Both Sides of the Fence: Confessions of an Immigrant

 Lately it seems that the big concern in Europe and the USA has been immigration. It is a significant and divisive issue which seemingly everyone, from the most educated on the matter to the least[1], has an opinion on. The truth of the matter is that immigrants are people which are looking for a better life (or at least the chance for one) in another country. The complaint of the anti-immigrant crowd that they are all criminals trying to steal our jobs or rape and murder is incorrect and unjust. How do I know this? Because I used to be part of the anti-immigrant crowd.

Growing up in Arizona means you get exposed to a special kind of strange. The ability to never get a sunburn, for instance[2]. It also is an extremely conservative state in which religion still plays a serious role and the cacti sometimes have more rights than the people do. I remember a highlight of my childhood was going to the Fiesta Mall and meeting THE Sheriff Joe and getting a signed pair of his pink underwear[3] to take home. Immigration didn’t mean a lot to me then because honestly I went to school with kids from all over. A lot of my friends were from Korean families, for instance, who really liked listening to the Christian Rock station. Sunday school/summer church camp was also the same, although admittedly the vast majority of my congregation was predominantly white.

My mother was an ESL teacher- she had lived in Germany before[4] and taught English to immigrants from all over the world in Phoenix. The city was starting to attract the attention of major industries, including tech companies. With them came immigrants from India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and more; and with them came their families, including uprooted wives who spoke no English and were struggling to integrate. While visiting one of her pupils, she was shocked when a child walked into the room and just began urinating on the carpet. As the pupil explained, they were still not familiar with having a floor. Every day she would try her hardest to help these people learn English and understand the American/Arizonan culture. It was later on I found out that legislature similar to the infamous “No Child Left Behind” was dealing a stacked deck against these students- the resources and money to teach them was just enough to keep them in the class but inevitably not enough to have them completely finish it. Sadly most dropped out rather than pass. My mother eventually became frustrated with the system and left herself.

What I do recall was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Rojas. She was a lively, friendly instructor who all the kids loved. I honestly couldn’t tell you if she had a heavy accent or if she did anything that made her stick out as particularly Latina, except one thing- she insisted on teaching the kids at least a basic understanding of Spanish. Realistically this should have been received as a gift from God; I lived literally 5 hours from the Mexican border and the Hispanic population of Arizona was large enough that Spanish was sort of an unofficial second language. Any opportunity for a parent to have their kids start learning a foreign language, ESPECIALLY one that they would absolutely use, would give their children an advantage which would last a lifetime. And it was free! Included in the public education! Sadly it was evidently not was considered important- the rest of my elementary education had no further focus on a second language, let alone Spanish.

In middle school, we began the mandatory two years of Spanish lessons, but it was already too late. Many of us were opposed to the idea of learning a foreign language. We were in America, dammit! Speak English! Our teacher tried her best, sharing with us the experiences of living in Mexico and Central America. But what about the cartels, we’d ask? The crime? So many were LEAVING their home country to illegally enter ours; why would anyone want to go there? In high school, my mother had taken me to the German/Spanish teacher prior to enrollment. 2 years of a foreign language were again mandatory. My mother asked, should my son learn German or Spanish? I think she expected the teacher (who happened to be German herself) to say, “Why Spanish! Half the state speaks it!” Instead, she said, “Learn German- Spanish is for the workers.”

I couldn’t tell you when exactly, but at some point or another something switched in my brain. Mexicans, I had been told, were flooding Arizona in vast numbers. They were out of control! With them came drugs and criminals from the cartels.[5] It was so bad that the Minute Men, a group of heroes[6], had to go out with their guns and watch the borders for the coyotes leading these illegals into our beautiful state. An area called Guadalupe was the worst- here the illegals could hide in their shanties. It was the “dangerous” part of town.[7] We needed action! We needed protection! They were after our jobs and were leeching off our welfare, taking money from taxpayers. And so Sheriff Joe and his deputies sprang into action, following Hispanic children home from school and asking their parents for their papers. A fence was planned to be built on the border. Water which was left for anyone stranded in the desert was poisoned by citizens taking matters into their own hands. A bill was passed stating that officers of the law had the right to ask anyone for proof of citizenship if they were suspected of wrongdoing. We, the people, were doing what an impotent government could not manage to do- keeping our borders safe.

My first year in Germany aside, it has been rough. Visa issues and culture barriers are so familiar to me that I honestly have considered giving up and going home. Europe, I had thought, would LOVE to have an American that was willing to learn the language and contribute to the society. Germany was so American friendly, and so many Brits/Canadians/Aussies had already come over so EASILY[8]! Surely I could manage! That was not the case. The school I applied to lost part of my application, so I was left to eat out of my savings for 6 months. No one wanted to give me work as a freelance artist, and no one wanted to give me work as a student. The fact that I could speak German was irrelevant; in time, I began to lose a lot of it.

There were another group of people who were seemingly struggling to survive in Germany- descendants of guest workers from when the country was still divided. Jokingly I have called Turkey “Germany’s Mexico”, and that might not be so far off. These people had come over to rebuild the country after the devastation of WWII, and liked it so much they decided to stay. Some of the locals felt… differently. It took me a while to notice the signs from the NPD, the closest thing to the Nazi party in Germany[9], around my new neighborhood in Berlin. The signs were one thing- but the sometimes unintended racism was another. Where back home someone would talk about how the minimum wage and manual labor jobs were just for the Mexicans, here it was much the same for the descendants of the Turkish guest workers. The moment that will forever stick out in my mind, however, was speaking to a German friend of a friend at a party in my flat. For whatever reason, we got on the topic of the Turkish community in Berlin. Her opinion was that Islam, as a religion, was lower than low. Muslims and their traditions had no place in Germany. To quote, “Once they immigrate they should learn the language and the culture and assimilate themselves. No one should build them a mosque.” My response was slow, at first. Maybe she didn’t realize what she was saying. “What about the traditions and cultures that makes Berlin great? The multi-kulti that keeps all major cities alive and vibrant?” “No,” she retorted, “All immigrants should assimilate into Germany completely.” I guess she forgot she was talking to one.

Now I know that I have it pretty damn good. In all seriousness, there are people dying every day as they cross borders. I also know that I chose to be an immigrant; some are forced to leave their homes and just… exist. The system in Europe has been fairly accommodating, albeit with its fair share of hurdles. The particular reason I was so upset with the woman mentioned above is that there really can’t be a system which makes exceptions for a particular nationality or religion. The decisions made regarding any immigrant will be applied to all immigrants. Ever wonder why so many Americans are seeking Student visas or marrying simply to get a green card?

So what’s the issue, as far as I see it? The world is getting smaller and smaller. Globalization is THE future, as well as a buzzword loved by many businesses/countries. But the current immigration rules and regulations are outdated, isolationist, and (dare I say) bigoted- based off the belief that a country needs to take care of their own before taking on anyone else. I used to be one of those people who believed that. Yet time and again, the economic benefits of immigration have been proven as solid reasons to be less restrictive; this is something Germany knows full well. The free movement of EU citizens within the EU has been a shining example of what can happen when we look past our borders and instead think of ourselves as united beyond where someone was born. The fact is that immigrants and refugees are nothing new in Germany or the United States. Part of what has made these countries and strong is the ability to accept and integrate these peoples. “United We Stand” or “Wir sind ein Volk”- these are words that show what we can accomplish together. The possibility to not only save lives but improve them should be celebrated, not feared. If we are going to promote our society as global, then we must also prepare for it. We should be looking at ways to coexist peacefully and respectfully, and our policies should reflect that.

My opinion towards immigration has changed. What about yours?


[1] Looking at you, Trump

[2] A power I have lost since living 5 years in Europe

[3] No, really. I also got my fingerprints which at the time seemed fun but now I realize means I’m in a database somewhere

[4] A large reason I came over myself

[5] Including the dreaded menace, marijuana!

[6] No, really

[7] And also, admittedly where I went to buy beer without an ID

[8] Well, until the UK decides it wants to just up and leave the EU

[9] No, really

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