My life and death as a coal mine canary.
That’s me, after 16 years an undocumented immigrant I will be self deporting myself at some point within the next months, I would like to talk a little from my unique position about what this represents to you and my general experience as an immigrant, an exit interview of sorts…
1. Why Are You Leaving Your Current Position?
(As an undocumented immigrant here in the United States)
Many compounding reasons: A combination of being maligned and routinely used as a scapegoat for government to make a power play would be at the top, this might sound like a direct complaint towards the current administration, but in reality this is a broken system that consistently gives political ammunition, so the status quo seems to be why fix it? During the first months of Barack Obama’s administration, with full congress support, a brief window of time and opportunity to solve this issue was available, it was not a priority back then, and nothing was done. Even today with the opposite party in control and an openly hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric it might still not be a priority.
Other reasons include day to day skin tone/accent discrimination, and the impossibility to find good meaningful work, I believe my skills are in demand (A.I., Front End/Web Development & Design), evidenced by the number of interviews I’ve had through the years , unfortunately when my immigration status comes up there is usually a long silence, sometimes followed by a click, friendship and relationships have suffered the same fate.
The last big reason I am moving back,of particular concern to you,is not that things back home have improved dramatically, but rather things here have consistently deteriorated to the point where violence, political corruption,inequality and instability are real factors to contend.
So what brought you here in the first place ?
I don’t dare to speak for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living here, but from meeting and talking to hundreds of them through the years I believe their (our) goals were (are) simple, in the words of Robert Palmer:
And every man’s the same…
He wants the sunshine in his name.
I would like to add that in my mind, the United States has the biggest P.R. department in the world in the form of Hollywood & cultural influence. It has always struck me as odd that the vast majority of the TV, News, books, cultural artifacts, music and movies to name a few back home were either American influenced, dubbed or straight rip-offs, one of the biggest incentives in fact for learning English was to enjoy pop culture unadulterated and a big drive at least in my case for moving here was to try an participate in its creation, I’ve created and enjoyed music and art all of my life, but increasingly I feel it’s being smothered,not celebrated unless it is somehow a commercial enterprise, this might seem like a quaint, subjective metric, but impromptu singalongs,music in the streets,grabbing a guitar and strumming out of joy with no purpose, humming, these things are dying.
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song, this country has extinguished most of the song in me.
Your technology,science, the embrace of it just 20 years ago, was also enormously pushed, you can start seeing how all this information started shaping in me and others the idea of a benevolent, cool, progressive country and culture, a place where you could come and make it in your favorite line of work or passion (something not available back home) no matter your starting lot in life as long as you worked hard.
Land of the free, leaders of the free world, home of the brave, U.S.A! U.S.A!, your iconic flag, your statues, monuments, they take a dark, ironic and menacing tone confronted with your actions and your incessant belief that by waving more, chanting louder, quoting in extra bold and centering it on the page, somehow liberty and freedom will be guaranteed while at the same time this same liberty and freedom is being eroded little by little in front of your eyes. It’s quite the letdown.
Of Lines and Money
By my own account I am a questionable investment in monetary and stability terms, I left a cushy banking job back home more than a decade ago to learn how to make webpages, program, design & paint and rather than send money to my country of origin, I have paid for the privilege of living the undocumented life, and try for something bigger and more interesting than a cushy banking job.
I have injected around $250,000 into your economy while taking not a single dime of social benefits and even paid into your federal and state coffers. I’ve been part of startups, had my own, helped mom and pops and corporations alike, so in my free time work on my projects.While this might not make much sense to most, I believe civilization is not advanced by people with cushy stable jobs (nothing wrong with pursuing that of course), rather by those that incessantly question the normal state of affairs, those for who a boring stable life makes little sense, and those that foolishly or not believe they can drag civilization forward to a better place through a combination of innovation and some luck, but being material beings we also need a safe place where to carry these activities, America seemed from the outside to be that place.
And so we now need to discuss the thorny issue of breaking the law, why not go back to the line ? Why not do it legally ? Well, you’d be surprised as I was that there is no line, not for those not in the system, not for those under the system,( Visas for ambitious and hard working people that promise to obey your rules and customs just do not exist) and so the question became: Do I give up on my dreams, or do I break a law that makes little sense. Think about it, due to completely arbitrary reasons a human being is born either on side A or B of a country line, and through this random act alone his life expectancy and happiness seem to be determined, what would you do ?
Nikola Tesla is on my mind a lot, specifically how he might have fared in today’s America,would he have made it here in the first place ? During a brief period he worked as a ditch digger ( after Edison stiffed him ), he later went on to say the following about those years:
My high education in various branches of science, mechanics and literature seemed to me like a mockery.
The mockery of Tesla is compounded by the irony of appropriating the name Tesla for a company which does not really stand for the modern day Tesla ( the man), during a chance meeting with a managerial level executive of said company the recurring theme was something along the lines of we work like madmen, super competitive, a rat race,no family time… that strikes me more like a place that Edison would approve, and far from being the exception,the norm.
A blind,obedient pursuit of money and fame at any cost rather than progress and stability permeates American society and leaves little room for immigrants (unless you are rich), the young (unless you are lucky) and the less well off (who seem an inconvenience and a tool to the government, not a priority and are invisible to the middle and upper classes), this pressure cooker periodically spews violence, erodes your future and brings out the worse in you, here are some of the ugly you might not immediately recognize:
- Nobody cares unless you’ve made it. Struggling artist, budding entrepreneur,student, single mom,single dad,inventor. Is there a culture of celebrating those climbing a hill ? or is there a culture that only celebrates those that by any means made it to the top, what makes more sense ?
- The lifeboat mentality. Far from an isolated incident, I’ve witnessed it in multiple occasions (even painfully at the hands of my own family) the lack of solidarity to those under the same conditions as your parents or previous generations, the incapability of making that connection is perhaps due to the fear of not belonging to those that forgot their roots long time ago,the current norm, rather than celebrating newer arrivals and your history.
- Escapes: Drugs, alcohol, rape,over consumption, over working, sports fanaticism,grabbing a gun and killing your classmates. Very different activities if viewed as separate incidents, but what if they were personally unique responses to a rigid,unjust and overbearing system ?
You are of course free (are you?) to keep on going this route, it has served some well for the last half century or so and given the impression to the rest they will soon be rich and the system is great,but as a dead coal mine canary it is my duty to at least warn you of why this system might be reaching an inflection point:
A detour into the world of systems thinking courtesy of Donella H.Meadows ( a friend ) which I am channeling here:
Regardless of your political,social or racial background which naturally colors your perceptions, an objective view of the current system you live in can be assessed by what exactly the system is producing:
Increasingly very few super rich people with political and social power, a diminishing middle class in both numbers and income and a growing lower class, a tale that can better be explained by a complex chart and a simple table:
A tale of 2 Americas, a snapshot of wealth distribution :
The culprit is of course the system, a system that to the best of my diagnostic powers can be described as success to the successful , with no equalizing mechanisms, multiple glass ceilings of race,gender, family fortune and at country level, national origin,again fortune (your starting lot in life) and religion.
Blaming the system is like blaming the weather for rain which gets us nowhere, so we need to dig a little deeper and answer the core question: Why have a government in the first place ?, Is it necessary?, what went wrong ?
A hierarchy is an amazing emergent property of the universe, ( or gods gift if you are religious), the main reason hierarchies exist is to facilitate the efficiency of the bottom supporting layers by freeing them from diverse tasks and allowing them to specialize while maintaining inter assembly functions, the system then performs better, and can grow in complexity & resiliency.
For instance, you own a cookie business and it becomes successful, so you hire a web developer,accountant, more bakers, search for better suppliers and on and on and at some point you decide to stop baking to concentrate on organizing this activity, the goal is still the same: make as many cookies as possible, and as long as you take care of the people,process and product you will all thrive.
A hierarchy exists to serve the bottom.
A hierarchies main purpose is to help the lower assemblies, a governments role as a hierarchy then is to help the lower class,those in debt, those with a bad hand of cards,the immigrants, the refugees, the needy. By organizing in between classes and removing obstacles of growth the lower echelons instead of drag become participants and help the system improve and reach new heights.
What ends up happening though, is that the top of the hierarchy finds itself in a position where it can take advantage of the lower sub assemblies, forgets it’s role & goal, and makes things worse by helping itself, the lower assemblies are dealt as expendable,inconveniences,tools or even enemies of the system and at this point there is not much else to do but start from scratch and try for a better system.
In the cookie factory example, wages get reduced and routed to the top, lower quality ingredients and equipment are used, the goal now becomes to skim as much from the bottom as possible, the product get’s worse, the people are unhappy and leave, and the process along with the cookie business breaks down.
Unfortunately we humans have short life spans, the above system dynamics can take hundreds of years to evolve, a human born in a failing system shouldn’t be forced to fail with it but be allowed to migrate and support a better one, it is a basic human right and should be recognized as one.
What gives ?
While you might be thinking, I am rich or well off, this doesn’t apply to me, there is a strong historical precedent where losers with no hope for winning have gotten frustrated enough to destroy the playing field.
Under an increasingly connected world, your actions and words as a nation can easily be corroborated,the P.R. machine can sputter and all the power you have amassed through your past positive influence can easily be taken away by those that choose the non violent route of diversifying from America and the dollar,and adopting the values and talent you are leaving behind, hierarchies also work at a planet scale.
I don’t believe in miracles but I have thought a lot about what’s missing and how to nudge America into a better system, a far less violent and smoother option. I would suggest a start by examining and redefining national goals, if I may be frank, this is what I perceive your current goal to be:
“Get rich or die trying, win at all costs.”
A simple yet powerful goal that speaks to everyone, unfortunately it fails to take into account that for every winner there will be losers, and that this relationship is both unsustainable and unjust, so I propose an upgrade(borrowed from William McDonough):
“A delightful, diverse, safe, healthy and just America, with clean air, water, soil and power. Economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed. ”
Under the revised goal our national table would look shockingly different:
Of course an America like this might not have many mansions or yachts, but 80% of the population would be better off than they are today. At least in monetary terms, morally you might still need to make changes; you would have to come to terms with the fact that the homeless guy you’ve been ignoring every day is now your equal, in fact everyone is now truly equal. It is surely a dream, but the opposite extreme is a nightmare, a few trillionaires and everyone else in debt or poverty,unsafe,unhealthy and fearful.
There is also a moral imperative to those who are given the resources to look out for those with none, a less drastic distribution of wealth,far from being an altruistic activity, it is in your own self interest and has been recognized by your leaders in the past, it fuels your growth at home,influence abroad and guarantees your liberties:
This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.
John F. Kennedy
There is also the risk of giving into fear and ignorance and self inflicting a serious wound, as an immigrant my rights are on par with those yet to be born, ( that is we don’t have any since we don’t legally exist). Blaming and kicking out immigrants is in some ways analogous with saying to those yet born, there is no more room for you, the system can’t sustain you, can’t & won’t protect you and you will be the cause of our problems. It makes little sense, yet the current narrative goes something like this: immigrants take jobs,overwhelm the government, and jeopardize your future; but if the system really can’t accommodate 11 million immigrants today ( which there is ample evidence it does,has and benefits from), it won’t be able to handle the natural rate of growth, a measly 5 years worth of new Americans. Under this light our value to the system is and has been bigger as scapegoats since we can’t complain and has lasted longer than those 5 years, a truly efficient system that will substitute immigrants for the next available group, maybe the poor, maybe the gay, maybe the black,the Asian, the Muslim…
Throw them out into the cold. Don’t give them their coat, no coats. Confiscate their coats !
Donald J. Trump
Was it all bad ?
When I was a kid I once went hiking with a couple of friends, we set up camp by a small lake and decided to hike around the lake to pass the time, we seriously underestimated the size of the lake, the hike took us some 16 hours through waist high mud, we had no flashlights, it started raining, it was dark,we were city kids out of our element, we arrived exhausted to a flooded camp, we huddled inside a leaky flooded tent hungry, dirty, cold, soaked and miserable. It was one of the worst nights of my life, but thanks to that experience I will forever be reminded of how lucky I am to sleep in a bed, to not be cold and hungry, I have revisited that experience here in America a few times,I still find it hard to explain. Poor, hungry, cold in the land of the free and the richest country in the world ?
I believe experience is what you actually get when you thought you were getting something else, so even though I have given some of the best years of my life to an indifferent country and the riches,liberties,freedom and happiness never materialized, I will appreciate them more for having lived this uncertain period, yes will now mean more after years of hearing no, riches and fame are less appealing now, they have lost luster after experiencing the cost.
I hold dearly in my heart the relationships, friendships and activities I did/had with Americans even if they were fleeting or imperfect.
I am also experienced in both American culture, technology, consumer markets, things that work here and things that don’t as well as a number of other domains, if anything America has given me time and focus to study while enduring isolation and hardship. These might come in handy in the future.
And now what ?
It’s over. Nobody wins.
Far from being a first time undocumented immigrant, this would be the second time in my life where I return to the country I was born after unintentionally overstaying my welcome in other countries (Europe in the first case ). I probably should have mentioned this before, but I originally came here on a vacation,met a girl, got offered a job, broke up with the girl,kept the job, got new jobs,new relationships, life happens and for a while it almost seemed I had a future here, so months became years and I overstayed my welcome and became undocumented. The important part is that I have a good idea of what will happen to me, I’ve been trying to plan for it for a while now. I will start from scratch or square one, all I will be able to salvage from this venture will be what I can carry in my mind; waiting for me is a culture I probably will not recognize at first (I’ve spent more than half my years outside of it) , uncertainty and even maybe violence, my return home might even end my life.I will probably try to adapt, change or immigrate somewhere else if I can’t adapt, my priority is still to simply find or create a place where I can work,grow and prosper, for myself and others.
As for you, I m not so sure,then again I am in part a victim of your system (a little bird caught into some big gears, chewed to pieces and spewed out), my perspective might be distorted, I see you becoming increasingly isolated from the world at the same time your system is reaching extremes with nobody at the wheel. If this is the case it might prove catastrophic, your options then like mine would be to resist,survive and rebuild. A more likely scenario is that nothing will change and the system will stabilize somewhere in between things are bad, but not so bad that they are worth dying for, a process that might last decades, and ironic and cruel fate.
I hope my allegorical death and real struggle & experience helps you to at least question and consider your current system and it’s direction, I believe you still have time, as for me, I need to pack 16 years of dreams and find a new home, a better one, who knows, this canary might be reborn and sing again.
Good luck to all,
Eugenio N. Leon (Keno) is a budding Mexican Designer,Web Developer, Artist and Inventor, born in Mexico City,you can find bits and pieces of his work at www.k3no.com which he really needs to update but will tell you there always seems to be other more important things to do, like packing…