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I’ve changed my mind about undocumented immigrants – and here’s why

Immigration is not a new thing – human beings have always been moving from one place to another in search of better living conditions. We just have to look at history – and we don’t have to go very far. For many of us, is just looking at our origins. The United States receives people from all over the world. Brazil is the same. My family, for example, is from Italy – my great-grandfathers moved to Brazil looking for a better life. Bringing it to the present day, we know that there is a great interest of people in moving to another country – mainly from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere. According to a survey released by the World Economic Forum, 15% of the global population would migrate if they could. In Brazil, the United States is at the top of the list of the most desired countries. There are several factors that make the USA at the top of that list – and one of them is the way Brazil follows the American culture – like movies, music, products, and brands.

Brazil is not the only country with people dreaming about moving to the USA. And as a country in this position, there is also a large number of undocumented immigrants. Arriving by air and overstaying temporary visas has been the primary way of entering the US undocumented population.  Of the estimated 515,000 arrivals in 2016, a total of 320,000, or 62 percent, were overstays and 190,000, or 38 percent, were EWIs.  The number of undocumented immigrants varies according to the methodology used, and there is also a delay in estimates because it takes time for accurate data to be available. The latest estimate released by the Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics Office was in December 2018: on January 1, 2015, there were 11.96 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Among the countries of origin of these immigrants is Mexico, which represents about half of the undocumented population, followed by Central America and Asia. About two-thirds of undocumented immigrants have been in the United States for 10 years or more.

Illegal immigration is a delicate and complicated subject. It wasn’t the way that I got here. In 2013, before coming to NYC to spend three weeks working on a client’s project, Thiago, my husband, was encouraged by coworkers to change the location on his LinkedIn profile. According to them, this was a great way to measure if his resume was competitive and if he had chances abroad. The result? It was good – after all, he started getting messages from recruiters after doing that. Four months later, we were moving to the Big Apple because he was hired by an NYC-based startup.

I know that a lot of Americans have no idea how hard and time-consuming is the path of legal immigration. Insecurities, fear, restrictions, and time – a lot of time – are involved in the long and exhausting journey of getting a Work Visa and then the Green Card. No, it is not a matter of comparing the pains, because this is not a suffering contest. There are many privileges involved in being able to be here on a “legal” path – and there are many obstacles and difficulties that make you tired and affect your self-esteem and perhaps that is why it has always bothered me so much to see people cheating on the system. Yes, I have already judged and strongly condemned those who choose the other way, but that mindset has changed and I want to explain why.

It has been almost 7 years since I moved to New York and these were probably the 7 most transformative years of my life. It is no secret that living outside your comfort zone can obviously be, at least, uncomfortable sometimes, but I grew up a lot as a human being and learned a lot through this experience. I don’t know how my life would have been like in Brazil – and, as a time machine hasn’t been created yet – I will never know what path I would have taken if I had stayed there. I think the change I went through is a mix of being in a city as intense and diverse as New York, the maturity, my therapy process, and the content that I consume, in addition to my friendships. That said, I also cannot ignore the way I was raised. My family was never wealthy – my parents grew up in very limited conditions – from not having shoes to go to school. But I had a happy childhood and a lot of freedom – I even dreamed of having all those toys that I saw on TV, but my parents only got gifts for us on special dates. I grew up seeing my mother raising me, my sister, and my brother, and only after this she went to college – so different from the timeline expected by society. I studied in a public school all my life (and public schools in Brazil are not always the best ones) – but I was able to go to a private college when I had the chance. I never had to work and there was never a shortage of food on our table. I was a kid and, after this, a teenager, with some small limitations – far from being a life of suffering and without opportunities. Quite the contrary, I had so many privileges.

Despite having learned the concept of meritocracy when I was young – and having believed in it for a long time – from an early age my parents tried to teach us good values, such as humbleness, generosity, and gratitude. There were many stories they shared about their childhood with limited resources. And my father was always a very generous and kind, soft-hearted person, who tried to help everyone whenever he could. One of the most beautiful memories I have as a child was to gather things that my sister and I no longer used – from school supplies to clothes that didn’t fit us – for my father to take to a family with children of our age. I still remember him telling us how happy were the kids when they got the things we had donated.

I am very grateful for the values ​​that they taught us – because I know that they shaped a lot of the human being that I am today and made me be the restless and determined person that I have always been. However, looking back, I see that for a long time I lived my life without seeing a lot outside my bubble. Obviously, I always knew that being prejudiced was not cool, that sexism sucks, and that there were people in conditions different from mine, but I never stopped to think about it the way I should. It was in the last few years that I became more aware of the place I occupy and started to question things that for a long time were sold to me as normal. Pause here to say no, the world is not boring. And if you think it is boring it is because you may not be part of the minority groups that are harmed in our society. Saying that the world is boring is an argument, at least, shallow, and that totally ignores the pain of others.

The second time was this year when I interviewed Mauricio (fictitious name), a Brazilian who has lived in New York for 4 years and stayed beyond the term of his tourist visa, for one of the episodes of my podcast. Mauricio shared his story – which involved childhood abuse and growing up without parents, starving, and being homeless in New York City. He told me that he wanted to go to college (for an Advertising Degree) but he needed help from his family, who did not support the idea, since they believed that an Advertising Degree was not worth it. That night, after the recording, I went to bed and I was overwhelmed by his journey. I’ve always had a nice life, I’ve never starved, I went to college, I live a comfortable life in one of the best cities in the world, with my documents – and, suddenly, I was wondering: but if I hadn’t the opportunities that I had? And what a person like him is supposed to do? Accepting his miserable life and that’s it?

The path to legal immigration to the United States requires criteria (and MONEY!) that are not met by a huge portion of the population. An H1B work visa, for example, requires a college degree, advanced English, extensive experience. Take any other visa, such as work transfer visa, artist visa, startup visa and you will see that they all have in common the requirement for extraordinary skills. These skills require dedication, effort, money, and privileges to be achieved. It is obvious that there are stories of people who stood out even though they had minimal conditions, and these stories, as inspiring as they are, romanticize the “working hard” cliche. Headlines such as: “a student walks 8 hours in order to attend a test for college” (this happens in Brazil) should not be a trophy for meritocracy guys, but a warning that: Oops, something is very wrong here. Or is our society so blind to think that it is really cool for a student to have to struggle like this while so many others make shorter rides in armored cars? And I could write another 10 paragraphs bringing similar situations of hard comparisons. However, I think this is enough to confront those who say that “there is a right and there is a wrong way when it comes to immigration”. Yes, the “right” path exists. But the truth is that it is not available to everyone. And it was precisely at that moment, thinking of the example of Mauricio, of the immigrants in the documentary and of so many other stories that we see out there, that I asked myself: then what? So, a person who has not had the same conditions and privileges has no right to seek a better life? See, when you say that there is “right” and “wrong”, you end up measuring the other by the opportunities that you had. The privileges involved are ignored and the other is placed in an “equal” position that is simply unfair.

And let me be clear that all these thoughts are not to justify anything at all or to say: come here anyway. No. No, because I think that this path involves deprivations, sufferings, and humiliations that are often immeasurable. After all, you pay a very high price for choosing this path. I don’t know if I would be ok living in fear, with uncertainty, and with so many limitations. However, all this conversation is to bring a little more humanity to the issue. It is looking at that person who has not chosen the “right” way and who, through the eyes of an immigration system – outdated and broken, by the way – is committing a crime, but also trying to understand their motivations as a human being. To understand that not everyone can make the same choices, that this might not be your choice, that it remains “wrong” by current conventions – but also to understand the reasons why that person made that decision. It is putting aside the judgment and trying to see the circumstances.

No, I don’t have a solution to this problem. I don’t even know how to start discussing what the United States should and shouldn’t do about it. But I chose to empathize. Just try to understand the other’s decision. It does not mean that rules have not been broken. It doesn’t mean that I would do the same. But it is simply understanding and not condemning. Reflect. Analyze. Don’t measure someone else with your ruler.  Recognizing your privileges will not make you lose them – it will make you more human. And remember that immigration status does not define someone’s character. There are naughty people – documented and undocumented – and there are a lot of nice people too – documented and undocumented. Nobody wakes up one day and decides taking path because it is cool and amazing – and it looks easy on a shallow analysis. It is a path that involves living without a lot of rights, having limited opportunities, and being in the shadow of fear, which is certainly not the best thing in the world.

PS: whatever your situation or circumstance, immigrating is a huge step in someone’s life. It is a decision that must be thought and planned. Trying to gather as much information as possible and not forget to weigh also what you will lose (not only what you will get) is essential for this decision making.

Podcast

Mauricio’s episode is in Portuguese, but you can listen to the episode #18 Crossing the border: the truth about opportunities and privileges. Luis Yanes was born in Guatemala and today is an American citizen and lives in New York with his wife Sarah. But, his journey was neither easy nor obvious. Lui and his family crossed the US border when he was only 6 years old. That was all I knew about his story when we turned on the microphone. Throughout our conversation, I was able to learn more about his history, about the reality of his life before this risky step his father decided to take, and how opportunities are not the same for everyone.

On TV

Living Undocumented | Netflix – From executive producer Selena Gomez, Living Undocumented follows eight undocumented immigrant families who have volunteered to tell their stories as they face potential deportation. Ranging from harrowing to hopeful, their journeys illuminate and humanize the complex US immigration system and depict the struggles that many must endure in their quest to pursue the American dream.

Immigration Nation | Netflix – This documentary series offers a unique and nuanced view of the ongoing struggles in America’s broken immigration system. It features ICE work, the department responsible for deportations, with unprecedented proximity. In addition, it brings portraits of immigrants and analyzes American immigration in-depth today.

Little America – Apple TV – Inspired by the true stories featured in Epic Magazine, “Little America” goes beyond the headlines to bring to life the funny, romantic, heartfelt and surprising stories of immigrants in America. The first season consists of eight half-hour episodes, each with its own unique story from different parts of the world. Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick, “Silicon Valley”) is the producer and every episode was written by someone from the same country as the immigrant portrayed on the episode. It is a beautiful and inspiring series.

Books

  • Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to MexicoIn Deported Americans legal scholar and former public defender Beth C. Caldwell tells Gina’s story alongside those of dozens of other Dreamers, who are among the hundreds of thousands who have been deported to Mexico in recent years. Many of them had lawful status, held green cards, or served in the U.S. military. Now, they have been banished, many with no hope of lawfully returning. Having interviewed over one hundred deportees and their families, Caldwell traces deportation’s long-term consequences—such as depression, drug use, and homelessness—on both sides of the border. Showing how U.S. deportation law systematically fails to protect the rights of immigrants and their families, Caldwell challenges traditional notions of what it means to be an American and recommends legislative and judicial reforms to mitigate the injustices suffered by the millions of U.S. citizens affected by deportation.
  • Little America: Incredible True Stories of Immigrants in America – Nearly everyone in America came from somewhere else. This is a fundamental part of the American idea―an identity and place open to everyone. People arrive from all points distant, speaking a thousand languages, carrying every culture, each with their own reason for uprooting themselves to try something new. Everyone has their own unique story. Little America is a collection of those stories, told by the people who lived them. Together, they form a wholly original, at times unexpected portrait of America’s immigrants―and thereby a portrait of America itself.
  • In the Country We Love: My Family Divided – Diane Guerrero, the television actress from the megahit Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, was just fourteen years old on the day her parents were detained and deported while she was at school. Born in the U.S., Guerrero was able to remain in the country and continue her education, depending on the kindness of family friends who took her in and helped her build a life and a successful acting career for herself, without the support system of her family. In the Country We Love is a moving, heartbreaking story of one woman’s extraordinary resilience in the face of the nightmarish struggles of undocumented residents in this country. There are over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, many of whom have citizen children, whose lives here are just as precarious, and whose stories haven’t been told. Written with bestselling author Michelle Burford, this memoir is a tale of personal triumph that also casts a much-needed light on the fears that haunt the daily existence of families likes the author’s and on a system that fails them over and over.
  • Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen – Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, called “the most famous undocumented immigrant in America,” tackles one of the defining issues of our time in this explosive and deeply personal call to arms. “This is not a book about the politics of immigration. This book––at its core––is not about immigration at all. This book is about homelessness, not in a traditional sense, but in the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like myself find ourselves in. This book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by; about passing as an American and as a contributing citizen; about families, keeping them together, and having to make new ones when you can’t. This book is about constantly hiding from the government and, in the process, hiding from ourselves. This book is about what it means to not have a home. After 25 years of living illegally in a country that does not consider me one of its own, this book is the closest thing I have to freedom.”

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