Waiting to Belong: Thoughts on the Immigrant Experience.

“Citizenship to me is more than a piece of paper. Citizenship is also about character. I am an American. We’re just waiting for our country to recognize it.” – Jose Antonio Vargas

I have been a nomad since childhood. Thanks to my own privilege – dual citizenship at birth; international travel experience as a child; the ability to afford to study abroad – I lived on visas in five different countries. Even when I landed in Canada, where I am a citizen, it felt like a stopover, not a homecoming.

Unsurprisingly, in my early adult years I immediately identified with other “Third Culture Kids,” people like me who were raised in countries other than their our passport country. I also aspired to the nomadic life as documented in sites like the blog And Then We Moved To …, the hashtag movement #vanlife, and the memoir Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish. But the last few years I’ve identified less with being a nomad, more with being an immigrant.

From Nomad to Immigrant

My sense of impermanence shifted when I moved to southern California. As I’ve recounted already, living in a region where up to 72% of residents are foreign-born felt like belonging. Los Angeles, a city of dreamers and foreigners, is a place where the question “Where are you from?” will never receive the same answer. Nearly half of us are unrooted, between countries, residents by choice but not status.

It was in this sun-lit land, on an F-1 student visa, that I began to understand the immigrant experience. Immigration was not easy. Being an international student meant that scholarships were next-to-impossible to find, and job hunting was a burden. Even after years of studying and paying taxes in the U.S., a few of my friends relied on a lottery to get a work visa (some left after losing this lottery). I turned my frustration into a dissertation on the need for improved support of international students.

Waiting to Belong

For those born outside the U.S., the path to citizenship is emotional and cumbersome. As this infographic illustrates (see below), there are limited choices. For instance, there is no law that allows unskilled and seasonal workers to immigrate. And no law permits undocumented children and youth to become citizens. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was meant to delay deportation for a few years. But DACA may be removed, and even if it remains, it does not provide a lawful path to naturalization.

So, for those eligible to apply lawfully, the path is anywhere from six to 27 years. The latest visa bulletin states that, if you’re a Filipino sister of a U.S. citizen (“F4”), you will wait 22 years just to apply for a green card (not to mention the additional five or six to become a citizen). My international-student friends had few choices to immigrate beyond a green card marriage, which no one preferred.

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Image: Reason Magazine (2008)

Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only country in the world that takes decades of waiting for naturalization. But this is one of the few countries in the world explicitly built by and for immigrants, as this government webpage states:

Throughout our history, the United States has welcomed newcomers from all over the world. The contributions of immigrants have helped shape and define the country we know today. More than 200 years after our founding, naturalized citizens are still an important part of our democracy.

These prolonged paths create lifetimes of waiting and “dual belonging.” Nomads may move between countries, their freedom to travel limited only by their own indecision. Yet, unlike nomads, immigrants wait years to be welcomed by the place they call “home.” I waited too.

Where is Home?

A few weeks ago, I opened my mailbox to one momentous envelope signifying my place as a resident in this country. My path was not extensive, but nonetheless, it was considerable: eight years and a couple of thousand dollars. Several more years remain until I can apply for citizenship.

As a resident, I can now choose my work, travel freely, and be protected by this country’s laws. I carry a small card that allows me the privilege so many others wait years for. Some cannot even apply. I am grateful. But I am uncertain: am I “home”?

Recently, this country has faced questions about who it will or won’t let in. Those who seek asylum, particularly families, have been treated with zero tolerance (sadly, this isn’t new). And new efforts like the RAISE Act and proposed limits on student visas could radically reduce legal immigration. Though immigrants have defined the U.S., it’s clear that fewer of them are wanted here.

Image: Favianna Rodriguez (2017)

But there is hope. Media efforts like Define American “shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship.” Advocacy groups like National Immigration Law Center (NILC) “defend and advance the rights of low-income immigrants.” Activist-artists like Favianna Rodriguez create projects like “Migration is Beautiful.” And the California State University, where I am a proud employee, boldy support undocumented students while educational institutions nationwide have embraced the #YouAreWelcomeHere movement, affirming that “our institutions are diverse, friendly, safe” and committed to supporting non-citizen students.

So, in my celebration of fellow immigrants this Immigrant Heritage Month, I encourage you to consider the non-citizens in your life. What are we doing to make life more inclusive and equitable for them? If you’re working at an educational institution, how will you increase international and immigrant students’ sense of belonging? And more poignantly, if you’re living in the U.S.: is this the country we want?

I still haven’t shared why I wanted to immigrate to the U.S. I chose to do so in a large part because I saw my own values reflected in this country: a desire to protect nature and a celebration of diversity. In the years since I have adopted this land as my own, I have often wondered if I was wrong. I hope I’m not. I hope this country will decide to celebrate its immigrants. All of them.


Cover ImagesAn Immigrant Alphabet (2018)

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