Canada is a nation that was built by immigrant labour. Under the auspices of French and English immigrants, generation after generation of immigrant populations have left their mark on what has become a great nation. Canada’s birth rate is such that without an influx of at least 200,000 immigrants per year, our population will begin to dwindle. The implication is clear – without immigration Canada will fail.
There are few in this country that will deny these facts. We are lucky to be mostly insulated from the kind of “illegal immigrant” hysteria that has gripped the European countries, and even our friends to the south. A major part of this insulation is the fact that we share our only land border with a country that is (for now) a more attractive target for immigration than our frozen north. We don’t have to worry nearly as much about people sneaking across the border.
All that being said, it is no less true that the United States relies on its immigrant populations for its survival as well. Far above and beyond the jingoistic image of immigrants “doing the jobs that Americans don’t want to do” – which is certainly part of the picture of the immigrant experience – immigrants are and have been an integral part of the development of the United States since the very beginning. There is a strong move afoot in American politics to round up and deport anyone who has come into the country illegally, which on its face sounds like a reasonable idea, until you consider the sheer number of people who are undocumented.
While it might make good political sense to be against immigrants, it makes poor economic sense. Immigrants, even those that haven’t entered according to the rules, provide essential services in many walks of life. Rounding up and deporting them would create huge vacancies in the job market, and while the ranks of the unemployed will fill some of those spaces, the training and skill needed for many of those positions would preclude most on the unemployment rolls from entering without doing lasting damage to the economy. For example, how many unemployed people do you think are capable of winning a Pulitzer?
One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab. She handed me a jacket. “Baka malamig doon” were among the few words she said. (“It might be cold there.”) When I arrived at the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport with her, my aunt and a family friend, I was introduced to a man I’d never seen. They told me he was my uncle. He held my hand as I boarded an airplane for the first time. It was 1993, and I was 12.
Antonio Vargaz, New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist ‘came out’ as ‘an illegal’ in the pages of his host paper, without knowing what the consequences of such an action would be. His story is amazing:
I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it. I’ve tried. Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.
But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.
I am the child of a “legal” immigrant. My father emigrated from Guyana in 1978, and has since become financially independent and has contributed to Canada both economically and politically. Even though I am not an immigrant (the technical term for me is “second generation immigrant”), I am acutely aware of carrying the stigma of someone whose ancestors are “not from here”. This is, perhaps, a very small price to pay to be born in a country that has helped me survive and flourish from literally the time I was conceived.
While my classmates awaited their college acceptance letters, I hoped to get a full-time job at The Mountain View Voice after graduation. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to college, but I couldn’t apply for state and federal financial aid. Without that, my family couldn’t afford to send me. But when I finally told Pat and Rich about my immigration “problem” — as we called it from then on — they helped me look for a solution. At first, they even wondered if one of them could adopt me and fix the situation that way, but a lawyer Rich consulted told him it wouldn’t change my legal status because I was too old.
Eventually they connected me to a new scholarship fund for high-potential students who were usually the first in their families to attend college. Most important, the fund was not concerned with immigration status. I was among the first recipients, with the scholarship covering tuition, lodging, books and other expenses for my studies at San Francisco State University.
Immigrants have to work hard to get ahead in this country. That’s a good thing – allegiances easily won are just as easily forsaken. That being said, it is to the benefit of us all to create ways to make getting ahead a little less fraught with pitfalls. Especially in a place in which immigration is the lifeblood of stability, it is simple spite that motivates us to demonize those that weren’t born here – spite that only ends up hurting ourselves more in the end.
Early this year, just two weeks before my 30th birthday, I won a small reprieve: I obtained a driver’s license in the state of Washington. The license is valid until 2016. This offered me five more years of acceptable identification — but also five more years of fear, of lying to people I respect and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am. I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.
So I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection. I’ve reached out to former bosses and employers and apologized for misleading them — a mix of humiliation and liberation coming with each disclosure. All the people mentioned in this article gave me permission to use their names. I’ve also talked to family and friends about my situation and am working with legal counsel to review my options. I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story.
So anyone who is a rabid anti-immigrant crusader, even if they restrict their condemnation to those that are “illegal”, ask them this: is the world a worse place because Antonio Vargaz was allowed his shot at success?
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What I find utterly baffling from my European perspective is the way that North American condemnations of immigration come from countries which are almost empty in terms of population density.
I don’t find the “running out of space” at all compelling either though to be honest, even in a place like the UK where we have a relatively high population density: consider quite how many people live in large cities, and quite how few people live in rural areas.
To be honest, anti-immigration sentiment seems to be the socially acceptable face of xenophobia and racism in most cases.