A Heart-Ache of a Process: Immigration in the United States

The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who has been forced to leave their country because they are facing persecution or some form of targeted violence. Typically, refugees do not live with the general public of their new country. Most live in refugee camps, as my family did. We lived in a refugee camp for nearly a decade before finally being granted visas to immigrate to the United States. 

The immigration process is the embodiment of burdensome bureaucracy. It is a process that actively ignores the cries of people who are on the verge of life and death situations. It takes courage, persistence, patience, and a stroke of luck to even be in contention for a visa. The entire process is flawed. The problems are dangerously copious and they impede the pursuit of life, liberty, and property for many refugees, potential immigrants, and immigrants currently living in the United States.

Could You Ever Take That Mile Walk?

To understand why immigrants seek to leave their own countries, we must first look at the context of their country of origin. It may be difficult for anyone to truly understand why my family left our beloved country to live in a refugee camp for nearly a decade. It should never take decades to receive a visa to go to the US when we were forced to live in perpetual fear under a government that gazed elsewhere when we sought help. For my parents, escaping an imminent danger of a civil war in the 1990s in the Democratic Republic of Congo only to find refuge in the poverty-ridden country of Mozambique may seem nonsensical, but when you are seeking aid your options are extremely limited. 

Many refugees like myself have experienced the nightmares of anxiously waiting for a month’s rationing of food from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ assistance program that may never arrive due to the corrupt local government that ransacks the distributing trucks and hoards all food and supplies only to sell them at rates that no refugee can afford to pay. Many could never truly understand that unless they too have lived it, so instead of explaining it, I just say that our family came to America for a better life. After all, who doesn’t love a good story of an African wanting to make it big in the US and to attain the elusive myth that is the American Dream? 

Comparative Immigration Policies of Past Presidents

Before the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, there was not a comprehensive definition of a refugee in U.S. law. There was an annual average of 200,000 refugees entering the United States throughout the 1970s, a decade that had an influx of immigration from Vietnam to the United States. And the fall of Saigon in 1975 led to the U.S.-sponsored evacuation of an estimated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees who are known as the boat people. In response to such unprecedented events, Congress passed legislation that amended the previous Refugee Act and defined a refugee as “any person who is outside his or her country of residence or nationality, or without nationality, and is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” 

In 1982, after establishing who qualifies for refugee status, only 98,096 refugees were accepted. The trend of refugees arriving in the U.S. would slightly rise again under President George H.W. Bush’s administration, where it peaked at 125,548 in 1992. Unfortunately, there was a significant decrease in 2002 with the numbers plummeting to just 26,785. This was the result of increased travel restrictions following the devastating terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. 

After the attacks, the country saw a spike in xenophobia that renewed preexisting racial profiling, especially for those of Arabic descent and Muslims in the country. There was an estimated 500% spike in hate crimes directed toward Muslims in the years following 9/11. Under the Obama administration, we saw a greater acceptance of refugees, which then came in sharp contrast with the Trump administration, which openly spurred anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican attitudes and policies, as well as overall disdain towards immigrants. A case in point is the executive order that was taken to the Supreme Court after backlash for barring immigration from several Muslim-majority countries. 

Months ago, we saw a strategic failure befall under the Biden administration as they pulled troops out of Afghanistan, leaving the nation in the hands of the Taliban after 20 years of war and bloodshed. After the departure from Kabul, the total number of people who have entered the United States after leaving Afghanistan through Aug. 31st is 31,107 — a number that will only grow with time considering the positive stance on immigration that the Biden Administration has taken in comparison to the previous administration.

The 2019 census report reveals that the United States has a population of more than 330 million people. Of those millions of people, 280 million are born in the US, 22 million are citizens through naturalization, and an additional 22 million are not citizens or are in the process of becoming citizens of the United States. Our Bluegrass state has an overall population of 4.5 million, with 4.2 million being born in the US, 70,000 naturalized, and 100,000 not yet citizens. Jefferson County, Kentucky’s most populated county, has 700,000 US-born citizens, 27,000 naturalized citizens, and 33,000 who are not yet citizens. 

Despite making up such a large and important part of the U.S., immigrants fall short in many categories of societal development, such as higher education and affordable housing. These deficiencies lead to high rates of homelessness and ultimately an even greater exacerbation of the poverty crisis in the U.S.

Is the American Dream Attainable for Immigrants Today?

Most immigrant families share similar goals that they hope for their children to have the opportunity to pursue. The goal is simply to create a better life than your parents fought for you to have. This is obtained by going to school, getting exceptional grades, attending a university, and getting a diploma, most commonly in either engineering, medicine, or law school. These are the common pathways that immigrant parents want their children to take when they grow up. With arduous work and a touch of fortune, they may just strike a gold mine and create generational wealth for their entire family. 

Sadly, this goal is far out of reach for many. In 2018, 49.2% of immigrants’ level of education was a high school diploma or less, 18.8% had either an associate degree or had some type of college experience, and an astounding 32% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In addition to that, most first-generation, soon-to-be college students that have undocumented family members do not file for the Free Application for Federal Assistance because they understand the risk posed when revealing the names of undocumented family members: the Department of Education could pass that information to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and/or the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services who could then take irreversible actions such as deporting those who do file the form. 

How can immigrants expect success in this country when they receive little to no meaningful government assistance? Due to the failure of the federal government to pass legislative measures that adequately create social programs that help immigrants succeed – outside of throwing cash at us in hopes that those monies land in the right place by some luck – immigrant youths age 16-24 are more likely to drop out of school with a dropout rate of 29.1 percent. This is nearly three times the rate of the 9.9 percent of native-born youths because the lack of assistance forces them to enter the workforce to aid their families financially. 

With the overwhelming evidence pointing to government failure in its current trajectory, it is not a bad idea for the government to create active social programs that do not rely on the traditional system of simply handing out cash. Significant and practical solutions that could be produced involve the establishment of a new and improved curriculum that can assist English learners instead of relying on a flawed system that has not worked well enough. Having an educational system that is propitious to immigrants will encourage better results, hiring teachers that have an ethnic background that could help foreign students to become comfortable and active in schools, and providing government support for immigrant housing.  

Throwing money at the problem instead of addressing the issue does not and has not worked in favor of many countries, as Efosa Ojomo, a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute, points out: “At best, cash transfer programs are akin to using Band-Aids on a wound with a serious infection . . . why not learn from countries that were once poor and are now prosperous? Singapore, South Korea, and China didn’t lift over a billion people out of poverty by handing out cash.” The U.S. used this method to bring the nation out of poverty during the Great Depression by passing the New Deal which created many infrastructure projects that demanded a high concentration of workers, which in effect fixed the economy. The Roosevelt administration did not print more money to be distributed to the masses because it would not have worked. Instead, they devised programs that have had a lasting impact on the country to this day. The same formula can be applied to address the issue of the poor education system that greatly affects immigrants in the U.S. To provide nothing more than just cash handouts to immigrants who want to set their families up for success would be nothing short of a failure and could significantly affect the U.S. economy even more. 

The Importance of Active Assistance

Immigrant families that arrive in a distant country require assistance –there’s no doubt about that. Without it, they’re on the verge of becoming yet another heartbreaking tale of a shattered dream. Thankfully, there are private organizations that act as agents/caseworkers for immigrants by providing necessities when they arrive in the U.S. For example, my family and I had the help of the Catholic Charities of Louisville in our first couple of years here by providing services that were crucial for us to understand how to survive in the U.S. This included donating clothes to us, providing basic house appliances, teaching us American customs, and tutoring us to learn English. And this organization has done this for thousands of other immigrant families in Louisville as well. Unfortunately, these resources aren’t available to all refugees and immigrants. If the U.S. government could implement similar social programs to its system, we could see better results than what we have today. 

In Pursuit of Happiness

The poem on our Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door” by Emma Lazarus is self-evident in American history. Strength in unity and diversity: that is the core definition of the land of the free. America is a proud nation of immigrants, and depriving them of life, liberty, and happiness due to a flawed system would imply a betrayal of the United States of America’s founding principles.

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