On January 20, 2021, I bought my first American flag and planted it in the front of my garage.
I am attracted to immigrant stories. Most are Asian romantic drama-comedies Harlequin-esque sorts of movies. I recently watched Hello, Love, Goodby on Netflix, a story about a young Filipino woman in Hong Kong. The protagonist, Joy, feels compelled by her obligation to her mother and siblings — her father having abandoned the family because of economic conditions. Her goal is to earn sufficient money to emigrate to Canada with her family. But in-the-meanwhile she forfeits her nursing career.
The story pivots on a familiar theme of hope. The hope that she will keep her employment for the duration of her two-year contract in Hong Kong. A detour she hopes does not risk her opportunity to emigrate to Canada and derail her nursing career. When she meets another Filipino who is about to receive permanent residency in Hong Kong, they fall in love, and he wants her to stay. Instead, she risks losing him to fulfill her obligation to her family and ensure economic stability. Hope — that indescribable desire to achieve a dream with only the commitment of hard work to achieve it.
Most Americans do not understand that kind of hope. They cannot. They live in places they can choose to remain despite a declining economy, drug epidemic, and political tension. Most still live in homogeneous communities and enclaves. When outsiders begin to flow in, many are frightened, or politicians incite them to fear. Exaggerations and a deliberate intent to dehumanize the poor, especially brown immigrants, have heightened the fright. But a closer understanding of immigrants, their motivation, and their drive might reveal remarkable resilience and a hope that does not die.
Hope is not the kind of New Year resolution or pie-in-the-sky goal most of us promise ourselves. We rarely expect that the new day we hope for might cause us to give up everything to attain it. Hope, according to one definition, is the grounds for believing that something good may happen. Hope is not futile, neither is it wishful thinking. Hope is tangible, and we know it when we possess it. Consider three crucial factors of hope: (1) communities, (2) possibilities, and (3) belief.
It was a foregone conclusion that I would eventually emigrate. After all, my mother and aunts before me had, returning home only several decades later. My mother only returned when I was sixteen after leaving me as a toddler. Despite this, my grandmother seemed content that our lives and someday the lives of my children, would be better if I too emigrated. I never saw her longing nor sad because her daughters were away. She did not hint for me to remain in Jamaica. Instead, she encouraged my study abroad, pointing to the well-to-do families in our church as examples.
My grandmother worked six days per week as the pastry chef at Montego Beach Hotel, a prominent hotel owned by an American — Charlie Morrow. I never knew how much we had, though I understood we were a working-class household. My grandmother owned our home — she owned two houses. The other was a rental property. I attended a prestigious grammar school as a scholarship winner, though only a partial scholarship, with my grandmother paying my remaining tuition.
I understood that employment overseas would improve the welfare and living conditions of those left behind. Hope grants all the beneficiaries in the community a sense of belonging, a rung further up the economic ladder, a better-educated generation coming behind. The prospect that there will be food on the table, better or higher education for children, sustained employment, a better place to live, and perhaps even some luxuries. Going abroad even might have meant my grandmother would no longer work those grueling hours on her feet. Hope sustains, even those who might not benefit directly.
Americans seldom consider the shared experiences that bind immigrants together and why that is so. Most immigrants live in communities where they find connections to ethnicity and heritage. Most are working-class immigrants who share common languages, cultural familiarity, extended family, food, and worship experiences that root them in their networks. For example, Jamaican immigrants in New York City have aggregated in the East Flatbush and Crown Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Eastchester in the Bronx. Walk into any of those neighborhoods, and you will hear the familiar sounds of patois, find a patty and cocoa-bread, or gaze at two very loud-talking women.
The dreams of immigrants defy rational limits. They leave their home countries for various reasons. The typical immigrant almost always allows for the potential that her situation can change. No matter how difficult the process, many immigrants maintain the conviction that their lives and families will be better for their sacrifices and risks. Why else would a man come to America in a skiff on an open ocean? Why would a young woman leave the familiarity of her home country for another with limited family support and the uncertainty of what looms?
I did not know how to get to America when I decided — or my grandmother decided for me — that I would study in the United States. The family members who preceded me abroad left no roadmap. There were no pamphlets to outline the process. But during my second year in college in Jamaica, a new faculty returned from America after living there for a time. Dubbed the professor, he taught education courses, and his wife was the college nurse. Although I was not yet diagnosed with cranky allergies, my frequent colds put me on a natural path to bond with the college nurse.
The professor and his wife became my travel coordinators for America. They advised on what documents I needed; they suggested the type of Visa that would be best for my circumstance. On their advice, I applied for a Permanent Resident Visa and waited outside my country while the application was in process, a strategy that was to move me faster to the top of the list for an immigration interview. It was an unconventional plan. I left Jamaica and went to Nassau, the Bahamas and worked for the Seventh-day Adventist Church regional offices.
Hope acknowledges the possibilities. My possibilities of going to America materialized even quicker than I could have expected and went according to the plan my mentors had suggested. At the time that I applied for the Visa, applicants were often turned away repeatedly for additional documentation, which would delay their interview for years. Today, the plight of Mexican and Central American immigrants is exponentially more difficult than mine. Still, I suspect I was luckier than most immigrants of my time and circumstance.
A 2020 story in the New York Times Magazine described what immigrants might do in their effort to come to America. The story focused on how tighter border controls have driven record numbers of immigrants to make dangerous attempts to reach America by sea. Many of them trying to reconnect with families who have already made the journey across — a wife and children, a teen, a parent, or brother.
The journeys on boats are booby-trapped with pitfalls — an interception by sea or air border protection agents, illness onboard, unpredictable and dangerous weather. Still, the sea has become appealing. If successful, these immigrants would bypass U. S. Immigration at ports of entry and airports with new and tighter documentation restrictions in full effect. Between 2017 and 2019, Central American immigrants caught entering the U. S. without legal documentation were returned or sent to lay-in-waiting in Mexico but not before harsh subjugation.
What makes anyone risk so much to come to America?
Ten months after I arrived in the Bahamas, I received the invitation to interview with the American Consulate in Jamaica. I remember the interviewer explaining his hesitation in granting me a visa. He was concerned that my savings, the $1,000 on deposit at the university, would run out sooner than I understood. He held my fate in his hands, but I waved off his concerns. I would continue working as a secretary until my departure date, I told him. When I arrived in America I would find excellent employment, though I had no proof of it. I had taken a speed-writing course just after junior college, and it would be an acceptable alternative to short-hand, I had figured. I received my visa after that first application and initial interview. Hope — I believed something good could happen, and it did.
I had a dismal school term failing calculus and chemistry, which I had not taken in high school. But I reminded myself of the possibilities in America. I could major in something else instead of biology. And despite setbacks, I believed I could earn my degree. Be an English major.
When I ran out of funds to support my full-time study, I relocated to Rochester, New York. Taking a full-time job, I also returned to school at a nearly full-time pace. I met Mr. Allen, my academic counselor at the University of Rochester, who gave me the support community I needed. He was patient and understanding. And though I could hardly mark my progress in weekly intervals, I became a fixture in his office for weekly check-ins toward my degree. I completed my undergraduate degree three years after I had arrived in America.
My experience was different from many immigrants coming from a developing country at that time. I arrived with the legal right to work and live as long as I wanted in the United States, and even become a citizen after ten years. Still, as an immigrant in the Northeastern United States, living outside my community of support was challenging. I neither lived in nor near cities with large numbers of Caribbean immigrants, or family. Most Jamaicans in the U. S. live in the two largest metropolitan areas — Brooklyn in New York City and Miami-Fort Lauderdale in Southern Florida. But the isolation — living without connection to a Caribbean community — was different from the isolation I knew as the only child in a home where there was no telephone.
I was a 24-year-old graduate student before I had a telephone of my own. I grew up at a time and in a place where only the most affluent and the upper-middle-class owned telephones. Affordability was the main barrier. None of our neighbor friends had telephones. When my grandmother had sudden symptoms of high blood pressure, we could not telephone our doctor for a house call. Imagine a fourteen-year-old explaining her grandmother’s symptoms to a stranger — without falling apart as she described the frightening fainting spells and violent vomiting.
There was no reliable emergency room nor ambulance service to take my grandmother to a hospital. Even working-class families knew that for good medical care, they needed a family doctor. I walked the quarter-mile to get a Robot taxi to go to the doctor, and while I waited, lurched over the veranda railing and vomited my anxiety. In the United States, I had a telephone and could call my doctor for an appointment.
Hope — in 2020 the United States chose a new president, and a vice president whose parents were immigrants — South Indian and Jamaican. The election of Vice President Kamala Harris renewed hope that something good can happen. Hope — a realization of the possibilities for immigrants and why they come to America at any cost. Ms. Harris’s rise to power was an important symbol for her communities. Not only is she America’s first female Vice-President, and first Black, but also the first South Asian and first Caribbean Vice-President.
After her election, the Washington Post said Ms. Harris would make history the moment she finished the oath and be one of the most consequential vice presidents in American history. For the South Indian community, the significance of her election could hardly be overstated. A headline in The Lily on January 21, 2021, said that Kamala Harris had indeed elevated the Blindian community. Blindian is a term referring to individuals who identify as Black and South Indian. “It’s a validation of the identity I’ve had to fight for,” a Blindian woman said. It was a new sense of belonging in America, despite the cross-cultural racism and frequent feeling of invisibility.
It was the fruition of one immigrant family’s hope — that circumstances change. It was a community’s visualization of themselves and their participation in the great democratic experiment — America. And those communities, Jamaican and South Asian and communities-of-color across the globe exhaled.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.