Fear, hope and immigration

Photo by Jennifer Whitney

It’s a Tuesday night, and I just watched a fourth news anchor break down in tears. Watching TV with my mother and brother, the injustice of the moment is nearly crushing.

I am, according to some Americans, the “good” kind of immigrant. I came from Canada as the son of a married couple. Both my parents are college-educated, fluent in English and white. We pass the test for what an American is supposed to look like.

As my family navigated the immigration system, the inequity within it was hardly hidden. Living in Texas, we were often the only non-Hispanic visitors to immigration centers and government offices. As a young child, the cruelty in these places confused and terrified me. These memories now seem trivial compared to the scenes unfolding on national news. I could hear the impatience and scorn of agents who sneered at those without a full grasp of English and derided even slightly illegible paperwork. I grew anxious, expecting my family would be ridiculed for any and every issue, no matter how small. But my family was exempted from this treatment and always greeted cordially. After all, we are the good kind of foreigners.

I am often reminded that I am a good immigrant because I followed the law. This feels even more unfair. It’s not hard to follow the law when you can read the language in which it was written. It’s not hard to follow the law when your parents both have post-secondary degrees in policy-related fields. It’s not hard to follow the law when your family is financially able to pay fees and hire lawyers. For others, each of these tasks is daunting, especially when any false step in the labyrinth of immigration law can permanently unravel your life.

This isn’t to say that the immigration process was easy for my family; it wasn’t. The convoluted policies can perplex even the most educated, and we were often confounded by arcane rules. In one situation, I traveled to Canada to attend a funeral with my mother and brother but without my father. Upon re-entering the United States, a border agent asked my mom if she had permission to travel with my brother and me. I thought the agent was implying a child custody dispute and interjected, “But my parents are married!” Only then were we told that it didn't matter: next time we needed written permission to travel without both parents.

The customs agent punctuated the interaction with a couple of stamps and sent us along to catch our connecting flight. With blonde hair and fair skin, my mother did not, apparently, strike the officer as a child smuggler. I can only imagine what kind of ordeal this would have been if my family hailed from “down south” instead of “up north.” If we had a different skin tone or last name, would we have received the benefit of the doubt? If enforcing the laws means “zero tolerance,” does a stern warning count? The children in the Rio Grande Valley are receiving very different treatment than a clan of Canadians did not too long ago.

I never thought that a government official would take me away from my parents or feared that authorities would show up at our home to send one of us back. I have crossed the U.S.-Canada border a dozen times, and not once did I think that I would be killed for returning to Canada or forbidden from going home to the United States. I have never been targeted by a crackdown or zero-tolerance policy. Asylum-seekers are given credible fear interviews to determine if they will be admitted to the U.S.. I would fail this test.

Does any of this make me a better immigrant? A great number of immigrants endure immense hardship before, during and after entry; does this hardship make them unqualified to be American?

Maybe a better dichotomy than “good” and “bad” immigrants is between those with fear and those without. Threats to DACA, “Dreamers” and separated families exploit the fear of some immigrants but not others. What looks like inequity based on race, status and wealth is far more visceral: Immigrants in America are distinguished by their exposure to fear and hardship.

There shouldn’t be any distinction; all immigrants — and all Americans — ought to be united by a more powerful idea than fear. All immigrants share a sense of hope for a better life, opportunity and the American Dream. This hope is inalienable and must be protected from the intimidation and fear-mongering of the powerful.

As an immigrant free from fear, I cannot stand idly as others are threatened and assailed. Immigrants, regardless of classification and throughout history, craft the American story. The greatest privilege I live with has been the ability to play one small part in it. I dream that many others may join this story too, free from fear and ferried by hope.

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Nicholas Romanow

Student, University of Texas at Austin