When I was forty years old, I left my native land to begin a new life with my new wife in the New World. Although I was escaping neither poverty nor persecution, I realized that I was now an immigrant. I could look at life and immigration from both sides now.
Life is full of delicious and delightful ironies, providentially provided for our edification. One such irony in my own life is that I spent my youth raging and railing against immigrants and my later years becoming an immigrant myself. In consequence, in the words of the song by Joni Mitchell, I can look at life from both sides now.
As an angry young man, back in my native England, I had joined a white supremacist organization which demanded the “compulsory repatriation of all non-whites to their lands of ethnic origin.” For more than ten years, from my mid-teens to my mid-twenties, I ranted and raved against immigration, serving two prison sentences for “publishing material likely to incite racial hatred,” a “hate crime” under Britain’s Race Relations Act. Then, many years later, as a forty-year-old, I left my native land to begin a new life with my new wife in the New World. For me at least, life could really be said to have begun at forty, or at least to have begun again.
After a few years of living in the USA as a resident alien, I formalized my loyalty to my new home by becoming a US citizen. There are several things that I remember about the swearing in ceremony; some good, some bad, and some downright ridiculous. I cringed as the TV screen showed a smiling President Obama welcoming me as a newly fledged citizen and I cringed even more when we were made to watch videos to the accompaniment of America the Beautiful and Proud to be an American. It struck me as being little more than dumbed-down junk-culture jingoism which had the effect of cheapening and undermining the dignitas and gravitas of the occasion. I imagined immigrants to the UK being made to watch videos of the Last Night of the Proms with flag-waving Brits singing Rule Britannia! and They’ll Always be an England, a scenario that struck me as being almost Pythonesque. The effect aesthetically, at least to this particular fledgling immigrant, was akin to being offered a TV dinner when one was expecting a fine dining experience.
The first of the videos, the one playing to the soundtrack of America the Beautiful, showed picturesque scenes of the beauty of the United States, from sea to shining sea, from Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon, but it was the other video, the one playing to the tune of the country song, Proud to be an American, which took me by surprise, causing an involuntary lump in the throat and tears to well up in my eyes. This unexpected emotional response was certainly not caused by the lyrics of the song, the pride of which repelled me, but by the images on the screen which showed old black and white film footage of immigrants who had come to this country from all parts of the world to make a new life, many of them escaping poverty or persecution. Although I was escaping neither poverty nor persecution, I realized that I was now one of these people. I, too, was an immigrant. The thought struck me as an epiphany, as a bolt from the blue, as something which changed the way that I saw myself. I had never imagined myself as an immigrant, and the realization that I was one came as something of a shock, especially as I had come to adulthood defining myself as someone who was not an immigrant. I was not “one of them” who could never be “one of us.” If I was now “one of them” what did it make me? Whose team was I now on? Whose side? It was this seismic shift in my self-perception which had caused the tears to well in my eyes so that I almost wept. And yet they were not tears of angst or anguish but of cathartic liberation. I was being given a new vision of things. An epiphany. I could see things from both perspectives. I could see through the eyes of the one who fears immigration, often for good reasons, and also from the perspective of the immigrant.
I could look at life from both sides now. I could see England from the inside, as I had always done, but I could also see her from the outside. I could see her not only in the way that she sees herself but in the way that others see her. In the same manner, I could still see the United States as I had once seen her, from the outside looking in, but I can now see her more as she sees herself, from the inside. And yet I still cannot see America as a native-born American sees her. I can only see her through the eyes of an immigrant. My wife is a native American, born in California, and my children are native Americans, born in Michigan and South Carolina. We see things differently. We even speak differently, using different words, though I find myself slipping into “American English” more often as time goes on. My wife quips that, after eighteen years of marriage, she’s still learning English as a second language!
It’s good to be able to see things from both sides now. I like being an immigrant and I’m very grateful to the United States for giving me such a wonderful new life.
One thing, as an immigrant, that I can see from both sides now is immigration itself. For all its faults, this is a good country which is why so many people want to come here. Clearly everybody who wants to come here cannot be permitted to do so. Equally clearly, measures must be taken to stop illegal immigration. A nation has the right and the duty to protect its own borders. It’s not about immigration per se but about illegal immigration and the levels of immigration. A nation should welcome those immigrants that it needs for the wellbeing of the country and even a certain number of genuine refugees (as distinct from all those claiming “refugee status”) but it is not duty-bound to open the floodgates to whomever wants to come here, nor is it duty-bound to treat those who break the law in the same way as law-abiding citizens.
As an immigrant, and as a US citizen, I am duty-bound to support what is best for my adoptive country. As one who is grateful for what this country has done for me, I am duty-bound in gratitude, as an immigrant, to protect it from all that might do it harm. One thing that is clearly harmful is illegal immigration. Furthermore, and most importantly, it is as a US citizen that I owe my allegiance to the United States. As a citizen, I support measures to counter those who seek the benefits of the country without accepting the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.
I do see things from both sides now. I am no longer the angry young man I once was, though I remember him well and know how he saw things. Nor am I anti-immigrant. How can I be? I am one. And yet I am still concerned about levels of immigration, and especially about levels of illegal immigration, which are imprudent and intemperate and which harm the social cohesion of the country. I now see things from both perspectives, as an insider and as an outsider, seeing them inside out and outside in, and, from whichever angle you see it, unbridled immigration is an issue which needs to be tackled. It is indeed so obvious that even the immigrants themselves can see it. Even immigrants like me.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor” (1882) by Willia Halsall (1841-1919), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.