09 August 2011

The Other Side of the Immigrant Question

When I talk to many Americans about Immigration, "Foreigners", and all the news and issues surrounding them, the reactions are extremely varied.

Some feel that foreigners just don't belong here.  Others, that they can come if they first learn the English language.  Then, there are others who feel that these immigrants should be allowed to live here, legally or illegally, without any consequences to their immigration status and without having to ever learn the English language.

My husband falls in the second category, like many.  Learn the language, then come here, they say.

I fall into a different category.  I have been there, done that.  I am an immigrant.

I follow the issue, I know the process my family had to do to come over here, how small the chance was that we could even come over, how long it took to become a US citizen, how hard it was to learn a different language, to try and try so hard and hope.  And always be a "foreigner", no matter what.

When I heard about the story of Tony and Janina, I wasn't sure how I felt.  These were fellow Poles.  Janina was a solidarity activist.  They learned English, loved America, and tried.  And were separated as a family by immigration laws.

Tony and Janina, along with their son, have since been reunited but what their future holds, I do not know.

Their story can be found here:  Tony and Janina's American Wedding

I cannot imagine what they went through the past few years.  I can only find some similarities in their story and my own, and some differences.

When my family came over, almost 29 years ago, we were living in Austria on a prayer and potato soup for a few months after leaving in the middle of the night, the possibility of being caught by the Soviets and facing who knows what consequences being very real at that time. 

We were sponsored by the Catholic Church and given the option of Australia or the US.  One of my parents wanted America, the other Australia.  We decided on America and came over.

US Citizenship was applied for and we were accepted.  Yes, we are legal citizens of the United States of America.  We are not illegal, we never were.  But we were one of the lucky ones.

The details of our application for citizenship, I don't know.  I just know it was a lot of money and we had to pay every penny back.  Nothing was free.  Nothing was guaranteed.

My parents don't talk to me about a lot of our early years here.  I know it was hard.  I know we were hungry a lot.  That we lived only off what my father could earn, working very hard.  There were no hand outs.  No welfare. 

Nobody gave us work, my father had to apply for it like everyone else.  He was turned down much more than the average American because the employers were not interested in his Masters Degree in Poland, his work skills from another country.  All they heard was an accent.

We earned every penny we had. 

We did not receive "Amnesty" as we came over in 1982, the year after the cut off.

I remember when I was 14 and we were planning a trip back to Poland, with a stay in France for a month during that summer.  My US Citizenship was examined and I needed a passport. 

In order to receive a passport, I had to swear myself as an American citizen.  The Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the USA.

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;
that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic;
that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;
that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;
that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law;
that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law;
and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion;
so help me God."

My husband and friends never had to swear this.  It's just assumed for them.  Same for my daughters.  But I did. 

I remember my parents stressing that I needed to dress very nicely for this event.  We drove into the city and went up an elevator in a very tall government building, my stomach in knots.  Sitting in dark gray or navy plastic chairs. 


My mother and father discussing with me the seriousness of this.  As if I couldn't see already.  Nobody in the whole building was smiling.  Nobody.

My brother sat happily in the chair, quietly gloating over being born a US Citizen.

I remember standing, holding up my hand, repeating the oath.

Still, nobody smiled.  In the whole building.  Gray walls.  Dark uniformed government workers.  The only color was the US flag.

I am a grown woman now.  Whenever I need to do anything legal, my birth certificate means nothing.  I have to show my passport, proof of my US Citizenship. 

And I still get questioned by people who have no clue what we went through.  People who's grandparents were there for every school event and holiday.  Who possibly complain about their family while mine is so far away.  While I grew up barely knowing mine.

People who think I have no right to be here because I was not born here.  Or because I am not from a country they deam worthy, such as Germany, Britain, France, or Canada.  Yes, I have met such people.

Immigrants come over to the US knowing something that only immigrants can understand.  That this is a gamble.  A true gamble.  Not, a "Well, if it doesn't work out, I have a fall back" sort of gamble.

A hope that by coming to a foreign country which does not share the same language, laws, social normalities, foods, culture, dress, as their birth country, that their children's lives will be better than theirs.

And a knowledge that there is no safety net.  There is no family that will buy you groceries if you fall short.  That if someone needs to go to the hospital, there is no family or childhood friends who will babysit for you or drive you.  That if this does not work out, there is nothing else. 

That if you want to eat, work, live, have friends, go anywhere, you have to learn a new language.

This is it.

All of us as Americans have someone in their family who at some point took this gamble.  It is the reason we are all here.  Every single one of us.  So, to show a lack of basic human respect for immigrants, for foreigners, is to show a lack of respect for that person in your family history who took this gamble.

This, the ultimate life gamble.

That family member of yours who stood up in a gray, unsmiling room, looking at the bright red, white and blue of the American flag, raised their hand, and swore with every ounce in their heart "I hereby declare, on oath..."
Who say, as my father does, "America did not ask me to come here.  I asked America to let me come here."

Immigration is not a cost issue.  It's not a codes or laws issue.  Immigration is a human issue.

I am hoping tomorrow to be able to delve deeper into the details of Tony and Janina and discuss our current immigration policy.  Na razie...


Rachel Faith said...

'All of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants,' said FDR.

The immigrant story is the most American story there is - keep writing it. I believe this is the civil rights issue of our generation.

Rima said...

Ironically, it's often the people who had to apply for, study, and take an oath to get US citizenship who value it the most. I know that my family feels this way because they know what the alternative (to stay in Lithuania) would have been.

Anonymous said...

one thing really bothers me that America won't let you have dual citizenhip. I am Polish and I won't give it up, just to have more "rights" in here, that actually don't mean anything. I still will be foreigner to people because I have strange name and accent. That's really sad!