Why Immigration is Personal to Me

Some of you may not know I am an immigrant, as well as a citizen of Mexico and a resident of the United States. I am the only foreign citizen in my nuclear family. My siblings, all of them from the same father and mother are US citizens, as well as both of my parents. I am the only one that is not a US citizen. As a Mexican citizen I have lived, on and off in the US for many years. During that time my immigration status has varied from non-immigrant to permanent citizen. It has varied because immigration to the US from Mexico is an ever-changing complex process that is not as simple as doing it the “right way.”  Let me explain.

Many individuals that argue that immigrants are welcomed into the US the “right way” do not have a clear understanding of what it means, so I thought I’d share my story with you.

passport_pic_1In the 1970’s, as a child, I first applied to become a resident alien. I possessed a visitor’s visa that allowed me to approach the border and ask for permission to enter the United States to visit family and friends and do some shopping. Unknown to many individuals, a visa issued to a foreigner by the US is only an authorization that a federal agency has determined that the individual is eligible to enter the US. It is the border agent, at the border, that either grants entry to the US or denies it. The visa type determines the amount of time the individual is allowed to remain in the US and how far into the interior of the country the immigrant visitor can travel in the US. In my particular case, at that time, my visa allowed me to visit within 25 miles of the border and allowed me to remain in the country no longer than 72 hours at a time. If I wanted to travel further into the interior or remain longer I had to ask for permission to do so. If approved a document would be issued to me attesting to the time extension. Keep in mind two things; I was a minor and my siblings were US citizens.

At that time immigration was handled by two federal agencies, US Customs and Immigration and the US Naturalization Service.  As a child I had to navigate the bureaucracy of two agencies, one concerned with ensuring in keeping illicit materials out of the country and collecting taxes and another with ensuring only authorized people were allowed to come into the country. After 9/11, the two agencies were combined into one.

However, each time I approached the border it was a stressful time for me as a child, because although I did not clearly understand the complex issues involved I knew that if I gave the wrong answer to a certain question or if I had an avocado on me it could mean the revocation of my visa at the whim of the officer  who questioned me. Of course, that was after spending hours in a line to be allowed into the US. This event occurred every time I visited my siblings or came to the US.

Many of you are probably asking yourselves, why I didn’t just apply to become a US citizen, the “right way.”  The notion that most Mexicans want to come to the United States to live is erroneous. There are many reasons that Mexicans want to come to the United States both for family and friends and for economic reasons. It is too simplistic to think that Mexican citizens want to come live in the US. Initially, I just wanted to visit my family, travel and make friends. Later, as I grew older, I realized the opportunity to make money when I started my own business.

However, as a child I did apply to become a resident alien of the US. You cannot just apply to be a citizen, first you must be granted the right to live and work in the US and then you can apply to become a citizen. I applied because I was tired of having to ask for permission every six months to spend time with my family and friends. Many individuals think it is just a matter of applying, passing a background check and medical screenings for an application to be approved. The problem is not in passing those requirements but in the bureaucracy. My application was readily approved, however because of the bureaucracy I was put on a waiting list telling me I could live in the US in about twelve years. The catch, I had to put my life on hold for that amount of time.

I could not get married nor have children because that would change the status under which I was approved meaning I would have to start the whole process again. Think about that for a moment, my life had to come to a standstill for twelve years in order for the initial immigration process I had started to come to its conclusion.  What would you do if you had to freeze your life for twelve years?

I had a huge advantage over many of the other applicants to become residents because I was better educated, spoke multiple languages and had the financial wherewithal to live while waiting the twelve year waiting period.  This is not the case with the majority of people waiting to come across legally.  I had a visa giving me permission to visit for 72 hours at a time with the ability to extend the time if necessary. Twelve years was not a problem except that I still had to deal with the dread of knowing that one individual at the border could ruin everything for me if they were in a bad mood, or I was in a bad mood or just because a misunderstanding arose. There is no due process at the border. One individual had all of the power to determine my future. Losing a visa pretty much adds five to ten years to the process assuming you can overcome the tremendous obstacles the loss adds to the process.

Because I was able to continued living my life pretty much how I wanted to – the 12 years was not an insurmountable obstacle. I had friends on both sides of the border and I could visit my family whenever I wanted to and I could continue making a living. Unfortunately bureaucracy is fluid and processes change. In the early 1980’s, when the twelve years were almost up new requirements were put in place and as I became older I began to question the need for me to have to ask permission to visit my family and friends. As many teenagers I was starting to value my self worth and question why it was that some official was questioning my motives. As a proud Mexican citizen I grew tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. Most border officials were cordial or even nice but some relished making an immigrant feel like they are nothing but dirt in their eyes. As a teenager I hated that feeling.

10k_letterJust when it was time for me to be granted residency status the requirement to prove an immigrant would not become a “burden” in the US was tightened up. Even with US citizens as siblings and still a minor I had to prove I would not be a burden to the US. I had not entered the workforce so I could not prove economic sustainability. However, as I was better off than the majority of my immigrant brethren I could produce a bank letter attesting to having $10,000 in my name. I was a minor at the time and yet I still had to prove I would not be a burden. How many US citizen teenagers could provide the same proof? My siblings were also minors and thus they could not guarantee they would be able to ensure I would not become a burden to society. My parents were also going through the same process to become resident aliens and thus they could not do so as well.

A year later, when I was going into adulthood my initial application became no longer valid because my status changed from being a dependent to being an adult. I had continued to age during the process thus making me ineligible and forcing me to start from the beginning again. At that point the only thing that hampered my application was my age.

I was fed up with the constant bureaucratic harassment and having to adjust to political whims, therefore unlike my parents, I abandoned the process because as a human being I valued myself worth and knew that I shouldn’t have to be begging to be allowed to contribute to a society that was hostile to me through their bureaucracy. It is important to note that I had the luxury of saying abandoning this effort because I was self sufficient. I could still come and go legally to the US just not live there. That is a luxury very few of us have and I had opportunities not many other Mexicans do. It is also important to realize that my story is far from unique.

In 1986, the US immigration process opened up for many Mexicans because of the so-called “amnesty” program created by the US government. This was due to the realization to the fact that Mexico-US immigration is overwhelmingly an economic driven one that, contrary to popular belief, benefits both countries. The US government passed amnesty because it made economic sense to the US government. I did not partake of the farce and continued to deal with the constant asking for permission to visit family and friends and conduct business in the US.

It is important to keep in mind that I had the luxury to take this route because I had many opportunities available to me. Many immigrants do not have those opportunities.  For so many Mexican families, to them it comes down to making a better life for their families or not. To many of them it comes down to how they can improve their children’s economic futures.  Ours is an economic reality based on a system that is bureaucratically manipulated to hide the fact that both parties understand immigration is a benefit to the US economic system but they are unwilling to publicly acknowledge it.

The majority of Mexican immigrants are thus faced with two choices; put their lives and those of their children on hold for ten to twelve years even though there is no guarantee the process would work in the end, or game the broken system in order to expedite it. The process is so broken that a parent that starts the process for themselves and their six year old child will likely result in their application being approved in twelve years, however their child will be excluded when they turn eighteen years old that then changes their original status and renders them ineligible. The parent is then put in the position to immigrate their child, who is now ineligible because they grew up, to a five year waiting period so they can be “sponsored” or have their children start a twelve year process on their own.

Imagine a parent having to make that decision knowing that if they are able to get into the US bypassing the broken system that broken system eventually bestows upon them the authority to live in the US and thus afford their children the life they want to give them in the first place. Add to that a parent making that decision is making it because they want to give their children a better life is unlikely to have the financial wherewithal to even begin the broken system in the first place.

Those who tell us to do it the “right way” do not understand that the “right way” is broken and thus it is nearly impossible to do it the “right way.”  I did it the “right way” because I had the financial means and the education to give me the opportunities to do so. Even then, the “right way” wasn’t necessarily the process the system envisions because through the three-decade process my status changed many times because my life changed, as lives do, or because the process changed because of political necessities. My immigration journey started in 1972 and I did not become a resident alien until 2002.

Through that time I legally visited my family and friends in the US, travelled extensively in the US and more importantly I have contributed to the US tax base and have employed US citizens. If you look through my personal experience you could argue that in the end the thirty-year process resulted in granting me the right to live and pay taxes in the US.

However, when I started the process about forty years ago my life’s goals were completely different than what they are now. All of our lives change as we evolve through it. However my reasons for wanting residency status was because that was the only avenue available to me, at the time, to easily be with family and friends and as my life evolved economic opportunities became available to me changing my life’s direction. I now have family in the US and thus want to enjoy my life with them here.

However, I am still a proud citizen of Mexico.

I pay taxes and I contribute to the US economy the way everyone does. Just because I had the wherewithal to be here does not mean the system works.

Imagine, as a parent, knowing that you can improve your child’s life just by crossing a border with the only obstacle being a bureaucratic system that you know is broken. If, as a parent, you are contemplating this move it is likely because the opportunity to improve your child’s life is better because you lack the education or economic wherewithal to give them that life where you are currently living. People in the US move to different US cities because opportunities for their families become available. It is not different for immigrants except that instead of state lines there are international borders.

If knowing that the broken system is the only thing that stands in your way do you honestly believe that a parent facing a hungry child is going to let bureaucracy stand in the way?

There are many ways to enter the US and not all of them are being smuggled in or crossing the border through the desert. The broken system itself allows many ways to enter the US without actually being undocumented. It is only when the status of the individual changes, through many different regulations that they become “out of status” or undocumented. However, that same broken system has taught everyone that the reality is that the broken system itself will be used to grant a status change eventually because the bureaucracy forces the status change because the dirty secret politicians do not want to acknowledge is that immigration is good for the US economy.

Thus, the broken immigration system has created the current migration situation.

Some are going to argue that the way to fix the system is by closing the borders, deporting everyone who is out of status and then fixing it to allow people in the “right way.”  This argument ignores the simple truth that politicians refuse to acknowledge and that is that immigrants are important to the economy and have been important since the country’s inception.

Those that argue that this not the case will not change their minds about this regardless of evidence or facts that we lay before them, so I won’t bother.

Those that accept this as fact then need to understand that the reason immigrants don’t do it the right way is because the “right way” is nearly impossible. Those that do it the “right way” do so through impossible hurdles. Others that have done it the “right way” did it because they gamed the system and the system rewarded them for it.

We as immigrants need to understand something that is very important. We are here not because we did it the right way but rather because we were fortunate to have had the wherewithal to do so or because someone was able to game the system for our benefit.
Nothing angers me more than an immigrant who tells other immigrants to do it the “right way” because each of our processes are unique to each of us. As immigrants we know the system is flawed and just because we were able to do it our way does not mean we can tell another immigrant to do it the right way just because they haven’t had the benefits we have had.

Instead, as fellow immigrants we need to educate the country about how the system is broken and how it needs to be fixed. As immigrants we remain quiet for many reasons but don’t we have a responsibility to other immigrants to fix a broken system? Don’t we have a duty to our families and friends, as well as our country, to explain what is needed so they can have the same access we have?

There will always be those US citizens who do not want immigrants in their communities. However I believe they are a small percentage of the population. Regardless, having a conversation about fixing the broken system will only allow those that want to keep us out to voice their opinion about how to fix it as well as those of us that want more immigrants to come in to make out own arguments.

However we can’t even begin to have this discussion if we don’t acknowledge the fundamental truth to the whole problem – that the immigration system is broken.
We need to have a dialog based on facts and reasoned arguments about the state of the immigration process in the US. Those that want immigration and those that want to keep immigrants out can agree on one thing and that is that there needs to be immigration reform.

With that in mind I, along with some other individuals, have started a project called Dos Pueblos whose goal is to become the conduit for starting that very important conversation. We need to have a conversation based on facts that is respectful in an open dialog open to all perspectives focused on one thing only and that is to force Congress to seriously begin the debate about immigration reform honestly and openly. It is time to have that debate that has been ignored for far too long.

If immigration is important to you, regardless of your position on it, and you believe something needs to be done about it then why not be part of the solution by engaging in the debate. We all realize immigration is a highly volatile and emotional issue so we will strive to be fair and open to everyone’s point of view. Because it is such an emotional issue for many of us we may sometimes fail to be equitable to everyone but we have promised each other to strive for an open dialog to an issue that is so important to all sides of the debate. We ask that you hold us accountable to that promise as we ask you to remember that respect for all positions includes not silencing opposing viewpoints through dialog whose only intent is to hurt someone.

Join us on Dos Pueblos today.

2 thoughts on “Why Immigration is Personal to Me

  1. What many Americans see is not Mexicans like Martin, but those who live here for years, never learn English, never cultivate a skill or an education, and live off the public dole. HACEP is the perfect example of this. Mexicans do not seem to have an education or self-advancement ethic beyond the menial (that, admittedly, we need).

    Contrast Asians who come here as boat people in the 80s, start small businesses, and graduate their kids from Stanford who then start genetics companies. Or Europeans who come with degrees and do similar?

    What kind of immigrant would you want in your country?

  2. This is an excellent and well- written piece from one that has experienced the rigors of the system. Three points that I am glad you addressed are that the amnesty of ’86 was economics, how absurd the twelve year wait is, and especially how you do not feel that all immigrants have to do it the so-called right way. It gets on my bloody nerve to hear people say how they did it the ‘right way’ and others should do it as such.

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