I’ve always been anti-immigration. When my car glides past the borders of Chinatown and I see the throngs of people, signs completely in a foreign language, people shouting with abandon, pushing and shoving, litter on the streets, flies swarming above crates of fruit, I shudder. “Go back to China,” I want to say to them. “If you love living in Chinatown so much, isn’t China even better?” When I read about immigration reform, I say to whoever will listen, “Laws should make it tougher for immigrants to come here, and prevent them from taking advantage of our system. I’m not against immigration.” I will caveat my words with, “I’m against those who come here to reap the benefits only and avoid the responsibilities. Nothing personal.”
One time, a woman said to me, “We all have someone in our family who was a paper son.” I had smiled politely at her and kept silent. Not my family.
I hear stories, true stories, about how Chinese immigrants cheat the system, lie, bribe, sell their souls or the soul of a daughter to get to America. I’m so disgusted by it.
A while back through certain circumstances, I was assigned to work on a small side case, an immigration matter. “A small side case.” That was exactly how I viewed it. The stakes here are not high, I felt. It was just a series of paperwork I had to do. The case utterly annoyed me because I saw it as a betrayal of my own political views. Who are these people anyway? From some hick-rural village in southern China? Ugh. They are going to just come here, wipe a few tables everyday, gamble what they earn in the basement of a Chinatown laundromat, and cheat their taxes. They’ll claim to be so poor they need to go on welfare and usurp from all the tax money that we, the hard-working folks here have to pay. Then once they get their citizenship, they’ll bring over the whole clan and grandma will immediately get social security, which will be gone by the time I need it. That’s just great. Ah well, I figured, don’t make it personal. It’s just a case. Do your job.
The case had to go through an appeal, and at this point, I saw it as an intellectual challenge. Think positively. Right? So I thought of it in terms of whether I could succeed at getting this cool trick through this little-known loophole to work. I could. I did! When I got the approval letter, I congratulated myself, full of hubris, then shouted for a secretary to find me big enough rubber bands to tie up the case files and move them to storage. My attention abandoned the matter faster than I could tie up the files.
Recently while walking with a colleague, an adolescent boy called out to me. “You! You are the lawyer who worked on my family’s case! You brought me to America!” The boy was beaming and giddy, and doing weird little awkward bows.
“Hi!” I tried to be friendly. Who the hell was this kid? Even after he told me his name, I still had no recollection. He described his case further, gave me his mother’s full name and that was when I remembered. Oh! That immigration case. Okay. Yeah. I sort of remember now.
We talked for a bit. I asked him how he and his family had been faring in this new country. It was just him and his mother, he reminded me. Oh. I shrugged. Sure. That’s right. So then. How’s your mother? He said she was doing well. I was going to leave it at that, but he added, “She’s doing a lot better actually. My dad used to beat her up. Bad. She was so scared. She’s not scared anymore. I see light in her eyes again.”
Okay, not expecting that. Didn’t recall reading that in any of the documents. Guess it hadn’t been a relevant fact. The kid continued to stumble-and-bow, bow-and-stumble at me.
“Every boy has dreams, crazy, unfulfillable dreams, and mine was always to see America. Not even immigrate here– I didn’t dare dream that. But I dreamt maybe once, once in my lifetime I might be able to just see America. And now… now I am here. I am in America. I go to an American school. This is beyond a dream come true. My mother and I are grateful to you beyond words, beyond any expression of gratitude!”
Two thoughts ran through my head simultaneously. One, please stop, people are staring. Two, what is this, the 1800s? America this, America that? For crying out loud is he going to talk about a melting pot now? Make that three thoughts, actually. The third, most cynical of all, was that clearly this boy had not been here long. At all. America was not by any measure of the word a new-immigrant-friendly country. You open that mouth to speak broken English and bam. All the doors of opportunities close on you.
As the colleague and I walked off, he beamed and waved at us, repeatedly expressing his thanks, until we were out of sight. Instead of feeling warm and fuzzy inside, I felt something entirely different. I felt shame.
I was ashamed of not knowing that kid’s name. I was ashamed that truth be told, whether his mother’s petition had gone through or not would have made no impact on me. I was ashamed of having thought this case, a case that was the biggest deal yet in this young boy’s life, and certainly a great big deal to his mother’s, had been “a small side case,” a case that was, at best… at best… an “intellectual challenge” for me.
Since our first encounter, he and I have had the chance to talk more. He is wiping tables, but the money’s not for gambling. It’s to invest in the small business his mother is trying to start up on her own. When he’s not wiping tables, he’s in school, trying really hard to keep up. His best class is math. I laughed when I heard this, presuming I knew something about something, and asked, “So you want to major in math or science?” Sheepishly he said no, he would really love to be a teacher and pursue a degree in education, but he’s not sure his English is good enough. If it’s not good enough by senior year of high school, then yeah, maybe he’ll think about a math major in college.
So far, the boy loves it here, not that it has been easy at all, but he still loves it. He knows everything is hard when you first start. It gets better if you keep going forward, if you keep trying. Plus, he adds, he’s simultaneously grateful and bewildered by the idea that his mother can open her own business, that it’s not conditioned on paying off a government official. He says racism, prejudice, and xenophobia is to be expected. One has to understand where the other side is coming from. No one likes foreigners in their homeland, especially foreigners they haven’t got the chance to get to know yet.
He said that, mind you. Him. Not me. Not pompous, educated, know-better-than-you me. Him. Frankly it was unbecoming, his absurd, excessive amount of empathy. Some days when I reflect, I want to storm up to that young kid and yell at him. “What nerve you have for being so full of hope, so full of kindness. That’s right. What nerve!” What nerve did he have coming in and making me confront the reality that I did not deserve to be in this country any more or less than he did. No, wrong, I deserve it even less than him. He is grateful for every opportunity he is given. I am spiteful of every privilege I wish I have but don’t.
That case wasn’t the first immigration case I worked on. For some reason to be involved in Asian American jurisprudence is to dabble in immigration law. And as much as I wish they would not, these immigration cases put dents in my nativist views. A family of 20 lived under one roof, a 3-bedroom rundown house in a part of the neighborhood I had never been to until I visited them. The rooms were sectioned off with tacked up bedsheets to create “private living spaces” for each nuclear family. The 20 of them would pool their earnings together and with this community pot, make sure every member was taken care of. “Communism,” I exclaimed. “But don’t the harder working family members get mad when they’re burdened with the care of the lazier family members?” One of the brothers looked puzzled. “It’s not communism,” he said, “it’s family. It’s love.” That case, too, had kindled in me something softer than I preferred to feel. And let’s not even get into the asylum cases. There is no such thing as a non-doozy asylum case.
Yes, immigration reform is a contentious issue, but it is more than that. The stakes are much higher than what any politician or attorney could fathom. No matter where one stands on the matter, no one should forget that immigration reform is personal. Very personal. If you are anti-immigration, I understand; oh hell I definitely understand. But know fully, thoroughly, what it is exactly you are against.