Adventures of a Forced Migrant Contact Me
Today is a very special day. It was four years ago, today, that the U.S. government initiated removal proceedings against me.
I am not only here–but now I have lawful status, and on an expedited pathway to U.S. citizenship.
(This does not stop people from sending me hate mail, which goes to prove the ‘we support legal immigration’ movement is a sham).
When I was put into removal proceedings, I felt a certain sense of relief. Finally, instead of living in the perpetual limbo of being undocumented, someone would make a decision on my case, and I could pick up on living life again. Finally, I may be able to go home, and restart my life from when it had ended. I truly felt like I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Americans are incensed by this. Of course, there is something to lose — your family, your community, and your life in the United States.
True, perhaps there is some loss there. But my great-great-grandparents were resilient people. And they passed on this resilience to the generations after them. They were taken from India to Fiji, as indentured labourers. Certainly, they must have lost a lot in that migration. Their culture, family, caste, and way of life.
Somehow, people also forget how much we lost, similarly, in moving here. That sense of loss does not go away with capitalist accumulation. Loss combines with isolation because the U.S. is such an individualistic society where everyone is so steeped in the rat race to nowhere, and worried about money.
People in the U.S. don’t smile and say ‘Bula’ when you walk down the street. We do not talanoa with our co-workers. Our neighbors do not know our names. If they know our names, they cannot pronounce our names. And they cannot seem to fathom the concept of an Indo-Fijian, much less a queer one.
Integration into this society is unpaid emotional and mental labor, and in the U.S., the emphasis is on assimilation, not integration. My integration was also hampered by the decade that I spent being undocumented. There was no instate tuition. No ability to drive. No health access for counseling or basic check-ups. No financial aid for college. No law licenses for undocumented lawyers. No white-collar employment. No ability to travel abroad. And certainly no programs like deferred action to enable any of the above. We had to work hard to make all of these things possible. I had to personally fight and win these battles.
It all draws me towards the conclusion that migration isn’t beautiful for a lot of immigrants. It is devastating to leave everything and come to a new country to start over again. Feeling completely displaced and lonely. Constantly feeling threatened, scrutinized and under attack from anti-immigrants. Having to work twice as hard as everyone else, and be twice as more qualified, for the same jobs. Having to learn and speak English.
The U.S. provides tremendous opportunity to reinvent and recreate ourselves, but that opportunity is often met with tremendous resistance, and frequent isolation. Maybe migration is beautiful but only for those who benefit from it. The cuisines, languages, and cultures that other immigrants bring with them enrich the United States, and the immigrant experience. The cheap and expandable labour–well, we know who mostly benefits from that.
What do you think?
In a new poll by Rasmussen Reports, 32% of likely voters polled expressed anger over “illegal immigration” whereas 39% said it was just another one of the issues.
However, only 12% of people blamed immigrants for coming here–an overwhelming 83% held the federal government responsible for inaction and being lobbied by ‘special interest groups.’ It is indeed true that the federal government is unlikely to make any new immigration laws until after elections–increasing border control, passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Agjobs and the DREAM Act–are issues that the government would much rather ignore than tackle effectively.
Survey questions revealed that 43% of Americans thought that the government allowed immigrants to retain the culture of their home country while 32% thought the government encouraged them to fully embrace American culture with 26% unsure. It is unclear whether this issue contributed to voter anger and dissatisfaction.
How can ‘illegal immigrants’ be encouraged to assimilate into American culture? The obvious answer is to stop driving them underground and encourage them to become a part of American society. And yet, the expectations of the American public with regards to assimilation disregard history and the processes of cultural change. A first generation of immigrants hardly assimilate or integrate, even though studies suggest that they are assimilating and integrating in larger numbers than the first wave of European immigrants in American. It is usually the second-generation that adopts American culture much more readily than the first.
Americans want immigrants to adopt American culture–and there is nothing wrong with that desire. However, cultural change is a process and not something that should be ‘forced’ upon people. In itself, culture is also not a fixed immutable object–it is open to change, much like American culture that is an amalgamation of immigrants from many walks of life and continues to change.
There are studies that suggest the harmful side-effects of ‘assimilation’ — adopting American habits and behaviours, especialy diet, is particularly degrading for immigrant health according to a Smith College-led study.
“Simply put: the longer an immigrant lives in the U.S., the heavier that immigrant becomes. Scholars theorize this weight gain as due, in part, to acculturation, the adoption of U.S. diet and physical activity habits,” said Park. “Although in the popular imagination, acculturation is thought to be a positive factor for immigrants, in many arenas of health, acculturation has been shown to have a negative effect.”
Surely, we must be welcoming towards immigrants and encourage everyone to speak English. But there is no harm in learning foreign languages and eating healthier foods–it wouldn’t make us less American or threaten our sovereignty. After all, we are a nation of immigrants and adopting parts of other cultures into our own is ultimately very American.
In the study, researchers examined information on more than 13,000 New Yorkers from all five of the city’s boroughs, who voluntarily had their height and weight measured. The data, collected at community-based health centers and hospitals using this this body fat analyzer between January 2000 and December 2002, was used to calculate each person’s BMI.
For Hispanics, whether the neighborhood is largely English speaking or not is an important predictor of body size. The less English spoken in a neighborhood, the less weight gain occurs, according to researchers, whose findings appear in a recent issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
“Simply put: the longer an immigrant lives in the U.S., the heavier that immigrant becomes. Scholars theorize this weight gain as due, in part, to acculturation the adoption of U.S. diet and physical activity habits,” said Park. “Although in the popular imagination, acculturation is thought to be a positive factor for immigrants, in many arenas of health, acculturation has been shown to have a negative effect.”
The new study supports earlier research that found that weight gain is most consistent and significant among Hispanic immigrants to the U.S., who face a particularly high risk of obesity and attendant health problems even when socioeconomic status is taken into consideration.
The link to the study can be found here. I wish journalists would clearly cite the actual source of study because oftentimes it takes a while to search and find it and only the most interested users bother to go to the source of information.
I can actually attest to this sparingly, since the study only seems to hold true among Hispanic immigrants and I am not. I gained about 40 pounds since I started residing in the United States without any changes to my height or level of physical activity. I have shed about 15 of those down to 115 in the past year after getting more health conscious, but the point is that Americans do consume foods with higher calories. And the more we “assimilate,” the more we tend to consume “American foods” on the go instead of ethnic, home-cooked meals which are generally and broadly-speaking, healthier. I don’t think the morale of the story is that we should hide out in our own ethnic enclaves–but that mirroring American consumerism and diet is the wrong way to go.
Supporters of cultural assimilation beware–Encouraging and pushing for assimilation i.e. “English-only” can be contradictory. According to the research of Tomás Jiménez, an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Diego:
That efforts by opponents of illegal immigration to stamp out the ethnic identity of immigrants and their descendents, and to emphasize assimilation, backfire… Nonimmigrant Mexican-Americans who were already largely assimilated feel a closer connection to their Mexican identity when they see it as under attack.
“People who feel the country is fractured by ethnicity may be doing more than anyone to harden ethnic identity,” he said.
The study holds up when compared to conflict theory. When a minority culture faces attack from the dominant culture, it resists or pushes back.
While we are on the topic of assimilation and “illegal immigration,” is it not strange that the biggest proponents of assimilation are also the ones that prevent avenues for immigrant assimilation–Studies show that being undocumented is a barrier to assimilating.
As Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor explained in The Washington Post: “If you’re in the country illegally, a lot of the avenues of assimilation are cut off to you. There are a lot of jobs you can’t get, and you can’t become a citizen.”
Therefore, if we want our immigrants to assimilate, should we not ensure that they have the necessary institutional support to do so? Otherwise, it is ridiculous to expect migrant workers to speak American-English.
One last note. Americans DO NOT speak English but a bastardized version of it. Over the past decade, my English has actually deteriorated. I used to be a spelling bee champion and nowadays I let the Firefox browser correct my spelling. Same goes for my grammar. It is not correct to say “Who are you going to the movies with?” but rather “With whom are you going to the cinema?” Besides the error of ending in prepositions, I use way more passive language than I used to — we used to be graded down for “passive usage.” Most Americans have no idea as to what that means! Anyway, I am no fan or supporter of any “pure language” theories so the deterioration of English does not bother me. What does bother me is this:
Lets learn to speak English first, eh?
+++++I hail from the Fiji Islands; My favorite food is Chinese; I root for Italy and Juventus when it comes to football; I am disappointed when India loses a major cricket tournament; I love Pakistani music with Jal as my most favorite band; L-word star Jennifer Beals is my idol while I think Indian soapstar Anita Hassanandani is the most beautiful woman in the world; my best friend lives in Australia; ‘God Bless Fiji’ is the only national anthem I can recite, barely; the Bay Area is my home and Chicago is my favorite city. My likes and dislikes know neither borders nor boundaries+++++
During my incredibly short time as a pro-migrant blogger, I have seen many articles on calls for new immigrants to assimilate, deriding the more recent wave of transnational identities, and studies that show immigrant assimilation rates, just to name a few.
From a personal perspective, as someone who was born and brought up in the Fiji Islands, I was taught that we must not expect or encourage “assimilation.” In fact, the word has negative connotations in my country of origin, helped by a social studies curriculum that puts plularism over assimilationist integration from an early age. So it is baffling to me, when “assimilation” is seen in a positive light in the United States, almost uncomfortable in fact. Assimilation is synonymous to losing cultural identity, which I find completely unacceptable, especially when it is touted as a prerequisite for U.S. citizenship.
Sociologist Robert Parks maintained that assimilation was inevitable in a democratic and industrial society after undergoing the “race relations cycle” (contact, conquest…assimilation, fusion). Park has been criticized for not giving a timeline as to when assimilation is complete. We have absolutely no way of ascertaining when assimilation has occurred if we go by Park’s theories.
On the other hand, Milton Gordon has a seven-part subprocesses of assimilation theory, going from cultural acculturation to structural assimilation (integration) to marital assimilation. By no means is this theory solid–individuals and groups can jump around the subprocesses and not follow it in any certain order.
Sociologists think that contemporary immigrants would undergo segmented assimilation. See this for more.
Unlike what Parks or Gordon let on, the process of assimilation in itself, is not LINEAR, which is a very important point to take into account. When different cultures inter-mingle, they borrow characteristics from one another–If the United States was a case of an “assimilationist society,” we would all have the traditional English breakfast of bacon and eggs and scones for snacks. But we enjoy our various ethnic foods, different dressing styles, and the ability to curse in several different languages.
We must seek PLURALISM not assimilation.
On this $2 note from Fiji that I carry around in my wallet, we can see from left to right: a young Muslim boy, an older Chinese man, an indigenous Fijian, a Rotuman woman–probably representative of other Pacific Islands as well, and an Indian woman.
Alright, so I am not particularly pleased with this Rubin Navarette Jr. article IN MY CITY NEWSPAPER about deporting Arthur Mkoyan because he feels AM is getting “special treatment” as opposed to a DREAMer who is of Mexican origin. And I was harsh about it on ADD.
I am the last person who would try to stifle voices that raise the ‘race’ factor in immigration but I have to exercise moderation for posts at ADD. I apologize if I offended anyone with the post at ADD.; the Navarette Jr. article hit me precisely at the moment that I was celebrating the private bill for Arthur.
I admit, I did not for one second think about Arthur’s racial or ethnic background as opposed to that of students like Meynardo Garcia or Tope Awe. It does not matter to me — but maybe Rubin is right — it does matter to your average American. Why is Arthur getting a private bill sponsored for him while Awe or Garcia are not?
It is a sad part of our immigration system, still ridden with racial bigotry. But what is sadder is when I feel compelled to keep quiet about the media and political disparities in treatment, just so we can at least keep one student. It is sadder when I knowingly do not protest how the DREAM Act is written to feed into the migrant-military complex. I get tired of promoting citizenship for “assimilated English-speaking youth” – Please, I could care less if someone spoke English or not.
And what stabs me the most is the part about “these students being American and belonging to America.” I, Prerna Lal, who writes subaltern history, histories of alternative nationalisms and critiques of the nation-state form, am caught promoting national identity with pride. Let me make this clear–I could care less about any ‘American’ traits I may possess and refer to myself as ‘Islander Girl.’ I don’t see the erosion of national identity and nationalism as a bad thing especially in a world where capital is growing increasingly borderless and more people live outside their country of birth than ever before. Why should someone be compelled into identifying with a nation-state where they reside against their will? Even if you are born a citizen of the United States of America, what difference does it make whether or not you love your country? Being proud of your country of birth or national identity is stupid — no one chooses where they are born or brought up. By the same token, why would someone fight so hard to gain citizenship in a country where s/he will always be second-class? From where I stand, nationalism is a bigger ISM than racism in the immigration debate (of course they are not mutually exclusive).
That is my dialectical conflict. The struggle would never end for me and maybe that will keep me on my toes. I suppose I should follow my either/or advice and not be compelled into choosing. After all, we can critique something and still support it for the greater good, right? So for me, it is not about writing a frustrating article advocating the deportation of a DREAMer just to prove a point about systemic racism. I will still write about systemic racism but not demean or disparage any student youths–documented or undocumented. I think that is what bugged me about the Navarette Jr. article — he did not have to call for Arthur’s deportation, even if it was tongue-in-cheek, just to make a point about our racism.
No one should call you or me a hypocrite for supporting Arthur Mkoyan while writing about the racism in promoting AM over all our other students. And I expect the same rule to apply when critiquing U.S. foreign policy and actions while advocating for our DREAMs.