Main Street Transformation & Immigration Tales

Main Street lThere’s no question that Main Street is rapidly transforming. In 2000, immigrants made up 11.1% of the total U.S. population. By 2050, one in five people in the U.S. will have been born outside the country, up from 1 in 8 in 2005.

It is predicted that in 2060, ‘White/Non-Hispanics’ will be 43% of the U.S. population.

Jennifer (NE):  My family is Main Street.

“We’re diverse. My husband was born in Guatemala, speaks Spanish, and is now a U.S. citizen. We have 2 girls and 5 boys — we live in the heart of this country. We are Main Street.”

Jennifer, one of the Mainstreet Women I interviewed for the book I’m writing, is spot on. Her family embodies U.S. Main Street transformation. Her children will be in the American majority in their adulthood.

Jennifer’s Main Street family is the modern U.S. immigration system tale too. She married Juan Carlos in 1995 and 10 years later, he gained U.S. citizen.

Immigration System Change in the Wind (Again)

The Mainstreet Women I interviewed, like Jennifer, experienced the immigration system by following existing laws and processes – something that gets less airtime — and found it to be a dehumanizing experience.

Polls show that the majority of Americans want immigration reform, including ways for people already in the country to move toward citizenship. Today, 11 million people live within our nation’s borders without legal documentation or authorization. Young undocumented immigrants 2012

Immigration discussion and action often focused on “illegal” immigrants:  40% of immigrants to the U.S. entered on temporary visas (students, tourists, business, agriculture) and then stayed on without authorization,  another 40% crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

This week, change is in the wind as a bipartisan group of Senators announced their blueprint for immigration system reform, and the President used his bully pulpit to discuss immigration too. Addressing the undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. is understandably a key issue.

I talked with Jennifer this morning to get her take on the immigration system news. She can laugh now about the “horrific experience,” the uncertainty, the waiting, the payment after payment at each stage of the process, and the “cold and intimidating” treatment over the 10 year period it took for her husband to obtain U.S. citizenship. She has mixed feelings, however, about what she’s heard this week.

I share the mixed feelings but of one thing I’m certain:  lifting out Main Street voices is critical as we consider, and weigh in about, our leaders’ proposals for changing our immigration system.

Cyndi (NE):  We were nothing, just a paper in a box.

“My husband is Canadian and it was so hard, financially hard, and the process was so hard to get his legal status. In my husband’s situation and getting his immigration status, it all seemed to be about money – every form also required more money to be paid, no one we dealt with seemed to care what we were going through.

When we went through the process, we drove to Omaha three hours away and walked into a building with heavy security, had our bags checked, and then were told ‘your application goes in this box.’ Then we sat and waited, and waited, and waited. Inbox

We chatted with the security guard. Others who came after us got called in. Then, an official came out and said we were late for our appointment so go home and start all over. We were an hour early! He said ‘go home and reapply.’

I said I am not going home – get someone else out here. The guard came over and vouched for us, how we’d been waiting so long. We were nothing, just a paper in a box.”

Raina (OH):  Loss of Professional Identity

“I used to love to work and when I came to the U.S. that loss of professional identity was very hard. I can’t work so I feel stifled since I’m married and came here on a dependent’s visa. I find there’s a whole subculture of women who worked before and are talented but can’t work in the U.S.  It is very frustrating and makes it hard to transition.”

Jennifer: 10 Years, Horrific Experience

U.S. Citizenship & Naturalization Ceremony“There we were, Juan Carlos, my parents who served as his sponsors, and our son. We entered the immigration office and found the shades over bank teller-like windows drawn. No one was there, no one welcomed us. We had to slip our paperwork under the window and a hand pulled in the paper — no one said anything, it was a little mouse was back there. Then we sat with everyone else in classroom desks, waiting to be interviewed. In the room, dead silence. It was such an awful experience.”

The day Jennifer will never forget, Juan Carlos’ citizenship ceremony, she and her family were greeted by smiling immigration officials waiting to give her kids cookies, “after 10 years and everything we’d been through, now they’re giving us cookies?”

Canada v. U.S. ImmigrationCanada Flag

We have a lot in common with Canada – a fairly high standard of living, rule of law, relative safety.  To determine whom it should let in to live and work, Canada uses a point system. You don’t even need a job or employer, just skills. Applicants are awarded points for proficiency in education, languages and job experience.

A stark difference, in Canada almost two-thirds of permanent visas last year were given for economic needs – Canada’s economic needs. The country brings in foreigners to fill labor holes. Only 22% of its immigration was for family reasons: reuniting mothers with children, brothers with sisters, grandparents with grandchildren.

In the U.S., the opposite is true. Only 13% of green cards last year were granted out for economic reasons, while two-thirds were for family reunions.

What do YOU Want to See in Immigration Reform?

There’s no doubt that as Main Street transformation occurs, our immigration system must be dramatically transformed too. As Senator Diane Feinstein has been saying about gun violence, it will take Main Street Rising to move Congress toward actions we want to see taken.

I’d love to hear your thoughts:  What would the imperfect but infinitely better immigration system for America look like?

Want to test your U.S. Immigration IQ? The PBS Newshour gives us 13 great questions:  http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/newamericans/quiz.html

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