The Forgotten Side of the Immigration Debate

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 8th, 2013.

Recently, I returned home from a three-week stay in Guanajuato, Mexico. I lived with a gracious Mexican family, took Spanish classes and had the chance to immerse myself in Mexican culture. Mexican society was beautiful and vibrant — full of ideas, art and religion. Needless to say, the crude stereotypes of drug cartels and kidnappings were hardly relevant or applicable to my experience, or the experience of anyone I met.

As my trip wound down, I said to my host parents, “Por favor, vengan a visitar a mi familia en los Estados Unidos!” I wanted them to come see my house and meet my family in Pennsylvania. They smiled sadly and told me that would not be likely, because of the difficult hurdles and high costs of obtaining tourist visas.

They are right, of course. While it is not impossible, it is much harder for Mexicans than for, say, Canadians and Europeans to travel to the United States — because Mexico is not part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. This program allows individuals to travel without a visa to the United States for stays of 90 days or less.

Indeed, I also did not need to apply for a visa to travel to Mexico for my visit. But for most countries in the world, and for not-unfounded reasons, potential visitors need to go through various steps in an often arduous process. They must do an interview at a consulate office abroad; they need to file paperwork that shows they have significant ties that keep them at home; and they need to show proof that they are not likely to become a burden on the public system if they travel to the U.S. In essence, if you are not part of the Visa Waiver Program, the burden of proof is on you.

“It’s kind of a crap shoot [for Mexicans], it takes a long time, and it’s expensive,” said Eleanor Sohnen, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Whether or not they are ultimately granted a visa, prospective visitors must still pay the nonrefundable $160 application fee, or about 2,037 pesos. “They are often declared ineligible, so they may be dissuaded from even trying at all,” Ms. Sohnen said.

Just how difficult it is for applicants from Mexico (or any other country) to visit the United States is challenging to address, because the State Department does not publish the number of applications it receives for non-immigrant visas, only the number of visas ultimately issued. Thus there is no clear number available to the public of how many applicants were denied.

Back home in the U.S., I now find “comprehensive immigration reform” splashed across the front pages of the major newspapers. They are full of discussions about tighter border controls, crackdowns on employers, paths to citizenship, bipartisan consensus, the DREAM Act, the Latino vote and changing demographics. I read all of it closely to try and understand exactly if and how my host family would be affected by these proposed changes.

It seems to me that the conversation is leaving out those individuals from Mexico who are not looking to come to the United States to work, to study or to live. To the extent that they are included in the national discussion, it’s merely to point out symptoms of a problem we need to address with those who overstay their visas. With all the talk of enhanced security on the borders, I can’t help but remember how easily I was able to cross their border to explore and to learn. I remember how American music frequently blasts on their radios and how my host mom’s favorite television shows were “Bones” and “NCIS” (translated into Spanish). American culture is alive and present in Mexico, but the vast majority of Mexicans that could theoretically visit America will likely never have that chance.

I would think that with our country’s economic woes, there must be something we can do to address our fundamental immigration problems while still encouraging tourism from Mexican citizens. The system as it stands now discourages it.

To be sure, many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country entered legally and then overstayed their visas. I recognize this is an enormous and expensive problem. But I find it hard to believe that the only way we can sufficiently limit the number of undocumented workers in the United States is by making it extremely hard for most Mexicans to visit. We certainly have the minds and ingenuity to create a system that ensures those who travel on tourist visas return to their host country, and that eases the process of applying for and obtaining tourist visas.

I am not suggesting Mexico be added now to the Visa Waiver Program but that we do look more closely at the hurdles to travel that many well-intentioned Mexicans face. Include them in the national immigration reform discussion. The increased tourism would economically benefit our country, as would affording others the same freedoms to travel that we so often take for granted.

I’d like to one day welcome into my home my host parents — two hard-working individuals who have no desire to move to America.

My trip to Canada

I just recently returned home from a trip to Canada where I visited Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal with the hopes of understanding more what the dynamics are in Canadian culture and politics–specifically relating to Canadian patriotism. I got to go, funded by Johns Hopkins, thanks to a fellowship I was awarded as an incoming freshman.

I learned a lot of interesting things. I remarked to a Canadian that I feel so ignorant that I had never known any of these things before about their country. He replied that frankly that sentiment is very common. He said Canadians view themselves through the metaphor of ‘an elephant and a mouse sleeping together in the same bed’ where the elephant never really pays any attention to the mouse, but the mouse is aware of the elephant’s every move.

Canadian patriotism is very interesting because it turns out it’s quite difficult to define what it means to be a Canadian. I asked everyone that I talked to what, in their minds, is a common ideal or symbol that Canadians unite over. Time and time again they sheepishly smiled and said, “That we’re not American.”  

I learned of this constant identity struggle Canadians have, where they want a distinct culture and identity, but the flood of American influence can’t be denied. Canada is a very big country with a relatively small population, and at least 90% of Canadians live within 200 miles of the border of America. American music blasts in their clubs, American businesses are established in their cities, and even American politics are often found on their front pages and news stations. Even if one makes the choice to watch Canadian TV, such as CBC, CTV, Global or Canadian specialty channels, American content will be well represented on those too. The book stores are filled with American magazines and authors. Fast food like Burger King, Pizza Pizza, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC,  Starbucks, Quiznos, McDonalds and Wendy’s can all be found in Canada.

McDonalds in Toronto

It was common to see American flags flying next to Canadian flags. This is in Montreal

Canadians try and combat this issue with a variety of legislation meant to help Canadian businesses and artists and the like. It’s just often hard to compete with the power of big American chains like Costco, Sears etc. Target is expected to open 135 stores in Canada beginning in 2013 which retailers are really worried about.

While this is a problem throughout the entire country, the quest to distinguish itself from America seems even greater in Quebec, where the preservation of a french culture remains a constant struggle. The famous ‘Bill 101’ requires that signs in Quebec have to be listed in French, and if there is English on the sign French has to come first and dominate the sign. It also says that for companies that hire 50 or more employees, they are required to show that French is the primary language in the workplace in order to receive government contracts or funding. In some cases, with American chains, they might try to add a French word somewhere in the sign since they are not legally allowed to change the name of the industry.

Here's an example of an attempt to insert French culture to an American chain

I learned that there used to be a strong separatist movement that wanted Quebec to break off from the rest of Canada and form its own country. While there are still some separatist, super-nationalist Francophones who dream of a separate Quebec living there today, I gathered that the movement has generally died down in the past couple decades, and younger Canadians living in Quebec seem to recognize the global advantage to mastering English, as well as living in their beloved French culture.

So a big thing I must touch on in this post is ‘multiculturalism.’ This is a huge aspect of Canadian identity. Because Canada is made up of French peoples, British peoples, and First-Nations [what we’d call Native Americans], Canadians like to say they are a ‘mosaic’ rather than the American ‘melting pot.’ I met some people on my trip who definitely felt that this metaphor was true, and that Canada does a much better job than the US in helping people maintain different cultures and identities. The flip side is, I met a fair number of Canadians who told me that the metaphor is bullshit, and Canada hides behind these narratives that they are “peacekeepers” and “tolerant” when in fact their minorities suffer from prejudice and discrimination too.  I’m not totally sure what I believe, but I will say I felt Canadians too often tried to say that while there are many diverse cultures in Canada, Americans are simply one blended American culture. I find this inaccurate, there are pockets of  ethnic culture throughout the country. From the Chinatowns, to the Little Italy’s, to the Jewish communities, to the Christian towns, to the Irish villages to the Latino areas. There was definitely some oversimplification of what “Americans” are like.

With regards to multiculturalism and patriotism, so much of how Canadians view and understand themselves is based on what province they’re from. [There are ten provinces and three territories.]  In Canada, I met people who would tell me how while multiculturalism was revered in some provinces, Quebec for example has a lot of bad feelings towards Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada who enacted the multicultural legislation. [The Quebecers felt that in order to elevate other cultures and identities to an equal playing field in Canada, their French culture suffered a loss of status and prestige that they had been very proud of.]

This is pretty similar to how the American South often has very different historical understandings of what happened in the Civil War and antebellum period. Some people will celebrate Stonewall Jackson Day instead of MLK day, or refer to the Civil War as “The war of Northern Aggression” or venerate Confederate soldiers that are immortalized in statues in parks.

It’s interesting to think about what a national narrative can mask.

I'm a real Canadian now!