What if you had nothing? No home, no DVD player, no car, no skills, no money and couldn’t even speak the language? What if you had nothing except a suitcase full of clothes and a few photographs? Welcome to the outlook for many immigrants.
Politicians roll out the immigration debate all the time, but what most people don’t realize is just how frightening the prospect of being an immigrant is. I have been a temporary immigrant once in my life, when I moved to Russia. I came with the full-fledged support of an international firm that provided housing and help with the inevitable paperwork, and I still was overwhelmed, arriving with nothing except a suitcase full of business suits.
Imagine, however, showing up in New York City or Washington DC or Los Angeles with no knowledge of the language, no unique skills and no real savings. Imagine that hours before you landed at JFK or Dulles or LAX you were in the midst of a country at war, or a country where you were no longer welcome because of your race or your religion. Your only hope is to come to a country – ideally the US – where you will be allowed to work hard, raise a family, live in peace and practice whatever religion or custom or culture you choose.
I find it hard to believe that so many people make this drastic choice. It’s easy to flee a country, maybe, when staying means you’ll be killed or raped or maimed. But it’s less easy to imagine fleeing a country where your family has roots, you are a respected member of a community and you have a cultural or religious tradition stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years.
Yet every year someone does. In New York you see huge, thriving, vital immigrant communities. It is not uncommon to meet people in New York who don’t speak English well yet. It is not uncommon to meet a former doctor working as a janitor, or a teacher working as a clerk. And it is not uncommon to see immigrant family after immigrant family succeed against these terrible odds and pass on their work ethic and almost feverish belief in the American dream to the next generation.
I find it really inspiring, and when I look around my workplace I see America made more vital when I have one colleague who’s Russian, another Dominican, another African, another Australian, another Bosnian, and on and on. One of the things I truly dread when I consider leaving New York is a more homogeneous life – fewer ethnic communities, less exotic music piping out of shopfronts, vanilla accents. I know being an immigrant doesn’t make anyone a more interesting person, but I believe being around all of these different cultures and beliefs and cuisines and languages makes me a more interesting person.
I hope that the anti-immigration forces remember that immigrants are desperately hoping to come to America, not for a free ride, but exactly the opposite – to pay their fare and reach the same destination as the rest of us, financial and personal independence.