Like Jen, I also wanted to take the time to reflect these past few weeks. I thought a lot about my own immigration journey. Immigration isn’t for the weak, downtrodden, or weary. Immigration is a painful, guilt-ridden, and very expensive process.
I’m a proud first generation immigrant. The United States is all that I know because I arrived here at a very young age. I always sounded American. I had a lot of friends and grew up like the average American child. But, dance recitals, sleepovers, and girl scout meetings don’t guarantee your citizenship rights. Unlike other average American children, my life also included a lot of hoops, red tape, immigration attorneys (if we could afford one), and long lines outside and inside the immigration office. Let me paint a picture of my typical immigration employee permit renewal day.
Imagine it’s 5 am on a cold Minnesota winter day and you’ve been waiting in line for nearly an hour outside an office building. Fifty people are ahead of you and you’re patiently waiting for the doors to open at 8am. You hear babies outside in parked cars crying. You’re in line with young children, elderly, and people with disabilities. The immigration officer finally opens the door, and counts us individually while laughing at us under his breath. When the officer counts the last person in front of you, he slams the door in your face and yells at you through the glass that he’s “at capacity” for the day.
You beg and plead with the officer and tell him that you drove three hours from up north to get there. He scoffs and tells you to prove it. By the grace of God, you still have your electric bill with your Duluth address in your purse. He sees it and hesitantly lets you in. Relieved yet? Don’t be. You still have to wait seven more hours until your red number is called. You wait in the cramped basement with the other immigrants trying to “de-thaw.” For seven hours you sit and you watch CNN. You wait with no vending machines and no lunch counters. You wait…until your number is called.
You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. You don’t have time to be angry. After all, you need to shell out $500 in order to be eligible to keep your college job at the mall for one more year. When your number is finally called that day, you get fingerprinted (I still can’t stand the smell of cornstarch) and the photographer who takes your picture for your permit asks, “What do you have to smile for? This isn’t your country” (lightbulb flashes). You get your receipt and drive back up north hungry and tired, but determined not to miss another day of school.
It wasn’t until my junior year in college that lawmakers, like the late Senator Paul Wellstone, changed the laws and got immigrants like myself out of the cold lines outside and gave us appointment notices. The harsh treatment we experienced was still there, but this time by appointment only. Some people make excuses and others say that our system is broken. I say that if this were to happen to Americans there would be an uproar.
Immigrants and refugees have been given a bad reputation. Yes, there are a few bad apples but there are more amazing people in that same line every day. We wait in that line because of fear of persecution from our homeland. We wait in that line with survivor’s guilt. We wait in that line for fear of losing our employment. We wait in that same line as taxpayers and sustainers of the American economy. We wait in that line because we’re trying to bring a loved one over here for safe-haven.
It took me 20 plus years of waiting in that line. It took countless phone calls to lawmakers both statewide and nationally. It took stomaching a flow of racist comments from friends, family friends, a few colleagues, some employers, and some members of Congress … but those comments have become a catalyst for my courage.
I’ll never forget the moment. It was a crisp fall Minnesota day and at thirty years old, I stood in a new line. The voting line. I had my 18-month-old son in his stroller and I remember sobbing tears of joy. People in line were surprised when I said that I had waited 28 years to finally gain my citizenship. I was so happy that I took pictures with my election judge, who also took a picture of me and my son. That voting line was the line I had been waiting for.
I still continue to have hope. If I didn’t have hope then what had I been doing in that cold immigration line for over 20 years? When you hear people in your community, or even a President elect say that immigrants and refugees are hurting the American economy, think about the millions of immigrants and refugees like me. Think about us standing in line and spending thousands of dollars while holding our breath for a chance at our own pursuit of freedom and prosperity – like so many before us.