Our Reading Lives

Understanding America Through Books: On Immigration

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Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at babylibrarians.com. Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

4 November, 2015. I send my fiance a text: “Know what I should do? Go to the visa interview in an alien costume. That’s a BRILLIANT idea.” He replies, “It’s an awful idea. But still pretty funny.”

Technically, an alien refers to something which belongs to another place. In everyday language, alien conjures images of funny green creatures, not only from another place but also not human. In the world of US immigration, alien refers to someone who isn’t a US citizen. I filled in what feels like a thousand pieces of paper that mark my status as an alien, and I have an alien registration number. The language used to refer to immigrants in this arena feels impersonal and dehumanising, but ‘aliens’ isn’t even the worst word. And being referred to as an alien isn’t even the worst thing that can happen to you in the process of moving to America.

In the lead-up to the election in November, I have been trying to work through the Advanced Citizenship lists compiled by Rachel Manwill. It has been my way of trying to understand more about the history, culture and politics of my new home country, as well as what the heck is going on with this election. One of the issues that I’ve been hearing and reading about is immigration. This is an issue that gets me particularly shouty, as I hear Trump talk about how open your borders are and how you’re being flooded and how easy it is to just come in, stay forever, leech off your welfare system, and steal jobs from good, decent Americans.

I don’t think Trump has ever tried to move to America. It is not easy. There is uncertainty, frustration, waiting, thoroughly unhelpful interactions with the USCIS (and some helpful ones too, to be fair), more waiting, certain steps in the process that feel redundant and completely pointless, form after form after form. And even more waiting. And this is for a relatively simple case of an Australian moving to America to marry an American citizen!

The history of immigration in America has similarities to that of my home country, Australia. Both have had eras of blatant racism, like Chinese exclusion and the barred Asiatic zone in America, and the White Australia Policy in Australia. Immigration to both are marked by uncertainty and long bureaucratic processes. And the political discourse in both countries seem to be an exercise in fear-mongering, with a focus on the need to protect borders and jobs. The only difference is that with Australia being an island nation, we don’t have the option of building a wall.

A lot of this discourse on immigration—in the presidential debates, the media and in the Facebook comments I shouldn’t be reading—is general and broad, and we lose the individual human stories. Because this is what we are: alien, but also human.

Two of the books on my ‘Learning America’ reading list really drive this point home. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America by Mae M. Ngai is a socio-legal history of immigration in America between 1924 and 1965. She writes about the various pieces of legislation that formed immigration policy, how and why various restrictions and exclusions came about, and all the complexities surrounding the notion of citizenship. She argues that the tensions and interactions between migrants, the state, and society in general have played an important role in defining and redefining America.

The other book, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, is a fictional examination of the immigrant experience that transports you into the their lives. It is a beautiful and moving book that punches you right in the heart and shows you both the light and dark sides to immigration in the US. As I read this, I felt both sad and inspired. It shows the sacrifices parents are willing to make for their children, the hardships that people have gone through to make a new life in the US, and how utterly difficult it can be to move to a brand new place where you don’t know anything, not even the language. You are taken into the lives of the father who works all day in a mushroom factory, standing in the dark, with no breaks for food or drink (my thought on this was how is this even legal? Do workers have rights in this country?), and the mother who is trying to navigate the bus system in a language completely unknown to her.

We are human, often living in a liminal space. We are here, but not really here. I can’t vote in the upcoming election or participate in your democratic processes. If I want to go into a bar, I have to carry my passport as ID, like I’m a tourist, because my Australian drivers’ licence isn’t accepted. Until I get permanent residency, I can’t leave the country unless I’m granted advance parole—even that language makes it sound like I’m a prisoner here.

Remember when I said that being referred to as an alien isn’t even the most dehumanising thing? Recently, news broke of Adam Crapser, the father of four who was adopted as a three year old by an American couple. The couple never completed his citizenship papers, and now he is going to be deported to South Korea, despite spending 37 years (the majority of his life) in the US.

Immigration is one of the big issues in the upcoming election, and it is a deeply emotional and personal one for some. As I read the commentaries, I wonder if the people saying the borders ought to be tighter and the bureaucrats deciding to split up families through deportation realise the human element to the debates and administrative processes.  I hope that they do.