Our world labors under the common misconception that all immigration stories are alike. Often, the story we tell depicts immigrants as a burden on our nation. We think of them as a drain on our resources, a nuisance to be expelled and minimized. This is an inaccurate picture. The facts are clear: immigrants serve as a catalyst to our economic prowess, not as a hindrance.
To bridge the gap of cognitive bias, or the worldview that we form based purely on what we have seen and known, we must seek to understand. We must seek to understand the triumphs, struggles, worldviews, and everyday lives of people who have undertaken the immigrant’s journey.. In doing so, we are creating an opportunity to create connections and develop a sense that humans across the world are far more alike than we are different.
Coming to America
The reasons why immigrants come to America are complex and multi-layered, but it can be more simply classified into two categories: push and pull factors. Push factors are those facets of life in their home country that are “pushing” individuals and families out: stagnant economies, lack of upward mobility, declining job markets, and( in some cases) war or violence.
Their choice of where to migrate stems from that country’s availability of pull factors, or aspects of the destination country that are “pulling” immigrants there. These would include solutions to the push factors they are trying to escape, such as stable and booming economies, merit-based economic classes, opportunities for career development, or quite simply the chance to continue working free from the fear of armed insurrection. . No matter the reason for it, the decision to migrate is never an easy one.
Maria Tenessita, from Mindanao, Philippines recently spoke to us about her choice to come to America. Though she’d already found success in her home country, she made the choice to migrate to Minneapolis, MN in order to expand her horizons and share her expertise with others in her field.
“Coming to the United States has been a blessing. In a way, you know you're going to have better prospects here, yet leaving behind your extended family and the life you know for years is also tough. My family and I came [to] the U.S. because of work, and I agree that opportunities abound here, as people say.
We left behind our parents, siblings and relatives. It [makes me feel] nostalgic, but you know it's a necessary change.”
Starting from Scratch
Moving to another country can leave someone shocked by the differences in culture. Compound that with language barriers, a lack of easily accessible familial resources, and learning the ropes at a new job, and you’ve got the recipe for a high anxiety situation.
Though migration can lead to better prospects for immigrants and for our nation, the former face the added difficulty of leaving behind important parts of their life. Oftentimes, whole families are not able to migrate at the same time. This is especially common when a skilled immigrant is travelling for work and wants to get a new home established before bringing over a spouse or children. Once things have stabilized, the rest of the family comes to America, but the time in between can be difficult and lonely.
Also being left behind are community, connections, culture, and a sense of belonging. Tenessita reflected on this feeling: “I would say that leaving your home and saying goodbye to parents and siblings has been the most difficult. I miss the routine and the kids, my nieces and nephews.”
After landing in a foreign country, the feelings of excitement are overwhelming. It is a chance to build a whole new life from the ground up, though the adversity of building it without the benefit of friends and family helping along the way must be overcome. Like a stranger in a strange land, immigrants are given the chance look through a new lens.
When asked about her experiences with culture shock in America, Tenessita shared, “The most notable thing for me was the weather and the distances from one place to another. You need a quality jacket to combat the winter and a car to go places. [Coming to America] teaches you to make better decisions, especially money matters and how to deal with deadlines-- bills and the like.”
Of course, humans are adaptable, no matter where they are from. Eventually, immigrants are able to settle into their new home, forge new community connections, and find their place in the world’s melting pot. Assimilation and adaptation doesn’t come easily, but it is a necessary aspect of creating a new life away from home. Opportunity abounds for those willing to take the leap.
Land of Opportunity
One of the most valuable ways that we can understand another’s perspective is to sit and talk with them. It is easy to feel disconnected from immigrants in the absence of a genuine dialogue. Only through sincere conversation can we be rid of our biases and lack of understanding.
Just as all Americans look different, we cannot assume that every immigrant is coming from poverty, strife, and conflict. Many come to America with a job, a home, and a plan of action ready to go. That doesn’t mean that the transition isn’t difficult, though. All the money and resources in the world can’t replace feeling at home.
What we must remember is that the vast majority of immigrants do not come to America with the intention to harm, endanger, or negatively impact its citizens. They are coming to create a new life on firmer footing. They want the same things we want for our families and ourselves: safety, security, and the chance to belong. Across the world, other nations look to America as a place where incredible things happen, where the opportunity to share your knowledge with others isn’t limited because of where you were born.
That isn’t a bad reputation to have.