Forgive a long post, but this is a complicated, emotional issue just about everywhere in the world, and can’t be addressed glibly. If you aren’t interested, click away. But please do come back another day! 🙂
In the last decade of the 19th century, Italian ancestors of mine emigrated to the United States. (One was evidently about age 9, and unaccompanied by a parent.) On cramped, uncomfortable ships they traveled for weeks – from Sicily to Naples, then to Marseille, and eventually they reached New York’s Ellis Island, where admittance to the U.S. was not a certainty. They were granted entry. None ever returned to Italy. They had left behind brothers, sisters, and parents whom they never saw again.
Before that, most likely they had never been more than a few dozen miles from where they had been born. It must have been a gutwrenching and terrifying decision to emigrate across the ocean – long before today’s easy air travel and FaceTime. But it was also their choice.
I raise that because it may be relevant to bear in mind as one reads this. On December 19, Fusion (an Hispanic/ Latino/ South American-centered U.S. TV channel) in the U.S. told us:
….Last month, [‘Orange Is The New Black’ actress Diane] Guerrero, who was born in New Jersey, wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times in which she described coming home one day to find an empty house. Her mother, father and brother were undocumented and the fear that she grew up with came true one day: her family was deported back to Colombia.
Two days after Guerrero’s op-ed was published, the L.A. Times published a story noting that her op-ed fell on “readers’ deaf ears,” and described letters The Times received from readers as expressing “little sympathy for the actress or others whose families face similar circumstances.”…
…Guerrero was part of a mixed-status family. Her parents were born in Colombia but she was the only U.S.-born member of her family. There’s an estimated 16.6 million people in the U.S. that are part of families with at least one unauthorized immigrant, according to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project…
I had never heard of Ms. Guerrero before stumbling on that Fusion article yesterday. It did lead me to ponder my own situation. It also caused me to reflect on what I have seen of immigration, migrancy in Europe, and also so-called “mixed-status” families.
I used to regularly read a U.S. citizen blogger here in Britain. His blog is now gone. I recall him once posting how he (a military veteran) was unable to get his long-time U.K. citizen wife into the United States permanently.
And why couldn’t he? Because U.S. immigration authorities had refused her a “green card.” He posted that in not admitting his spouse, he, an American by birth, had therefore been essentially “exiled” to the United Kingdom for the rest of his life. I remember him also angrily venting that the U.S. government also still had the
f-cking nerve to expect he continue to file U.S. income taxes too.
There are U.S. citizens in similar predicaments all over the globe – Americans unable to get spouses and close family into the U.S. for a variety of reasons. Yet despite individual ugly stories, the U.S. is a welcoming land overall; it currently naturalizes between 650,000 and 800,000 aliens annually. That’s roughly the population of Washington, D.C. given a U.S. passport each year.
So I don’t believe Americans are by definition “anti-immigrant,” or particularly “unsympathetic” to the Ms. Guerreros of the world. Rather, Americans are sticklers for legality in the face of no better suggested immigration entry alternatives – because our world has many more people desiring to live in the U.S. than could possibly do so. And many of those refused permission, such as that American in Britain’s U.K. wife, have arguably far stronger cases to be made for them to be granted U.S. residency than did Ms. Guerrero’s parents and brother.
Americans also see conscious choices made. And they take the view that we all have to live with the consequences of the choices we make. Are they wrong to believe that?
Those choices may also include falling in love with a foreigner. I have known more couples of differing citizenships than I could begin to list here. As you may know, I happen to write novels that touch on that very issue. They are also infused by my personal experiences.
How would I have reacted if the U.S. government had informed me it didn’t want my wife living in the country? I would’ve applied for U.K. citizenship, and the day after I had received it I would’ve handed my U.S. passport in at the U.S. Embassy and renounced my U.S. citizenship. Another choice.
For it is hardly only the U.S. with immigration laws and enforcers of course; every country has them. Immigration is a hot-button topic here in the U.K. too. The U.K. government takes a very dim view of anyone from outside of the European Union (E.U.) imagining they can just “settle” here without first obtaining the Home Office’s official “leave to remain.”
* * *
Which reminds me. Our friend’s ex-husband, “Melvin,” has now (earlier than expected) flown to Odessa to rejoin “Oksana.” But how long Ukrainian immigration authorities will let British “Melvin” stay in Ukraine is up to them. It’s not up to “Melvin” or even to “Oksana.”
Back to here in the U.K. Years ago, I worked with a Canadian woman who had married a Frenchman. They later divorced. She told me that he had helped her get French citizenship, which enabled her to live in the U.K. as an E.U. passport holder.
“I love Europe,” she said to me. “I love London. I love Paris. I couldn’t live in Canada again.”
Another former colleague and someone I’ve stayed in touch with is an Italian woman. Once at lunch, when we were chatting about travel and our nationalities, she had said she wanted her U.K.-born children to have British passports as well as their Italian ones. I replied that seemed redundant given both Britain and Italy are in the E.U.
“I want them to have an easier chance to move to a Commonwealth country if they want,” she explained. “An Italian passport won’t get them that chance.”
Yet another workmate was a U.K.-resident, Nigeria-born man. His father held only that African country’s citizenship (and lived there), while his late mother (who had died there) had been German. (They had met when the father had been studying in West Germany.) Vitally, my colleague also held a German passport, which entitled him to live in the U.K. as an E.U. national.
“You should see the looks I’ve had from German immigration when I arrive to visit my relatives,” he once told me. “They are sure I’m an African. Then I show them my German passport, and my German is not great. But there’s nothing they can do.”
Once he confided to me that he had known a Nigerian woman who’d said she liked the idea of flying to the U.S. when pregnant and sneakily having any children there so she could get them U.S. passports.
“Please don’t tell me that,” I put my hand up and stopped him. “Birth citizenship’s something many Americans want ended for exactly that reason.”
“When you’re from where we’re from,” he mumbled, “you try to give your children an escape. You never know when you will need to run.”
Indeed, and one never knows when you might unexpectedly encounter someone running. A couple of summers ago, we were returning from France on the Channel Tunnel’s vehicle shuttle train. In a carriage, we were parked immediately ahead of a British school group’s coach; it was taking the teens home after a day visit to Calais.
During the “crossing” to Britain an “unauthorized immigrant” (to borrow Fusion’s term) was discovered clinging to the underside of the coach. The schoolkids aboard were hustled off by train security. Because he would not come out from under the vehicle, the man was watched carefully until the train reached the station in Britain.
Once there, we other drivers and passengers in the carriage were asked to remain in our cars. Before we disembarked, we saw stern-faced British border officers take the apparently Somali 20-something into custody. It was chilling stuff to witness first-hand.
* * *
While my Italian ancestors were admitted to the U.S., other Italians preferred to emigrate to South America. Mostly they chose to emigrate to Argentina. They moved there in huge numbers.
Does that mean that today I have some “right” to relocate to Buenos Aires on my own initiative, and that the Argentinian government has no “right” to tell me I can’t? Most people would probably dismiss me out of hand: “No, you don’t have that right,” and “Sure Argentina has the right to decide; it makes that decision, not you.”
Ms. Guerrero’s personally sad family tale did have one great benefit for herself which she seems rather to take for granted. She was luckily born into possessing what that Nigerian woman had told my half-German colleague that she had desperately wanted for any future children of her own: a U.S. passport. For some in the rest of the world, having one of those is considered absolute gold, not a cause for an L.A. Times op-ed that bemoans how unfair it is that everyone in the extended family had not each been handed one as well.
It is often undeniably harsh, but it’s also called reality. Social media may now convey the happy impression we all “inhabit the same place,” but in the physical realm there is no such thing as “a citizen of the world,” or unilaterally setting up “home” wherever we want to just because we want to. Some of us might not like it, but the fact is we all inhabit a world of borders and “nation-states.”
Meaning “settlement” is never up to only us, and never really has been. One would think that in any serious discussion of immigration and addressing its problems, that would not need to be pointed out. Yet nowadays it appears we increasingly have to do so.
I honestly believe most people are not heartless. The issue is just so massively complicated and difficult. Someone will always be left out and hurt. It has, unfortunately, always been so.
Hope you have a good Friday, wherever you – literally – are in the world.