bitter thanks

I haven’t stayed up this late, especially not to putter around before composing a 2:00 am blog entry, in quite a while. I made it through the craziest consecutive two weeks I’ve had in a year or so and now have clean clothes and a relatively tidy living space again. My mom and I made eight cheesecakes for a party tomorrow and this evening I just hung around at home, wrote Christmas cards and while half-watching an obscure but charming documentary called Cowboy del Amor, and then Rebel Without a Cause for the first time.

Thanksgiving was nice, for the most part. Being perhaps the only liberally minded person in my entire family, I tend to get myself in trouble sometimes, and this year was no different. I’m still chewing over our pre-turkey argument, but I can say for certain that one of my uncles will appear my next JS column, and that’s about all I’ve decided for right now.

Besides my “conversation” with my uncle, I was asked the usual question of where Fermin (my husband) was. Here’s how it typically goes:

Cousin X: Hi Laura, (small talk, chatter) Is Fermin working today?
Me: No, he’s actually in Mexico for about six more months.
Cousin X: [very blank stare]
Me: It’s related to immigration, we knew it was going to happen, it’s basically a waiting period.
Cousin X: Wait, but isn’t he a U.S. Citizen now? I mean, he’s married to you, right?

Ahh the iconic ignorance of the American. Now, for anyone who doesn’t know me or hasn’t read my blog for long, or doesn’t know about immigration, when I use the term “ignorance” here, I am truly not insulting you, it’s simply that I have been asked this question in some form by almost everyone I have met and discussed my husband with for the past three months. And frankly, had I not stumbled into a four-year career as a restaurant manager I might never have known anything of it at all.

People tend to think immigration is simple. But it is so rarely so. First of all, no one becomes a U.S. Citizen upon marrying one. Even if the foreigner has only spent legal time in the country, citizenship is not the first step, and in our case, it is years away.

My grandma asked me Thursday how Fermin or someone like him (such as the girl known as Maria in my last JS column) might become a legal resident of the U.S. were he/she not fortunate enough to marry a U.S. Citizen. As was expected, she was surprised to hear there is almost no possibility of that. There are several types of immigration, and none of them even come close to admitting relatively low-wage, low-skilled foreign workers that large sectors of our economy like service and agriculture now depend upon.

There are visas for immediate relatives, like Fermin, because he is my spouse. There are visas for so-called “special” immigrants — highly skilled, highly educated, extremely talented people – engineers from India, computer geniuses from China, famous Brazillian musicians all apply under this category. Then there are visas that employers apply for for a specific position they can prove cannot be filled with an American worker. There are instances of this, even in the restaurant business, but for the employer, it is expensive (think lawyers), time consuming (years) and extremely cumbersome (forms, fees, ads in the paper, “proving” an American cannot do a particular job). The average restauranteur, much less farm-owner, cannot even begin to think about this process for someone they will end up paying $6-$12 per hour for. So they blink a few times when the documents are inspected and do what everyone else who can is doing, hire undocumented workers.

My grandma mentioned that when her grandparents came here, they had lived in Canada and simply moved here, probably registered somewhere, and set up a home. Unfortunately there is simply no longer any legal channel for an average foreigner, particularly for those who are low-skilled, to enter the United States and work legally. I often hear people say they support immigration, legal immigration. They never consider that their grandparents or great-grandparents simply saved money until they could hop a boat, showed up at Ellis Island and registered to become Americans. They didn’t need a job offer in the U.S., they didn’t need to process years of paperwork, they didn’t get backgrounds checks or need a specialized skill and they certainly didn’t have to marry someone who had been “lucky” enough to have been born in the U.S.

They just showed up here. Like most Mexican migrants, they probably had a family member or ten in the city they went to live in. The first generation were probably universally hard-working, family-oriented, persevering types. It takes a lot of courage to leave your nation, your home, and start over somewhere else.

Times have changed. We consider this a dangerous world, paranoia and xenophobia rule the local news, yet in America we live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than ever. We consider foreign things risky, dangerous and strange. We fear germs and ban tag. We ensure our entire lives, constantly trying to beat sickness and death as though we can control them fully with our technology, our brainpower, our sheer will to be clean and important and successful.

We’ve turned the American dream from its roots in work ethic, innovation and family life to something sick, materialistic and consumer-driven. Shoppers go to blows over a $200 laptop and shoot each other for a new Playstation. Our major newspapers cover “Black Friday” shopping on the front page. While we mull over redecorating our bedrooms and complain about cold weather in heated houses, people all over the world live happily in tiny, one-room shacks and are thankful for their family. We feel entitled to much more than a good life; we all want “the” good life.

We’ve forgotten our heritage, we’ve forgotten that immigrants have always boosted our economy, that the vast majority of people who will flee their native lands in search of one with more opportunities are the type of people we need in this country. We don’t realize how very much even those of us on the lesser end of the American payscale have, how people are literally dying to come here. Instead, we push them away, we suggest shooting them people at the border because lots of other countries might do it. All the while we get fatter, richer and more isolated from the reality of the rest of the world. The world where people have real problems — food, water, clothing, shelter.

And I don’t know what to be thankful for, because some days I find my own American-ness, the type all the immigration hawks are trying so desperately to protect, so distasteful, so disgusting, so detached from the reality of the world I have seen outside our borders that I wonder why I even fight for the right of my husband to live within them.

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3 Responses to bitter thanks

  1. Braden says:

    Good entry!

    I wish I could sit you down with my dissertation adviser. She’s working on a project that looks at immigration policy as a representation of the identity of a state (in other words, she is arguing we can learn something about being American from how America handles its immigrants).

    Your story reminds me of sticky identity can sometimes be! Even though America changed its laws quite awhile ago, the average American imagines that we are still the same country that built the Statue of Liberty.

    I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! Rachel and I enjoyed a hearty northern Wisconsin feast (I won’t describe what was in the stuffing).

    Braden

  2. laurafern says:

    Thanks! Although, is it really correct to say we “build the Statue of Liberty?” Sorry to nipick, but your point is right on! That’s a good way to summary the other day’s angst. You might want to write for Cliff. =)

    I have a nice Thanksgiving, a little overloaded on the family, but that’s what the holidays are about I suppose.

  3. […] I made my first ever cake. Well, I’ve made a lot of cheesecakes, but never a chocolate layer cake, or any other sort of cake I don’t believe. It turned out […]

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