Immigrants’ Stories are America’s Story of Struggles and Triumphs

The renewed focus on our nation’s immigration laws during this election cycle has prompted heated debate all along the political spectrum. President Obama referred to our “broken immigration system” in his final State of the Union address to Congress on January 12, 2016. It was a goal to fix immigration when Mr. Obama was sworn in seven years ago. And, regardless of which side wins the White House in November, the national conversation has revolved around immigration policy, and not the people and communities affected. To the 4.4 million immigrants who are currently waiting to become lawful permanent residents (commonly, “green card” holders), political rhetoric about mass deportation and visa restrictions can’t come close to describing the complex reality of their tenuous legal status and its impact on their daily lives. Two recent articles offer a much-needed voice to immigrants transitioning to life in the United States. The experience of each, while unique and intensely personal, is also shared by many – regardless of their origins and across many generations.

While immigrants often live their lives in America looking forward to the future, many of them continue to cherish a link to their past. Such is the story of Raj and Roshan Sharma, as detailed in a feature earlier this year in the The Daily Bruin. The couple, both immigrants from India, met at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1949, and married after a brief courtship. Now, they are donating more than six hundred letters from Raj’s father, Abnashi Ram, to the university’s archives. Dating back to 1920, the letters are a harrowing account of his experience immigrating to California from India, and the struggles and successes he encountered along the way. Ram first came to the United States to escape an arranged marriage, and was forced to leave his daughter Raj behind in India while he built a new life for himself. The letters, written to friends and acquaintances, express his concern for his daughter, in India during the tumultuous movement for Indian independence in the early 1900’s, and offer advice and resources for immigrating to the United States.

Michelle Caswell, an assistant professor of archival studies at UCLA, worked with the Sharmas to help process the donation to the school’s South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA.) She is “really excited that the letters are included in the SAADA so that students, scholars, and community members can access them to learn more about the past.” And Roshan Sharma feels that it is his responsibility to share the letters with future generations. “If I die, what good are they just sitting in the halls, if someone doesn’t pick them up?” [See Alums Donate Century Old Letters Capturing Indian Immigrants Experiences, by Yael Levin and Jillian Frankel, Daily Bruin, 13.Aug.2015.]

A stunning personal essay by Sarah Mathews, published on Buzzfeed late last year, begins: “When we arrive in North America, I have never crossed a street by myself. I’ve spent the last 14 years in Oman, a sliver of the New Middle East where … transit as a girl meant being driven in a car by my mom or walking in blistering heat holding my father’s hand. I am two weeks past my 16th birthday, but as my boots slip and slide on icy asphalt, it feels like learning how to walk all over again.” How to Get Your Green Card in America details the experience of the author arriving in the U.S. for the first time as a teen with her family. Her essay perfectly conveys the sense of apprehension and anxiety so many foreign nationals experience as they navigate this nation’s immigration system.

Sarah struggles to adjust to American life at first; she is unaccustomed to the cold weather of Illinois, has difficulty with her schoolwork, and avoids her classmates, lamenting that they “fill me with fear.” Slowly, she begins to build a life for herself in the United States – making friends, dating, and applying to colleges in the Midwest. But her right to remain in America is tenuous. She is an H-4 dependent; her father, who is in H1B status, has a pending green card case through his employer, but the process is taking years. Once out of college, but still unable to work due to her H-4 status restrictions, Sarah begins to question an immigration system that seems to have forgotten her, as she realizes, “I love this country deeply, even though it has never loved me back.” Sarah’s journey has a satisfying ending, but is still a bittersweet reminder of the agonizing process that immigrants must go through to build permanent lives in the U.S. [See How to Get Your Green Card in America, by Sarah Mathews, Buzzfeed, 22.Nov.2015.]

While Congressional members on both sides of the aisle stubbornly refuse to come together for a realistic solution to our nation’s immigration problems, it is interesting, though not surprising, that each of the candidates for president is quite certain that s/he will be able to fix things. Cries for comprehensive immigration reform are more than a decade old, and a warring Congress has managed to kick the can further down the road, despite the efforts of Mr. Obama and of President George W. Bush, before him. The lives of millions of immigrants in this country are at a crossroads, and a great many of them came here legally, have been following the rules, and are suffering mightily. We must remember that immigrants are people with unique talents and experiences, not just political fodder. The stories of their challenges and struggles, as well as their triumphs and joys, need to be spread, perhaps now more than ever, to remind us that the American dream is worth fighting for. The United States was built by individuals and families, who almost all came from somewhere else, and whose individual stories tell the our collective story as a nation.


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