From my kitchen window I look into the dining room of my neighbor and friend Sullay. Born and raised in Columbia, she initially came to the U.S. to study English. Returning to Columbia, and a romance that had come undone, she wanted to come back to the U.S.
“I moved here to change my life,” she told me, glossing over the fact that in leaving her dental practice, she would not be able to practice in the US without going through dental school all over again, an unaffordable dream. “My family was so sad,” she said, “and worried, but they respected my decision and gave me their blessings.”
“Coming back to the US,” Sullay said, “I knew I would soon be illegal, but I wanted to do the right thing, to work and pay taxes. I applied for a work visa, using my life savings of $10,000 for an attorney. My case was denied. Many people told me about different illegal things I could do – fake this, fake that – or marry for papers, but I always had it in my head and my heart that this is not me. That I would find an opportunity to do everything correctly and become legal.”
Immigration is a divisive and seemingly unsolvable issue in the US right now. In the media, at legislative sessions, across dining room tables, the talk is about immigrants and borders. It is about jobs and health care, housing and whether schools should accommodate speakers of foreign languages. It’s about who should or should not be let in, and what should be done about the many, many Sullays who are already here.
What gets left out of the mix is the individual, what this country means to those fighting to get in or desperate to stay. This is by no means a stump speech. Immigration reform is a complex nightmare. But talk to one new citizen or would-be citizen, and whatever your perspective is, you’ll get a refresher course on what being a citizen of this country means to those whose birthright it is not. You’ll get closer to the human side of this national dilemma in the same way that Anne Frank’s Diary made the holocaust so personal for millions around the world.
Sullay’s been luckier than many. Just a few weeks ago, she and 133 other new Americans from 46 countries swore their loyalty to the US before a judge who told them of the problems his own poor family had when they immigrated, of the pride they took in him, the family’s first attorney.
“I cried,” Sullay said. “For him, for my happiness, for the changed lives of all the people in the room.”
After her swearing in, friends of all stripes and languages filled Sullay’s apartment. Red, white and blue balloons floated above an all-American dinner buffet of Chinese food! The cake, of course, featured a flag, as did the living room wall.
“How do you feel about all this excitement?” I asked Sullay’s husband Francis as their daughter waved yet another flag with enough oomph to take someone’s eye out. “I am so proud of her,” he said, “but then again I’ve been proud of her since the minute I met her.”
As for Sullay: “Now I feel free,” she said, “more a part of this great country. It was a big decision,” she said, “but the greatest decision of my life.”