When my stepfather arrived in Canada, the government checked his hair for lice and gave him clothes, plus a bank account with 20 Canadian dollars in it. The first thing he did was take the money out! He was one of thousands of refugees that Canada accepted in the late 1970s. He crossed perilous seas in a small boat – like the 1.5 million Vietnamese boat people who made a similar journey – and then boarded a plane. In the city he left behind (Saigon), he had played on streets where bodies were strewn. It was the time of the Vietnam War.
He came to Canada as a young man and worked multiple jobs to save and survive. My mother and father were not refugees, but as immigrants without Western education, they had similar stories: 18-hour workdays while navigating a foreign language, systems, and stereotypes. Yet they also had access to a supportive social system. For example, English language classes and eventually a small business loan. They opened one of the first Chinese restaurants in town called Ruby. I know my father still recalls with pride how Ruby was voted “Top Chinese Buffet”. They also contributed in ways they will never acknowledge themselves: their restaurant employed 18 people for 35 years.
Fast forward 40+ years later and I am the fruit of their labor. Western-born, western educated, with the safety of a dependable roof over my head and food on my plate throughout my life. I am the product of my parents’ dream: a working professional with benefits. I have the stability they yearned for their whole lives, and now that I have it, they have it too.
It is with this backdrop that my experience as an immigrant in the U.S. has felt so…strange. I came to the U.S. as an international student. I stayed because I fell in love with an American and married. To stay together, to be an immigrant here, to obtain a green card, we have had to change our lives in multiple ways and multiple times.
There is a particular memory that is frozen in my mind. It is almost physical in its presence and how it stays with me. After our first interview with U.S. immigration, my husband and I were told that we did not have enough evidence of a documented life together; for example, we did not have a joint bank account. Access to a green card denied.
I remember sobbing in my husband’s arms in the agency parking lot. Without a green card, you cannot work. You cannot have a driver’s license. You cannot leave the country. If you do, you might not get back in. You have no status. If you don’t have resources or access to the right information or an advocate, you wait while the complex immigration machine wears you down.
Without a green card in the U.S., you cannot work, have a driver’s license, or leave the country
My family: We laugh, we argue, we eat, we cry, we live, and we love together
Reunited with my parents in Canada after waiting for my green card to be able to legally cross the border
I am so fortunate that I do have access to the right resources. We sought the information we needed, we switched to an immigration lawyer who gave us better counsel. I now have my U.S. visa, the coveted green card. Yet still, I am cautious and careful with what I do. If I get a fine, if I attend a protest for something I believe in, if I get arrested, will I jeopardize my status?
Many times, I have wondered: Why do I work so hard to remain here, when it feels like the system is designed to keep me out? This question is compounded by my sense of guilt: my parents gave so much of themselves so that I could be a Canadian citizen and thrive. Why would I intentionally stay away? The answer is this: to be with my family. My husband and stepson and our fluffy dog and I have become a magical unit. We laugh, we argue, we eat, we cry, we live, and we love together. Every day our bond grows stronger. If we are separated by a border, none of this is possible.
I understand that I am extremely privileged to have one foot on both sides of the border. As a Canadian citizen, it is my birth right to “come home” to Canada. It is also my right to bring my family, my American husband and son with me. Yes, there is paperwork to be done. But from what I understand in the counsel that I have sought, the process is less invasive. I’ll also be navigating familiar social and cultural terrain, because yes, there are significant social and cultural differences between the U.S. and Canada (more on that in a future blog).
Here in the U.S., even with the resources I am privileged to access (for example, I can afford an immigration lawyer), there have been many times when I have cried from the complexities and barriers of the system. With this comes my understanding that there are so many people who do not benefit from the resources I have, whose tears are larger and the impacts graver. It is hard for me to accept language like “illegal” or “undocumented” or “without status”. When I see people trying to come here, to the U.S. or Canada, I see good, hard working people working to build better lives for the people they love, like my parents did.
At the national level, I understand that economics and politics play a far greater role in immigration policy than the physical walls and fences that are built to define national borders. Amidst this complex landscape, I have chosen to act locally and support the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. I hope to be an advocate and a resource for those that cannot access what I can – the information and a support system needed to navigate the complex immigration system. Mostly, I hope they will find a safe home and a welcoming community, as I have, and my parents had before me.