Sunday, May 22, 2016

Life as a Privileged Immigrant


I used to work with immigrants. Now I am one. The difference between our experience illustrates how much my privilege matters.

I am one of millions of people who crossed a border this year, only I had a choice. While life in this small Central American country has certainly not always been easy – I’ve been forced to adapt to a different language and culture, adapted to a different environment, and stood out as a visible minority – I count myself among the most privileged immigrants in the world.

Immigration

To start with, I crossed my border effortlessly. I simply bought a plane ticket and filled out a tourist visa on the plane. In-country, before the visa expired, I applied for residency. It took a lawyer’s help, a few trips to immigration, and a little bit of money, but within four months I was a card-carrying legal resident. I had no interview, no review of my assets, no language or culture test. I simply signed a few forms, showed proof of sponsorship, and paid the accompanying fees. I have never lost sleep over my visa. I know they’ll renew my residency if I file the right paperwork. Though I’m visibly not from here, no one has ever questioned my legal status.

With my US passport, my freedom to travel is almost unbounded. In contrast, Hondurans who want to travel to the United States – even to visit family for a few days – must go through an onerous application and interview process where if they don’t have a job, own properties, or have a significant bank account, they’re likely to be denied. They lose the expensive application fee even if they’re denied. My friend said the line is tragic, full of people weeping, crushed by their refusal. I go into the embassy through a different door. People speak my language there, shake my hand firmly.

Perception

I am also privileged in how I am perceived. The foreignness of my accent is perceived not as a failure to speak good Spanish as much as proof that I speak English, and the suggestion that I am educated, well-connected, and wealthy. People automatically consider that I am here to teach or do some sort of humanitarian work – that my presence here is voluntary. It’s even in the language we use – I’m “visiting” Honduras, or “working” here, I didn’t immigrate. I am an “ex-pat”, not an immigrant.

When people see me, many greet me warmly. They are familiar with my country and curious about it. Some want to practice English with me. Some tell me my blonde hair and blue eyes are beautiful. Others tell me that I should be careful. People want to protect me.

Language

My language also gives me enormous privilege. Despite Spanish being the first language of the majority of Hondurans, I can step into most rooms and expect that someone speaks my language. English has become the language of the educated, the international, the elite. Despite rampant unemployment, I would not lack for a job, even if my only skill were knowing nothing more than the language I was born with.

I speak only passable Spanish, and people are impressed with just that. Aside from a few rude people when I stumbled over the phone, most people are complementary and encouraging about my Spanish, thrilled that I speak any at all. No one has ever told me, “You’re in Honduras, speak Spanish.”

In my Spanish-speaking office, the office printer is nonetheless in my language. My laptop settings are in my language. Hollywood movies play in English, with subtitles. My shampoo bottle and spaghetti sauce can have English labels. If translations are added, they’re an afterthought.

Influence

I am privileged by the outsize influence of the country where I come from. The people in advertisements look like me. Even if I have to look a little harder for it, I can find familiar food in any major city, in any supermarket. I can open any newspaper and read detailed news about my country –  I can name cities, artists, or politicians and people will know what I am talking about (“Feeling the Bern?” a Honduran colleague asked me).

My embassy is enormously powerful here. One newspaper named the US ambassador one of the top 10 “people of the year”. He’s a household name, at least in political circles. Meanwhile I cannot name a single ambassador to the United States.

Others

I will repeat that it is not easy for me to be here. It is hard to adjust to the rhythms of a new place. It is so hard to communicate in your second language. It is impossibly hard to be away from your family and loved ones.

And yet my experience is nothing like immigrants from other countries around the world. I think of undocumented immigrants who crossed borders out of desperation because they never would have been allowed across legally. I think of refugees who are chased across borders with little choice.

I think of the people whose accents earn them mockery, derision, and even violence. Of the classmate who was told her mother tongue, a tribal language, “didn’t count” as a real language because it didn’t show up on Google Translate. I think of people trapped in places where they are not understood, who are expected to communicate perfectly the moment they arrive.

I think of the way other immigrants are perceived – as interlopers, as criminals, as strangers, as outsiders. I think of the enormous courage it takes to bring your family to safety in a place where you are not necessarily even welcome.

The most valuable and powerful thing I own is this tiny blue booklet called a US passport, something I did not earn, but was given through the accident of birth. I don’t “deserve” to be perceived well and welcomed here, just as much as immigrants to the states do not deserve the anger and out-lash they too often confront.

I am speaking, even here, from a place of privilege. I see it as my responsibility to use this privilege to ensure that others have the same opportunities that I do.

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