I am an American and an immigrant. Over four years ago, I made a permanent move with my family from Oregon to the Netherlands. We came to the Netherlands for better healthcare, more options for my autistic son and higher education opportunities for my daughter. The Netherlands has a treaty with the US that allowed us to move our business to the Netherlands and receive a residence visa. It is one of the easiest and least expensive immigration processes in the world. The only reason this was possible was because we won the birthplace lottery: we were born American.
I’m acutely aware of the current status of immigrants and their children who are seeking to come into the southern borders of the US. I spent my entire childhood in a town located a mere 5 miles from the Mexican border. It is quite near to the location of an encampment of 5600 American troops deployed this past week by the president to assist at the US border with Mexico.
My parents were high school graduates and worked typical blue collar jobs. Virtually everyone we knew, both individuals and businesses, often hired undocumented workers to care for their children, to mow their lawns and to pick and pack the fruit and vegetables that grew in the lush, fertile black soil of the Rio Grande Valley. At one point during my younger years, our family hired a live-in housekeeper to cook, clean and take care of the family so that my mother could work full-time as a secretary. I recall being told that a particular housekeeper had recently swum over the nearby Rio Grande River to arrive in the U.S. She was a wetback, I was told, the derogatory term used by many people for the undocumented and illegal workforce. She literally swam across the river in search of a job.
There were so many women who worked in succession in our household over time that I can’t remember all of their names: many Marias, Claudia, Guadalupe, and its shorter version, Lupe. Two incidents remain fresh in my memory. I recall one of these women hiding behind the door, wide-eyed and shaking in fear during my uncle’s visit. He was a U.S. border patrol agent. I recall another time asking my mother why Maria seemed so sad. My mother said that she had left her entire family in Mexico so she could work in the US to send money back to them. She missed her own children. I remember sneaking into the corner of the utility room in our house where she slept in a folding bed and seeing her crying. In my broken Spanish and her broken English, we talked. She sobbed, and I laid beside her on the bed until her gasps subsided. She reached over and stroked my hair. I recall many acts of care and kindness by these brave women, even as their own struggles enveloped them.
I also remember the Mexican man who rode his bicycle across the border each week to mow the lawns in our neighborhood. A few days after our move to the neighborhood, this man appeared at our front door and announced that he was the neighborhood yard man. When my father told him that his daughters mow the grass, he replied, “but all your neighbors hire me to do their lawns. You must hire me, too.” Eventually, my father did hire him. The man would start up the self-propelled lawnmower and proceed to push it even faster than its normal speed so that he could get on to the next job. He had chutzpah, and was the fastest and most determined worker I had ever seen.
“Why can’t people just immigrate to the US legally?” I often hear from people who have no experience with immigrating to another country. Most people would be surprised to know that the US is one of the most difficult places to qualify for immigration. Without sponsoring relatives already living in the US, there is virtually no process for unskilled immigrants to legally apply for residency. The only exception is to enter a worldwide lottery for a chance for a green card, provided that the applicant meets the qualifications. The odds of a qualified applicant being selected in the lottery stands at around 1 in 25 (a 4% chance of success). Additionally, a temporary visa for seasonal work cannot transition to a green card.
Another problem is the cost. Legal immigration is expensive. My family has applied and been granted residency in two countries, and each time, it cost thousands of dollars.
For an overview of just how difficult it is to immigrate to the US, see What Part of Legal Immigration Don’t You Understand?
The fact that the US relies on an illegal workforce without providing a method of allowing that workforce to remain and work legally is a problem. The fact that the numbers of migrant apprehensions at the US-Mexico border largely mirrors earlier years means that this is not some new crisis that needs immediate and punitive action. Don’t even get me started on the rhetoric about the caravan heading toward the US border….