The Forgotten Side of the Immigration Debate

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

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Jewish in Guanajuato

This post originally appeared in The Forward on February 4th, 2013.

I recently spent several weeks studying Spanish in Guanajuato. It’s an important historical city in central Mexico, where influential mines once stood and where the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence took place. Guanajuato is also a predominately Catholic city; my host family had large paintings of Catholic saints, ornate crosses and other Christian décor in every room of the house. Outside, every restaurant I ate in and every bus I rode bore prominent symbols of the faith.

In many ways, this city was like nothing I had ever experienced before. At the same time, it felt surprisingly familiar.

I have great Christian friends in the U.S., and I have been invited to decorate their Christmas trees and join their families on Easter egg hunts. But being in Guanajuato was different. The feeling of faith and religion in this community was far more intense and palpable. In my short time there, we celebrated two Catholic holidays I’d never heard of before: Los Dias de Los Reyes and Levantar Al Niño Dios. The first, which falls every year on Jan. 6, commemorates the arrival in Bethlehem of the three Wise Men, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, who followed the Star of Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus. The second holiday, which can be celebrated any time between Jan. 6 and Feb. 2, marks the day the baby Jesus was presented in the temple by his parents and formally ends the Christmas season.

Despite feeling like the only Jew in town, I experienced no exclusion or anti-Semitism. Instead, I was offered a special opportunity; in Guanajuato, I found I was able to be openly Jewish, and to grow Jewishly, while still immersing myself in a new culture and religion very different from my own.

One night during my trip, I took a taxi home and my driver asked, “¿a dónde vas?” (Where are you going?) I told him my address. His next question was, “¿Es usted católico?” (Are you Catholic?) “No, yo soy judío.” I replied. He looked momentarily puzzled, processing my Jewish identity, and then the moment passed.

This experience, while initially unsettling, ultimately made me feel a strange sense of understanding. How many of us have been in Israel and had an Israeli say to us in the very first moments of meeting, “Are you Jewish? Are you going to make aliyah?” The people of Israel and the people of Guanajuato share this fierce sense of pride about who they are and where they live, and they also look to share that feeling with others.

What’s even more interesting is that Guanajuato reminds me of Jerusalem, another city carrying the responsibility of history and tradition while also facing the financial challenges and tough choices of modernization. Aesthetically, they even look similar. Guanajuato is reminiscent of a rainbow Jerusalem with its architecture, its valleys, its mountains and its past.

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Guanajuato, Mexico. (photo: Rachel Cohen)

During one weekend of my trip, I traveled to Mexico City and was startled by how high-tech, hip and cool the city felt. It was worlds apart from the historical tranquility of Guanajuato. Again, I couldn’t help but draw connections to Israel, with Tel Aviv’s modernity creating stark contrasts to Jerusalem’s more serious milieu.

I’m humbled by the chance to travel to all of these places and to visit incredibly holy sites for both Catholics and Jews. I know travel is a privilege. The wall of my hostel in Mexico City said, “Traveling is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” The warmth and hospitality I received was invaluable, and I also feel grateful that being Jewish and having a relationship with Israel only deepened my connection to and understanding of the city of Guanajuato.

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Jerusalem, Israel. (photo: Rachel Cohen)