By Samantha McKenzie
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this on immigration: “It’s as if we expect border control agents to do what a century of communism could not: defeat the natural market forces of supply and demand… and defeat the natural human desire for freedom and opportunity. You might as well as sit in your beach chair and tell the tide not to come in…
I am an immigrant. My parents and two siblings are immigrants. All of my aunts, uncles and first cousins that are living here are immigrants too. One by one, my family migrated from Guyana, South America, seeking a life that afforded them more opportunities. Some went to England, while the rest scattered in Canada and America. Lucky for us, we ended up in New York City, in a land that accepted our version of English!
I think it’s worthy to note that my family loved their country. They missed the many relatives left behind, their traditional foods, music and beautiful tropical weather. While they came to build a more prosperous life for us all, they were proud of their roots. In my younger years, we lived with relatives, (all five of us packed in a bedroom) until we got a place of our own. My parents started off working menial jobs, making do with what was available. They didn’t complain out loud. I recall my mom’s first job was a housekeeper for a rich Manhattan family. She cleaned the house and helped care for their only child. It wasn’t until the family she worked for moved to Westchester County did our world get uneasy. I remember walking my mother to the train stations on Sunday evenings and picking her back up on Fridays. For five days, she became someone else’s mother. My dad once worked at a furniture factory. This job only sticks out in my memory because he would jokingly tell us that he could get away with any crime he wanted to. When we’d ask him why, he’d let us feel his fingertips. The chemicals from the factory had burned off his fingerprints.
My memories, however, don’t compare to the millions of people who flee there war-torn countries seeking political asylum or religious freedom. This is my plea to the masses: to view the life of a fellow human being with a bit more compassion. Because, in the end, nothing is worth more than how we treat each other.
I am proud to say that my immediate and extended family’s investment in us paid off. Collectively, we became educated, earned college degrees, opened businesses, served in every branch of the military, worked as civil servants, became police officers, bought houses, built investment portfolios, took care of our neighbors, sent money back home to help others, joined churches, raised children, contributed countless hours of community service and paid back student, business and personal loans. We did all of that.
Nowadays, immigration only becomes a topic of mass discussion during election seasons. It has been and will always be a hot button issue during campaigns because it taps into people’s fears, similar to the debates on social security (fear of running out of money in old age), unemployment (fear of not earning a livable wage) and most recently, terrorism (fear of being attacked by the enemy).
America’s immigration policy, in its most watered down form, is designed to accommodate a need. This means, if the country is in need of a certain type of worker, then it will open its doors to accept this form of laborer. When we were going through the industrial age, we accepted immigrants who were willing to build bridges, tunnels, coal mines and railroads. As the nation grew, we leaned on immigrants to work in our factories, in our hotels and in our homes. Americans were proud to be “moving on up” and as we became more educated, we enjoyed the comforts of not having to the laborious jobs once held by our elders. Even today, as we talk about building walls and banning Muslims from select countries, the finer streets of metropolitan cities are lined with foreign nannies pushing baby strollers, picking up other people’s children from private schools so parents can live their own version of the American dream.
We all benefit from the service we receive from immigrants. We’re not at all bothered by immigrant farmers, as long as our local supermarket and restaurants stay stocked. We never question who picked the coffee beans when we’re standing in long lines at Starbucks. We’re super thankful when the foreign cab driver miraculously gets us through traffic and to the airport just in the nick of time.
We live with, and receive services from immigrants every day and yet we never think about the extreme sacrifices they’ve made to be here. We don’t think about how scary it is to leave everything behind and start over in a new country. We never think about their loved ones or ask them how they manage the loneliness. We never ask them what it was like to obtain a Visa or to go through customs. Do we know how many times they were turned down before they’re request for entry was finally approved? Or how hard was it to learn a new language or find a place to live? Was it worth it?
I never did ask my parents these questions, but I do wonder what my life would have been like if they had made another choice. Because of them, I truly believe, that I am a better American.
“…As long as America remains a nation dedicated to the proposition that ‘all Men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, people from near and far will continue to seek entry into our country.” (Michael Bloomberg)
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Thanks for sharing your beautiful story! It was quite moving. I love how you personalize what it was like to grow up as an immigrant in this country. We are all immigrants in this grand experiment called America. I believe we are all better off having worked with, befriended, known and loved people of all different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, religions, and beliefs. I know my life has certainly been enriched knowing people from the diverse melting pot of this great land. It saddens me to see the direction our new president is moving in, but I’m comforted in knowing we are in this fight together.
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