What’s the difference between Oprah, a minimum wage care giver, and me? To neighbors in my native fishing village, absolutely none.
There is no sense of scale between abject poverty and not. When you have to scrounge every day to feed your children, when you live in a mud house with a roof that leaks, when all of your clothing is second-hand gifts – the opposite is the luxury of daily meals, a modest cement house with a tin roof, and a new made-in-China outfit from Walmart.
There is a young man in our village who lost both arms from the elbow down when he tried to enter the United States to find work. Jose did not have “papers.” His family and neighbors chipped in to provide meager finances for his trip. He was to be their financial salvation. His misfortune occurred when he attempted to hop on a train and somehow got caught in the mechanism. Jose cannot feed himself. He cannot clothe himself. He cannot wipe his own butt. Jose is a young man. He looks like a teenager, although he must be in his late-twenties. Sadly, if he could find a way, I am certain that he would try again, even with no arms. What are his options? Imagine such a life. No price is too high. Horrors!
I had heard this young man’s story for years. I knew his late grandmother. The first time I saw him, I knew he was the one I had heard of. Our eyes met. We nodded to each other. Maybe he knew I was the one he had heard of.
I rarely hear this side of the immigration story when I am in the United States. The conversation is about something other than human beings. Some still refer to these strivers as aliens. What “they” are doing is wrong. “They” are taking away American jobs. “They” are abusing our healthcare system. “They” should go back where they came from.
In contrast, there is a cute little cement house directly across the dirt road from my house. A father lives there with his three daughters. His wife, the girls’ mother, is one of the fortunate ones who made it across the borders. I suspect that she probably works as a home attendant at minimum wage or maybe less. Within months of her arrival in the US, she started sending money to buy the materials to build the house. That was about three years ago. Since her departure, her mother has died after a long illness. The working woman, wife, mother could not be there to comfort her dying mother. The little girls that the mother left behind are entering puberty. I dare not speak to them about their mother; I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. When we see each other we make polite conversation.
I suspect that they are very much like other young women I knew as happy children. Their mom is working in the US. She was a trained, licensed nurse here in our town. She was a single mother living with her mother. She left her girls with her mother. The younger daughter, Kim, is a sad teenager. Years after her mother left, she still cries herself to sleep sometimes, she told me. Maybe when the immigration laws change, she will be able to legally join her mother in the US.
Having grown up in immigrant communities, I know a lot of “Kims” whose mothers came to work in the US or Canada, often legally. Those mothers were at least legally able to make visits home. The challenge to their return was financial. Those “Kims” sometimes were the ones left behind while older or younger or other-gendered siblings joined mom. Some “Kims” went to the US to be with mom and carried guilt for the siblings and cousins and aunts and grandmothers and friends left behind. A 50-something year old woman I know still cried last summer as she spoke of how the migration had broken her family.
In some ways this story is not unique to immigrants. I have African-American friends who suffered a similar dynamic as their families migrated north.
I am the luckiest one. I am the daughter of a WWII veteran, naturalized US citizen. I had my fourth December birthday in an icy cold New York City tenement. I am still not completely over the trauma of being ripped from my happy tropical paradise. As I approach retirement from my solidly middle-class life, still, I long to be home. I come to my house on the beach, on the spot where I was born, often. I can. I have a magnificent, modestly affluent life in California that to my neighbors in my little fishing village is just like Oprah’s. I have lived in a dozen cities in seven states looking for home. Thirty years of off and on psychotherapy have helped. I just now get why I haven’t been able to move back to New York City, where I grew up. It’s still not home. It’s where family is, but it’ll never be home.
I know that the immigration “problem” cannot be solved in and by affluent nations. I think I read somewhere about a move to improve (or provide) economic conditions that would mitigate the need to leave poorer countries. – or maybe I just dreamed it. I believe it is the more effective, cost-efficient, and humane alternative to undocumented economic migration. Makes a difference, financially speaking.