When Do Legal Immigrants Get to 'Speak Out'?

I went to El Salvador last year.  This commentary explains how the experience finally reconciled me with the conservative position on immigration.  I emphasize the pain caused to a beautiful people, the Salvadorans, by their living in a state not like Jesus in Egypt, but more like the Babylonian captivity of the Old Testament.  Sometimes history presents lose-lose scenarios where a trend has no winners. Illegal immigration belongs in such a category.

Since the Washington Post and the New York Times will never cover what I learned, I will "speak out" here.  I hope it does some good.

Immigration is emotional

In the Los Angeles Civic Center, my wife took an oath to become a citizen.  After sixteen years together, fourteen years of marriage, and over a decade with a green card, she had finally cleared all the hurdles, made her decision, and decided to become American.

Few experiences can rival such a scene.  Masses of people from every corner of the globe, dressed in their finest, carry bouquets and snap photographs.  This happened before the homelessness crisis caused tents and human waste to cover the sidewalks downtown.

I recall waiting with Iranians, Mexicans, Filipinos, Germans, British, Nigerians, Indians, Israelis, Russians, Poles, Cubans, Venezuelans, and Guatemalans, wiping the sweat from our multicolored brows, as we waited for our people to emerge with envelopes full of all-important papers.

Papers, papers, papers.  I grew up knowing that documents really mattered.  Because before my wife became a citizen, my mother and father were immigrants.

The first generation before mine

My grandmother delivered my mother in Puerto Rico, twenty years after the Jones Act gave islanders citizenship.  My mother found the island too small for her character and ambitions.  So did her mother.  My grandmother flew to New York to study, leaving her three children, including my mother, with my grandfather in the 1950s.  She would return.

The family had intelligence – evidenced by the high number of college degrees and professions – but they never seemed to have much money.  They lived in a small city in southeastern Puerto Rico famed for its cañaveral, its history of slavery, and sugarcane refineries.

My grandfather had only completed fourth grade but knew that his oldest daughter had unusual genius.  My mother rose to the top of both her high school and college.  She had come to identify with a gay, lesbian, and possibly transgender (in today's terms) community.  Neither her career nor her growing bohemian sensibility could fit in.  She journeyed with little money but big ambitions to Buffalo to pursue medical school.

In World War II Buffalo, many enlisted and went off to serve.  Some Puerto Rican laborers replaced them, picking apples.  Some stayed and found jobs in factories, settling on the city's west side.  When my mother sought to leave the island, she needed to go somewhere affordable, where she knew people.  She had some cousins living in Buffalo.  Rent was cheap.  The city had a medical school.

My father arrived at almost the same time.  He was born to a colorful family with a typically Filipino backstory.  My grandmother came from an Ilokano rice town, where her four sisters and brother felt like royalty.  They had some land.  Known to be daring and flippant, my "Lola" ran off to Manila to work as a librarian.  She lived in a house for working girls supervised by Catholics who made them pray each day and closely watched over them.

As my Lola told me, one day she saw a warning posted in the boarding house.  It said there were "dangerous bachelors" from a southern island city, Silay, who had been known to conduct themselves dishonorably.  On this list was my grandfather.  Lola snuck out a window to see if she could see this dangerous man up close at a dance.

She met my grandfather and ran off with him, back to the island town where his family owned a plantation and a fishing reserve.  They married and had children.  They became separated during the Japanese invasion.

As late as the 1990s, she would bristle if I brought a friend with Japanese ancestry along to visit.  She had witnessed atrocities on a scale few could imagine.  Her husband fought as a guerrilla and died of liver cirrhosis soon after.  Their land suffered critical damage, and the documents proving their ownership got lost in the bombings.  My Lola fought a court battle to regain her share of the land, but it got delayed for generations.  By the time she died in 2005, at the age of 93, the courts were deciding the case.

My father's brother fell in with gangsters in the years after World War II.  This proved invaluable to my studious father.  My grandmother worked several jobs.  They lived in a dangerous neighborhood.  My uncle hired bodyguards to walk my father to and from school.  My father knew that every exam he took, every paper he wrote, had to excel for the sake of a whole family counting on him to lift them from poverty.

Filipinos of my father's generation played no games with education.  He took no creative writing classes or courses in gender studies.  He finished a pre-medical training program, then got a visa to complete medical studies in Hartford and Buffalo.  Eventually, he would end up helping to finance the studies, migrations, homes, and businesses of countless cousins.  Their parents guarded him when he studied.  He had to make good on what he owed them.

When my father finished his residency in Buffalo, he received an appointment to work in a field nobody really respected in the late 1950s: combating "addiction."  Back then, it was heroin.  He started in the field at the very beginning of America's drug crisis.  He would end up shining in his career.  Even today, in his eighties, people fly him around to give lectures.  He cannot quit because nobody can replace his extensive experience.

He met my mother in Buffalo.  They eventually had me.

The mindset of a legal immigrant family

I thought like this when I grew up: America held great promise, but you should never feel entitled to anything.  If you want America's opportunities, you deal with American paperwork.  You wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Obligations defined immigration – obligations to the old countries, where you had to send money, and to this country, where you showed gratitude for American living and proved you were committed.

Racism ranked low on our list of worries.  My folks knew that the Philippines and Puerto Rico were a lot harder than racism.  My mother has some black ancestry, but she had the fairest skin of her siblings, while my father, for some reason, had very dark skin.  To many people, they were simply not white, so classified with blacks.  In Buffalo in the 1960s, they lived in a black neighborhood, accepting the era's segregation with patience and resignation.  Riots tore across the city in the 1960s.

When I was born in 1971, the family had moved to a white suburb of Buffalo.  While we differed racially, almost everyone in our neighborhood had recent ancestors who had immigrated from Italy, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Greece, or Scandinavia.  I dealt with racism the way my parents did.  I learned to fight a longer war for justice, to give those who would hate us no ammunition.  And the rules, the rules.  You have to follow the rules, because you aren't like ordinary families.  You are probationary Americans.  If you don't like it, you can always go back and sell gum to tourists on a highway.

How I met my wife

My wife comes from another country.  She and I met in grad school and got together in 1999.  I fell in love quickly and felt profound Catholic guilt over being involved without being married.  Like my Filipina grandmother, I followed my passions, but Catholic guilt persists in people despite even the most postmodern attempts to quash it.  I moved in with her.  I had grown up in a family that knew that documents, certificates, oaths, obligations, promises, and all the rest – it all mattered.  And you couldn't cut corners, or you might lose everything.

We got married in January 2001.  I remember so clearly all the rules we had to follow, down to the letter.

My wife could not have dual intent, which meant she could not keep her student visa.  The officials explained: the primary motive for resettling must serve as the basis for your visa.  You cannot say, "I married and might start a family" and "I am just in town getting a degree."  A student visa expires when the degree is done.  A marriage visa moves toward a green card and possible citizenship.

I remember I signed a paper saying that if we went on public assistance, she would be deported.  We had to send papers regularly updating our status to the immigration office.  It took years to get a green card.

My wife could not travel outside the country for several years.  She had "authorization to work," but if we set foot outside American soil, we would not be able to re-enter, and she would be repatriated.  We lived five minutes from Canada.  Her father came to visit us, and we took him to Niagara Falls.  He felt furious that we could not cross a bridge to see the beautiful Horseshoe Falls.  But those were the rules.

By 2008, we had a daughter, and I worked in California as an assistant professor.  A budget crisis swept the state.  I could not go without work.  My wife still did not have her citizenship.  I signed up for the Army Reserves to make sure that if any layoffs happened, I would be able to keep my wife in the country.  I went to boot camp at the age of thirty-nine.  I had a concussion in training.  I knew the stakes, so I got through it.

The job market fell apart in Los Angeles.  My wife tried to use her language skills but illegal aliens, working for lower wages and with no need to pay taxes, saturated the economy.  She got a job offer in the Midwest and took it.  I was shipped out to active duty for training.  Between 2009 and 2013, I had to live apart from my wife and child.

In 2014, she quit her job, and we reunited as a family, staying together since.  We lived an American story not unlike my parents' generation's and the stories of generations before them.

Given all this, how do I feel when I read about people who come into the U.S. with no paperwork, hauling their kids across a desert, then mad because they are separated for a few weeks?  How do I feel when the media play this up and cry "racism"?

I feel many things.  Primarily, I feel angry.  To call us all "immigrants" with no distinctions demeans everyone.  It disregards the incredible sacrifices people make to follow the rules in good faith.  People who come legally do so because they know the harm caused by secrets, lazy shortcuts, sloppy decisions.  People who come legally know that it is a ponderous decision to leave one land and join another.  Leftists will say my family is "rich," but that's silly.  Poverty at different times was part our stories.

Liberals who talk about illegal immigration have never, in my experience, wanted to listen to people who followed the rules to come here.  Their racism leads them to dismiss our stories (because we serve no purpose) and to oversimplify the stories of illegal aliens (because they assume that poor "others" are too stupid to know how to follow the rules).  They dramatize the sufferings of people at the border while showing total indifference to the sacrifices of people in their midst who came to America the right way.

Their advocacy amounts to using people for a while and then discarding them.  That's wrong.  In 2019, I refuse to play along with it anymore.

Follow Robert Oscar Lopez at English Manif.

Image: Gulbenk via Wikimedia Commons.