The immigrant’s hope

By Caitlin Kelly


This recent New York Times op-ed, by Imbolo Mbue really hit home for me:

Despite my pride in my new citizenship, I’m an immigrant first. If I were to wake up one morning forgetting that, by the end of the day I’d surely meet someone who, upon hearing my name or my accent, would say to me, kindly or unkindly, “Where are you from?” to which I might respond with stories about the beauties and complexities of my homeland. Then I’d carry on working toward the goals that brought me here.

In this pursuit, I share a bond with millions of my fellow immigrants — regardless of whether we’re naturalized citizens, green-card holders, visa holders or undocumented; regardless of our race, culture or religion. We all arrived here bearing dreams.

In the upcoming U.S. election, even after decades living here, I won’t be voting. I have a “green card”, am a “resident alien” and still call myself an ex-patriate, even though I’m really more of an immigrant.

Partly, it’s a language issue.

“Immigrant” often seems to connote someone fleeing, desperate, as many are, for a safe haven, a fresh start,  place to live without fear of government repression, criminal gang warfare, religious intolerance.

For too many Americans, it also connotes “illegal”.

For many of us, though, it’s a place to spread our wings, to see how, if and how well we fit into this enormous place.

When I crossed that border as a resident-to-be, I felt like a raindrop hitting an ocean.

Could I ever possibly make something of myself here?

I came to the U.S. in 1989, able to do so legally because my mother was born in New York, and thanks to her citizenship, I was allowed access to a green card. (I was born in Vancouver, Canada, as was my father.)

This election cycle has, I think for many of us who left another country, been a difficult and exhausting one. It has for many Americans!

But for those of us who chose the U.S., filled with hope (however naive) that it would offer us a better life…it’s often been a frightening and depressing time.

The 2008 bank crisis was a disaster. Three recessions in 20 years has meant depressed earnings and savings for many of us.

Now, a campaign so ugly and so bitter and so divisive that even my deeply patriotic American husband has been wondering if we should move back to Canada.

I chose the U.S. for several reasons:

— half of my family are American, and successful in business, academia and the diplomatic corps. I wanted to better understand them and how they prospered. Who were they?

— Canadians grow up inundated by American media and politics; something like 85 percent of the publications on our shelves are created by the U.S.

— Canadians can be deeply risk-averse, timid in business and social life. I was tired of that.

— A country of 35 million people is small, and offers limited work opportunities.

And, like everyone who leaves their homeland for a new one, I carried many dreams with me.

I’ve achieved some of them: (home ownership, a happy marriage, a successful career as a writer, some recognition in my highly competitive field.)

I don’t ever regret choosing the United States over Canada. I’ve been lucky enough to retain deep friendships at home (I still call it that!) and we go north about once or twice a year as well.

But, after so many years here, I also feel a deep loyalty to so many progressive Americans’  best hopes — for social justice, for racial equality, for decently-paid work for everyone.

Like millions of others, I want the best for this place.

The tougher question these days is: whose best?

18 thoughts on “The immigrant’s hope

  1. I can just about mirror your experience, Caitlin, however the outcome is kind of different.

    You wrote – “I came to the U.S. in 1989, able to do so legally because my mother was born in New York, and thanks to her citizenship, I was allowed access to a green card. (I was born in Vancouver, Canada, as was my father.)”

    My story – I came to France in 1990, able to do so legally because my parents were born in England, and thanks to that, I was eligible to receive a British passport and citizenship. (I was born in Toronto.)

    I’m intrigued when you wrote – “Canadians can be deeply risk-averse, timid in business and social life.” Really? I don’t find that. Or maybe I’ve never really thought about it.

    In any case, an utterly unexpected dilemma occurred a few months back in the name of BREXIT. This means that I will no longer be a part of the European Union! I can hardly believe it. This means that I have to go to the Préfecture de Police and apply for residency status which won’t be a problem but, all the same, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking. No-one knows how BREXIT will turn out, it’s a strange situation.

    Oh, I don’t vote either here in France for the simple reason I’ve never registered.

    1. In the time I’ve lived in the U.S. and tried (most of the time unsuccessfully) to since then do any sort of business with Canadians, it’s been a total waste of time. Americans (love or hate it) will generally do business with anyone, quickly and decisively — obviously I’m not talking about multi-million investments — while almost every single Canadian I have tried to work with has taken forever to make up their mind and most of them have simply ghosted me, without the basic courtesy of “no thanks”, i.e. a decisive answer.

      I’ve seen a it a lot and it’s one reason I have stayed in the States. It drives me nuts.

      The Canadian Retail Association — to name only one such example — contacted me after Malled appeared to come and be a speaker at their conference. Then they refused to offer any payment, not even expenses from NY to Toronto. Are you kidding? Then they simply just stopped returning calls and emails.

      Americans, of course, play those games as well. But there’s a much much lower fear of risk/failure here and it means we’re all willing to try new ventures, and people are willing to try us in them.

    2. Brexit is certainly a strange situation! After Brexit, I’ll no longer have a right to an EU passport, and that makes me very unhappy indeed.
      I hope you get residency paperwork sorted out smoothly when the UK finally does leave the EU.

      1. When you say you’ll no longer have a right to an EU passport, am I correct in assuming that you’re British? Could you apply for one now? At least we have a 2-year window to get our paperwork done. If I wanted, I could apply for a French passport…but that would involve extra paperwork. All we can hope for is that we’re in good hands with Theresa May.

      2. Yes, I’m British. Unfortunately I don’t have a choice — having EU citizenship is part of my British passport. To maintain my EU citizenship, I’d have to be eligible to get a passport from an EU country (other than the UK), which I’m not. :-/

  2. Ooh, I look forward to reading the full op-ed by Imbolo Mbue. 🙂 I recently reviewed her fantastic debut novel Behold the Dreamers on my blog. She’s an amazing writer and I really enjoyed her book, which is about African immigrants in NYC.

  3. The concept of choice you refer to in your decision to move to the US is one I can relate to, having had the opportunity to move to a couple of different countries when I left my birth one but eventually choosing the UK.

    Whilst being able to vote, by virtue of being a citizen of a qualifying Commonwealth nation, depending on sponsorship from my employers to live and work in the UK has left me with a sense of a relationship (with the country) that is markedly transactional.

    A few years ago, when I reflected on my experiences, I concluded that there was a sense in which home remained my birth country with my time in the UK very much a temporary sojourn (particularly as I couldn’t make any plans beyond the 2 to 3 year window each renewed visa gave me).

    Perhaps now with the prospect of being able to apply for permanent residence, my relationship with the UK can begin to evolve. Time will tell I guess.

    1. Thanks for weighing in on this…

      It’s an odd thing to choose to leave one’s homeland, and to stay away from it for decades. I hope to get an Irish passport through my paternal grandfather’s citizenship, and — through that — EU residence. I’ve long dreamed of a retirement in France, even part-time, and that would ease it.

      When I lived in Canada, I was very often guessed (!), wrongly, as being American — I walk too fast, talk too fast, am too openly ambitious and direct for some Canadians’ comfort. So I thought, OK, let’s go to NY! And found that…I’m more European than American (insofar as I value travel, time off and long lunches, all of which are very un-American.)

      So it’s been instructive!

  4. CRGardenJoe

    At the Iowa university where I teach, we’re doing a semester-long discussion on immigration. Our Fall Faculty Series this year is called “Building Walls, Building Bridges: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation.” On Oct. 15, we had immigrant staff, faculty and students speak in panels, and it was fascinating to hear their stories. I’m disappointed in the rhetoric of my native land–the U.S. has a long, sad history of disparaging whoever is “new” here, but most of us have not been “here” for so many generations for that attitude to make any sense–not that it would even make sense if my ancestors came on the Mayflower. If my ancestors walked across the land bridge from Asia–maybe then I would have standing to look down on new arrivals. But looking down on an “other” because of the group he or she is in is always pretty pointless anyway. I get to talk about the rhetoric of our election this week (yay?). It has been a very eye-opening and enlightening series, and I enjoyed your post and reflection on your own identity as an immigrant. And while the rhetoric of U.S. citizens to newcomers has often been bad, it’s even more true that this country has benefitted and been strengthened by its willingness to nonetheless take in immigrants. All Nobel Prize science winners in the U.S. this year–6–were immigrants. That should remind us of something…

    1. Good to hear from you again!

      I’ve been deeply disturbed by Trump’s denunciation of Muslims and Mexicans — had my husband’s grandfather not left Mexico for Kansas, he wouldn’t be here today. 🙂

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  6. I recently posted on Facebook photos of my son at a friend’s bar mitzvah. His first such occasion:). We are not Jewish, but he goes to a school that is a cultural melting pot. An atheist, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Hindu all sat next to each other at a Jewish ceremony. And none of them thought anything of it. If I were to mention their ethic heritages, just as diverse. They just see each other as classmates–friends–people. Gives me hope for the future.

    1. Exactly!

      I feel fortunate to have grown up in multi-culti Toronto, where I was often the only Caucasian on my streetcar (Caribbean blacks in my neighborhood) and bus (Vietnamese enclave). My high school was oddly about 95% white, but certainly not U of Toronto or the city itself.

      My husband is a Hispanic Buddhist of Mexican heritage married to a Canadian Episcopalian of German/Irish/American descent. Sounds about right. 🙂

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  8. I would say that in the past, Canadians have been sort of arrogant/timid/avoidant/surly, like an unsure teenager who’s trying to prove that he or she is an adult. I think it’s been a while now since that’s been true.Certainly, in the west where I’ve spent most of my time, Canadians seem to have grown out of that.

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