This column was originally published in the Grand Rapids Business Journal on July 1, 2016 and is republished with permission.
People say there ought to be “a law” that changes the way that we address immigration. Or maybe just “a wall.”
Every time I hear that, I remember telling my parents to lower their voices.
It was one of my first parent-teacher events at Forest Hills Eastern High School in Grand Rapids. I knew that if someone overheard us speaking Hungarian, I would have to spend the rest of the night telling my high school teachers where we were from.
That’s how it always went. We would go to the grocery store, the mall or my favorite restaurant, and the first question my parents would be asked is, “Where is your accent from?”
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of these individuals were genuinely interested in my parents’ backgrounds. To a then-high school student, though, these conversations served as a constant reminder that my family and I were different.
I remember watching my parents study for their citizenship tests. They were given a book of important dates in American history and details about how the government functions. To me, this was the basic information we learned in civics class. To my parents, it was the ticket to their new lives in the United States.
I remember the stories. My parents immigrated to Canada and were granted political asylum from their home country of Romania. They brought two suitcases and had $200 in their pockets. Neither spoke a word of English.
My mom and dad accepted jobs where they could, from painting walls of homes to cleaning windows of skyscrapers. Through these jobs, they carried the hope that they would one day achieve the American dream.
They wanted to raise their family in a place that would accept them, and they wanted to be voices in a political system that would not invade their private lives. They wanted freedom to start their careers in an economy that supported their professional growth.
Immigration — so very important to my family — is a controversial topic. Between Syrian refugees seeking asylum in European countries and political parties promising foreign policies that seek to keep people out rather than welcome them in, we have different views of what the immigration process truly could be.
Perhaps I was part of the problem. In focusing on wanting to blend in, I forgot to appreciate the beauty of the differences.
“Humans of New York,” a movement by New York photographer Brandon Stanton, highlights these differences through stories of refugees who have resettled in America. The stories, at www.humansofnewyork.com, outline the backgrounds of individuals — ranging from those in conflict-ridden countries where people experienced guns held to their heads to those in places where people felt so alone that suicide seemed like the only viable option.
One story stands out. There was a man named Refaai living in Turkey who had a dream of becoming a scientist who would make a “lasting contribution to humanity.” To finance his education, he worked in construction at night and was made a construction site manager when he was just a teenager. Every cent he made went toward books. He graduated at the top of his class in college and was given a scholarship to pursue his Ph.D.
Then a missile struck Refaai’s home. Because he was away, his 14-year-old son carried his wife and daughter out of the home. The wife passed away. For years, Refaai remained in Turkey with his daughter and his son, dreaming of coming to America, but living instead in a broken home with memories of a missile that changed their lives.
Refaai now has cancer. It’s a cancer that has a relatively simple treatment here in America. He also has hopes of patenting several of his inventions when he comes to America. The inventions include a plane that can fly 48 hours without fuel and a device that predicts earthquakes weeks before they happen.
The good news is that, after a lengthy wait, Refaai and his family recently were relocated to Troy.
Refaai’s story is not unlike others. Talented business, medical, engineering, scientific and legal professionals come from all over the world. They offer valuable perspectives from their backgrounds, family histories and education. They cultivate innovation and advances in technology. They better the business world.
Still, immigration for permanent workers in the United States is far from straightforward and timely. Individuals seeking visas for “immediate” employment-based immigration must fall into categories such as “extraordinary ability,” where a one-time achievement like a Pulitzer Prize may be part of the criteria for acceptance; or the “multinational manager or executive” category, where the individual must have worked for a subsidiary of a U.S. company for at least one of the past three years and will continue to work for that company in the United States.
Visa applications then face a high level of scrutiny by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officers. Even with proper and timely responses to USCIS requests for evidence, approval is far from guaranteed.
In a time when industries are seeing astounding development and technological advances, the immigration system could reflect these developments rather than inhibit them. By breaking down some of the barriers to immigration, we allow for stories like that of Refaai to become reality, and we aid in creating a new chapter for individuals whose lives have seen tremendous personal, professional and political challenges.
As for my parents?
They escaped a suffocating political regime to pursue careers in engineering and dentistry as United States citizens. Today my dad is a business owner.
Instead of being ashamed of my background, I am now the first to bring up the fact that I am the child of Hungarian immigrants — immigrants who have created successful lives for themselves and are contributing to their American society.
As USCIS officers read through thousands of petitions to fill the limited number of employment-based immigration spots, maybe they will stumble upon your mother’s application, or your cousin’s. And in seeing their qualifications, maybe there could be a notification of “approval” rather than “rejection.” There ought to be a law …