland so you could come here and fight New York traffic?” I thought I was joking with him, a little. He looked at me very seriously from the rear view mirror. “Yes, God is good.”
• At an Alexandria, Virginia gas station I asked the guy behind the counter where he was from. “Mars,” he said. Sensing my reservation he added, “No, really. I’ll show you.” He pulled out his residency card, covered part of it up with his thumb so the only word I could read was “Alien.” “It doesn’t,” I noted, “say Mars.” “If immigration says I’m an alien, I get to pick the planet.” I thought that over. “Good enough and welcome to Earth.”
• I asked the young clerk at the library where she was from. She wanted to know why I thought she was from anywhere but around here. “Is it my scarf?” No. There’s a mosque nearby; women in scarves aren’t unusual. It was her accent. “Accent!” Her hands fluttered in surprise. “I have an accent?” Up to that moment I thought so. All of a sudden I wasn’t so sure. I have trouble hearing consonants, I said, so I might be mistaken. No, she admitted, resigned, she did have an accent. “I was eleven when our family moved here from the U.A.E. and,” she added carefully enunciating every single word, “you have a dollar and a half in fines.”
• The first lawyer I call when I need one is a Vietnamese woman who graduated law school in 2003. She is thirty-four today but when she was nine she and her family along with others became part of the “boat people” exodus out of Vietnam during the late 1970’s through the early 1980’s. In her boat, several died at sea on the journey. She doesn’t speak of it much.
What I find moving in these stories is the persistence, the sheer stubborn doggedness, and the sometimes willing embrace of danger by these folks in getting to America. It is an amazing calculus: Getting into the United States is worth a ten-year wait in Canada?
Oops, I forgot; one more story.
• There are numerous Hispanic students in my wife’s fifth grade class at her Title I elementary school, most with Mexican backgrounds. There is no way to know who comes from a family with proper documents and who does not. Very few of the kids can read or write Spanish. Every morning in class, legal or not, they stand with hand over heart and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.
This is in decided contrast to the allegations made by a middle school substitute teacher in Phoenix. The teacher, Tony Hill, said in a letter to a Republican state senator that a majority of Hispanic eighth-graders he had recently taught at a Glendale school refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, or stand while it was being recited, and some declared that Americans had stolen their land. A district spokesman, Jim Cummings, said all the students questioned in a following inquiry reported that everyone stood for the pledge and that none said their land had been stolen. “What we are finding here—and what we believe—is that the statements that [Hill] made weren't accurate," said Cummings.
Hill’s letter was read in the Arizona state senate as legislators debated a bill requiring proof of citizenship for all K-12 students. I know a couple guys—nice guys otherwise—who believe kids like those in my wife’s class room should be rounded up and deported, period, no appeal. Cripes. When did we become so cold?
Ten years in Canada to get here legally, or living here in the legal shadows without documents: It is all something of the same, isn’t it, to the people so desperate to be here?
I cannot help but believe it would be good for our country if we could figure out how to create a path to citizenship for undocumented families already here and do it in a way that honors all the legal immigrants who followed the rules, stood in line, and in many cases underwent long years of waiting before they were admitted. The undocumented families live and work here, pay taxes (property and sales and withholding and FICA, and if they work using a forged Social Security card they receive no credit for their working quarters). Forced to it I would do the same for my family, my children, leave a troubled homeland with limited prospects and few opportunities and attempt to forge something a little better. These exactly are the sort of people we need.
What about the border? Sure, clamp it down. Illegal is illegal. But we are speaking of perhaps several millions-with kids-here, now. Perhaps we can credit them a little sweat equity.
It disturbs me that all potential solutions have become so impossibly politicized that no one may yield even a little. Republicans should tell their hard right to simmer down, and Democrats should tell their goo-goo wing to get a spine. We are talking about walking and chewing gum, right?
Now what—remember, I don’t know what I’m talking about—is so hard about that?
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
New York Times, “One Hundred Years of Multitude.”