I should know, I have been a new immigrant three times in my life.
Even if the immigrant knows the language and has a job waiting, there are many living activities that are unfamiliar. Living arrangements, transportation, banking, mail are all different from one country to another.
My first experience with being an immigrant was in 1945. I was eleven years old. My family and I were returning Americans after being imprisoned by the Japanese for three years in the Philippines. (Please see my memoir: ). We would not have been able to survive without the help of my mother’s mother and sister. It was they who gave us a place to stay, furnished us with clothing, lent my father money to help him pay off our debts, and helped us find a house to live in.
My parents were both American, so living in the United States was not a culture shock, as it was for my brothers and me. My father had grown up in South Dakota and my mother grew up in Wisconsin.
For those who are unfamiliar with the United States and its customs, there are variations in the American cultural experience depending upon which state and region you are in. The east coast is drastically different from the west coast and neither is like the mid-west. New England differs from the south. Texas and the state of Washington have little in common. Dialects are different, the history of the region is different, the landscape is unfamiliar. Moving from one state to another has many similar experiences to moving to a new country.
Not only did we feel like new immigrants in our own country, we were broke, my father had no job and was deathly ill, and they enrolled us three children in schools that differed with what had been familiar. According to the other children, we ‘spoke funny’ and were teased for it.
We survived being strangers in our own country and became Americans.
My second immigration experience occurred when I moved from the United States to Canada. Although Americans and Canadians speak the same language and have similar histories, we are different nations with different customs. Canada, like the United States, has different cultures on the East Coast compared to the West Coast, and differs completely from French speaking Quebec. Much of the difference lies in the early settlers and the geography. Like the United States, the plains provinces differ from the coastal provinces.
I would not have been able to navigate my move to Canada without a sponsor, an old friend, and colleague. She went with me to expedite the movement of all my furniture and belongings through customs. She gave me a place to live and introduced me to a real estate agent who found me a place to live. She even gave me a job! Without her as a sponsor, I could not have transitioned so successfully. (I chronicle this story in my memoir, “An Academic Nurses Tale: Triumphs, Tribulations and Travels, Archway, 2001.)
My third immigration experience was my move to Nigeria in 1974. It wasn’t a true immigration, as I did not intend to stay, but I planned to spend twelve months there immersed in the culture.
Once again, I had a sponsor, a professor at one of the Nigerian universities. He offered me a place to stay, a car and an interpreter/informant, since I would live in an area where I did not speak the language. This experience was like the experiences of other cultural anthropologists, like Margaret Mead, who have gone to remote islands in the Pacific and lived with an isolated tribe for approximately two years, learning the language and customs of the people. The anthropologist was expected to live with an unfamiliar group of people-unfamiliar in language as well a culture. This experience is like the experiences of Peace Corps volunteers or missionaries who live for a periodWalled cities awe Americans who visit Europe for the first time in a culture different from their own.
In all these experiences, having a sponsor for support is critical. Strangers to a culture can make serious mistakes that endanger their lives-some have lost their lives.
These immigration experiences highlight the need for a sponsor, people who care whether you survive and prosper in an alien environment and are always there to help in need.
But what about hordes of immigrants appearing on a country’s border seeking admission all at the same time? Where will they find support systems? The host country has to provide those support systems, and quickly. Few countries are prepared to welcome hundreds or even thousands of people seeking admission all at the same time. Especially when there have been no preparations to receive them.
Americans who visit Europe for the first time are awed by walled cities. Cities that protected themselves from invasion by building walls. The Vatican, Avila, Jerusalem are examples of walled cities. But not only did cities build walls to protect themselves from hostile invasions, so did countries. Who is not in awe of the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s wall?
Even more surprising for the American who visit South Africa to see homes surrounded by fences and walls. Even homes build of cardboard boxes are enclosed.
Walls are familiar in Europe but not in North America. The longest unprotected border in the world is that between the United States and Canada. War once ravaged nations, but were now at peace. The United States and Mexico once had a border without walls despite their war.
A wall is just as useful against a hostile invasion as it is for a peaceful invasion.
Today, hundreds and thousands of people march north to the American border seeking admission. They have no plans, probably no sponsors, do not speak English. But they come expecting admission and what? What are the expectations of these migrants? That the host country will provide them with homes and money free? Where did they get this idea?
What a country might do for a single family that requested admission prior to appearing on the border will differ from what a country can do for hundreds of people who arrive at the same time with no planning.
Is it any wonder the United States wants to build a wall at the Mexican border?
With a wall, it can divert people into channels for admission, much like the ticket seller at a ballpark. No one thinks it is strange to stand in line to buy a ticket to watch a ball game. No one would consider swarming all over the ballpark and taking seats without first paying for the privilege.
But migrants are different. They see no reason they can’t just walk across the border uninvited. They pay no fees. They do not ask permission. They assume they will be welcomed. They are stunned and shocked when they are blocked or denied admission.
So where do migrants get the idea they will be welcomed and given a home and jobs? Someone must have told them they would be welcomed. Someone must have made them promises that were not kept. Someone was making money or this would never have happened.
What I have said about migrants who voluntarily leave home with hundreds of others does not apply to refugees from war. Refugees have few choices if they want to live.