It is my firm belief that the United States of America was built and became great on the backs of immigrants- and that we would not be where we are today without centuries of contributions by immigrant workers, teachers, mothers and fathers.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and we see the toll it’s taking on everyone- we often forget about our essential and sometimes invisible immigrant workers.
Plus, with the election coming up, it is more important than ever that we inform ourselves about immigrant issues, and vote for policies that help all human beings- regardless of their immigration status.
To that end, I am writing this post in partnership with the National Immigration Law Center and Resilience Force to share with you a bit about the role immigrants have played in my life, and to give you some resources to learn more about immigrants, support immigrants, and help make voting choices in the upcoming elections that will best support immigrant workers moving forward.
My Immigrant Story
I am in the unique position of having lived as an immigrant abroad and now live with an immigrant while raising first-generation immigrant children. I’ve seen both the pros and the cons of living in as an immigrant and living with an immigrant, and I want to take this opportunity to share a little bit more of my story.
In 2001 I decided to study abroad in San Ramon, Costa Rica, and thus began a 19-year immigrant journey I never thought would happen.
I moved to Costa Rica to study Spanish and met my now husband there. After spending two years studying on a student visa, I then took out a work visa to teach elementary school English in the rainforest for a year.
I was lucky to receive that specific work visa as Costa Rica has laws about the types of jobs foreigners can take- we can’t take jobs if there is a qualified Costa Rican to do the same job. Obviously, native Engish speakers are preferred for teaching English, even though I have a degree in Spanish education.
Living and working on a visa had it’s definite pros and cons. Legally, I was able to open a bank account, use the national medical system, obtain a driver’s license, and enter and exit the country at will. I was not allowed to vote.
Socially, things were a bit more tiresome. While my skin color was not a novelty in Costa Rica, my clothes were obviously from the United States, and I spoke Spanish with a slight accent.
This meant that when people met me I was either introduced as “la gringa,” or as soon as I opened my mouth people would comment on my accent, ask where I was from, and then want to talk about the United States. (This was especially fun during the Bush election scandal in 2000).
After a year abroad I was tired- I wanted to just be “Christa” and not “other.” As much as I tried to focus on how similar I was to Costa Ricans, it was exhausting to always be treated as the stereotypical American, and not just as myself.
My husband (then boyfriend) and I then embarked on the long and arduous process of moving to the United States. We started with a fiancee visa that allowed him to enter the country to get married. We had 90 days to do so, and once we got married, he had to go through another long (and expensive) process to get my husband approved to work, get a driver’s license, and then to become a resident.
We’ve lived in the United States now for 15 years- my husband became a US citizen in 2016. He has never had a job that allows him to use his Spanish. The emotional toll of using your non-native language day in and day out is exhausting, not to mention the constant comments of ‘you don’t look Costa Rican” to requests that he bring Mexican food to potlucks.
We are extremely lucky though- we both have college educations, graduated college with no debt, own our own home and have professional jobs. While we do receive the side-eye when speaking Spanish in public, my husband’s wages generally do not equal those of his peers, and we often get ignorant questions about Costa Rica; for the most part, we are thankful to live and thrive in the United States.
Not every immigrant experience is like ours, however. Many immigrants work for years at low-paying jobs while their professional titles from their home countries are validated here. (Doctors are an excellent example of this.)
Some immigrants can’t travel home because of their immigration status or because they have fled persecution. Many immigrants arrive here with little more than a suitcase full of memories and a few hundred dollars in cash. Every single immigrant in the United States deserves an equal chance to thrive here, and we can help this to happen by ensuring laws passed and elected representatives are committed to immigrant equality.
Types of Immigrants
The immigrant story is universal yet unique. There are many different types of immigrants, and legal immigrant status greatly affects how immigrants are treated in the eyes of the law- not to mention how others treat immigrants simply because they were born elsewhere. This is a quick and simple rundown of some immigrant terminology for those who get confused.
Note: This terminology can be applied to any country- not just the United States.
Documented immigrants have entered a country for a specific, approved reason. Examples include: to study, to get married, to work, to flee persecution in their home countries, etc.
There are a lot of reasons a person would migrate to the United States: you can read a full list of approved reasons here.
Examples of famous documented immigrants include Sergey Brin, founder of Google or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Undocumented immigrants have arrived in the country without the government’s explicit permission- while they may have arrived for many of the same reasons, this population was unable to obtain the necessary permission for one reason or another.
That’s because applying for a visa to the United States is a very time-consuming and expensive process. Sometimes, people have undocumented status unknowingly (their visa expired and they didn’t realize it) or knowingly (they apply for a visa knowing the risks of overstaying.)
Famous undocumented immigrants include Jose Antonio Vargas and Melania Trump.
There are two definitions for first-generation immigrants.
The first is a foreign-born person who moves to the US and becomes a citizen.
The second is a child born in the US to immigrant parents. (I know, it’s a bit confusing).
America Ferrara and Lin-Manuel Miranda are excellent examples.
These are people born in the United States with one or more parents who are considered First Generation Immigrants.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is a good example.
These are children born in the United States and whose grandparents were first-generation immigrants. I think many of us know at the very least one third-generation immigrant!
Immigrant Stories – See For Yourself
The immigrant experience is vast and unique- and to me personally, it’s fascinating. I am constantly searching to add immigrant voices to my life and read a ton of immigrant novels. To that end- please follow me on Goodreads where I continuously update the books I am reading, many of which are immigrant stories.
Her is a short list of my favorite immigrant movies, books, and Instagram accounts.
Immigrant Stories in Film:
- Maria Full of Grace
- A Day Without A Mexican
- Real Women Have Curves
- The Namesake
- Under The Same Moon
- Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen
- I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
- American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures
- Children of The Land
- The Namesake
- American Dirt
- Ordinary Girls
- Angela’s Ashes
- When I Was Puerto Rican
Pro-Immigrant Instagram Accounts:
- Resilience Force
- National Immigration Law Center
- Alexandria Ocasio Cortez
- United We Dream
- Immigrants Rising
- National Day Laborer Organizing Network
Be The Change
Your voice matters.
I challenge you to inform yourself of the issues that affect immigrants on a daily basis, and then vote in favor of laws and representatives that understand how to make things better for immigrants. Here are a few resources to help you get started:
- Register to vote. Sites such as Vote Save America and Rock The Vote make it easy.
- Call your elected representatives and let them know immigrant rights are important to you. Outline the issues you would like to see changed- or let him or her know what a great job they are doing! I love the Find Your Representative tool from Common Cause. **Note: If you are like me, I get really nervous about the thought of calling a congressperson. What if they answer? Here’s a great guide of what to expect– it helped me actually pick up the phone and call. It wasn’t as bad as I thought!
- Encourage your friends to vote. I love this campaign from Moms Rising/Mamás con poder- they will send you 10 beautiful postcards for you to send to your friends to remind them to vote.
- Register to vote.
- Fill out the 2020 Census (if you haven’t already.) Accurate data on US immigrant numbers is essential- we can then decide what decisions to make based on the number of people living and working as immigrants in the US. Fill it out here.
- Volunteer to help with the election. You can join phone banks, text banks, door-knocking campaigns- the nation needs pro-immigrant people to help spread factual information and you can make a difference.
Share immigrant stories.
Make them a part of your personal narrative.
Join the movement.
You can share your own original artwork or the images in this post on social media.
Find out more about immigrant issues at https://immigrantsareessential.org/