My name is Ross Lester, I am an Elder and Pastor at the Austin Stone Community Church, and I am an immigrant to the United States of America. I love living here and acknowledge the extreme privilege that it is to get to do so. My current technical immigration designation is that I am a “resident alien” on “advanced parole”, and yes, those are the real terms. They speak, in some way, of how immigrants are viewed within and indeed often treated by the system they are trying to navigate.
I moved my family from South Africa nearly two years ago, and while it has been one of the greatest and most rewarding adventures of our lives, it has also been the most difficult thing we have ever done, by far. What I have realized is that when immigration is discussed with most of our American friends, very few of them have any idea of how arduous the process is. For instance, when we have spoken of missing family back in South Africa, friends have looked bemused and asked, “Well, why don’t you just move them all across here?” It just isn’t that simple, and I am not proposing that it ought to be.
At the onset I’d like to clarify a few things:
This post will have very little to do with proposed policy, or the straw man “open border” counter arguments that are often so quickly espoused in order to shut down conversation on the topic.
- This post is about the experience of one immigrant family, the perhaps surprising experience of a societally and socio-economically privileged, white, culturally Western, English speaking, suburban family with tons of support who have been navigating the system of immigration with some difficulty.All of those descriptions of my family matter, because I feel that all of those descriptions have made our experience significantly easier for us than it is for most immigrants, and yet it has still been difficult.
Again, the purpose of this post is not to propose that it ought to be easier, but rather to build some empathy for those who experience its difficulties. Immigration is an adventure to be sure, one that is exciting and opens up new opportunities, indeed, but it is difficult, expensive, terrifying, complex and confusing. I have no idea how we would have overcome many of these obstacles without the immense support that we have had. We have an incredible church community, I have a brilliant employer, we have wonderful friends, and we have family in the US who have helped us no end. Immigrants who have managed to do it without those support structures must be some of the bravest and most resilient people in our society, and should be celebrated as such.
Why would I say that?
1. Immigration is terrifying.
You leave everything that you know behind. Everything you encounter in your new land is, well, new, and different to what you are used to, and so you feel like every experience from grocery shopping, to driving, to getting insurance, to finding schools for your kids is one where you are a student who has missed years of curriculum. You really do feel like an idiot abroad, realizing that you don’t share the assumptions of any of societies collective mores.
In addition, you are constantly reminded of your tenuous immigrant status. My family had been in the US for three weeks when I had my first encounter with law enforcement. It was a routine traffic stop brought on by my temporary license plates and probably due to the fact that I was still driving with the uncertainty of a person who spent 22 years driving (rather successfully) on the left side of the road. The officer pulled me over right outside my son’s new school, and while he was friendly at first, that quickly changed when he discovered that I wasn’t American. I was hauled out of the car in front of hundreds of arriving parents and grilled on my immigrant status with my hands on the hood as my son’s classmates walked past. When the officer asked to see proof of my permission to be in the United States, I didn’t have any on me as who would think to do a school run with their passport on them (I had my foreign driver’s license which you are permitted to use for 90 days), and I realized how vulnerable I was. Even though this experience was difficult, frustrating and humiliating, I do realize that it still probably went smoother for me than it could have gone had I not been an English speaking, white skinned, suburban pastor. Immigrants live with the tenuous nature of their stay in the US always before them. I realized that day that while I may be legally a resident, I am definitely an alien.
2. Immigration is expensive.
It has cost our family tens of thousands of dollars and it has cost our employer significantly more. The system is designed to be punitively expensive, which seems to serve as a deterrent for those of limited means. The espoused narrative of all immigrants being previously poor people coming to the US to leech off of a system of prosperity is false. Anyone who legally immigrates to the US has done so at significant cost. Just last week we were told to go and get physical assessments from state provided physicians in order to process the next steps of our permanent residence application. The bill for that visit was $2100, and you cannot proceed without it. That is just a small example of the costs that have racked up.
Then there are the “soft” costs that you don’t predict. Insurance is more than double for new immigrants, renting requires significant down payments if you have no local references, and banks won’t give you any lines of credit in spite of years of excellent credit history abroad. My wife and I had to get my parents to co-sign a purchasing agreement for her car as I have no credit history in the USA, even though I have more than two decades of faithful credit management. Our privileged position opened up a line of credit for us. I don’t know how we would have done it otherwise. I will never forget the confused look on the face of the bank manager who was trying to help us. He said, “It shouldn’t be this way. Our system treats you like you are a suspicious 16-year old.” Knowing myself, that assessment actually seems partially fair, albeit very difficult to overcome when you actually want to buy anything.
3. Immigration is complex and confusing.
The goal posts and requirements move with new administrations as immigration is a political football punted around at the expense of the people trying to navigate it in accordance with the law. The language seems designed to obscure and confuse and so the difficulty navigating the system must be immense if you don’t speak English as a first language. Our wonderful (and very expensive) immigration attorneys have said to us on a couple of occasions, “Look, I have no idea what they are actually asking of us right now.” If they don’t know, then how on earth are we supposed to know? And if we didn’t have wonderful employers who helped us to secure that representation in the first place, well then I don’t know where we would be. Not only are there many hoops to jump through, but the hoops are constantly moving, and they’re on fire. It isn’t dull, and it isn’t easy.
I am a thankful immigrant. I am a resident alien on advanced parole doing my best to comply with the system. I love being a resident, but I do feel completely alien, and I am deeply aware of the insecurity of my parole. I love our adopted nation and the life we are living here and we are committed to being useful and productive citizens of this fine land if it will have us as such. But, all of that comes at a cost, a cost that we count every day. For us, in our position of privilege, it is a cost that has been shared by a community as we couldn’t have carried it alone, and the posture of my heart for anyone who has is one of empathy, admiration, respect and thankfulness.
Ross Lester is the Congregation Pastor for the West Congregation of The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, TX. He is married to Susan and they have two children.