I came to America in 1994 on a first class Swiss Air flight after my first semester in boarding school in St. Gallen, Switzerland. My mum had been living in Florida while my brother and sister and I were in school. She had chosen Florida because she wanted us to visit Disney World during our summer vacation. Little did we know that our summer vacation would turn into an indefinite stay in the United States.
Being quite young while I was in boarding school, I always missed my mum and hated the idea of going back to school. My brother, sister and I campaigned to my dad, who was in Nigeria, to let us stay in America and not go back to Switzerland. Our campaigning worked. My dad would arrange for us to go to private school in Palm Beach, which was significantly cheaper than the school in Switzerland.
All this might sound like a not-so-humble brag, but I’m sharing it to make a point that some may have already surmised: moving to America the “right way” takes a certain amount of resources. At minimum, if you’re coming from anywhere not in the Americas, you need to be able to purchase a plane ticket.
Moving to America the “right way” takes a certain amount of resources
A little over a year into our stay in the States, our resources ran out. I’ve never been told the real reasons why my dad became unable to continue to support us while we were in the US. I’ve guessed that it was due to Nigeria’s economy being volatile, and decreased demand in Nigerian cocoa (formerly one of Nigeria’s largest exports, and the industry my dad was in). Regardless of the reason, we soon found ourselves in a foreign country with no way to work, a savings that would eventually run out and a four year visa.
It’s funny to hear people discuss undocumented immigrants coming to America and stealing jobs from Americans or driving up healthcare costs because they use hospitals and are unable to pay. I know I can’t speak for everyone, and everyone’s experience is different. But I can say that there’s VERY LITTLE that you can do or take from America without a social security number. It took my family years to get a green card. It cost money that we didn’t have and we couldn’t get money because we couldn’t work. I remember so badly wanting to get a job at Publix, a grocery store chain, when I turned 14. I wanted so badly to do the shit jobs that no one else would do, but I couldn’t because we didn’t have papers. I wanted so badly for my family to be able to help ourselves. But there was literally nothing we could do… until a friend of friend who had a small business helped. He offered to let my mum help him out here and there for a little cash. What she was earning was in no way a full income for one person, let alone a mother of three. But it was enough for us to get by and to save. My mum was an asset to the business owner, who couldn’t necessarily afford to hire a full-time employee, even at minimum wage. During this time, visiting a hospital or seeing a doctor wasn’t ever something we had the luxury of even thinking about. Our only form of health insurance was simply being careful—not doing anything that would result in broken bones or worse. I think it took about a year for my mum to save enough to pay the fees associated with getting green cards. And even with that, the process, which I won’t go into here, wasn’t easy.
Looking back now at that moment in our lives, we were living in America but it felt like we weren’t really there. We did everything we could to not make our presence known. We were like house guests that you don’t notice because they stay out of your way and use none of your things. I can earnestly say that we took nothing from America, only gave. And I’m still giving. I’ve gone on to add value; I’ve created a company that’s creating wealth for American women. I find it so hard to imagine America without that kind of possibility. When we limit who can come into a country we limit the value that can be brought in. It would be remiss to think that only Americans can make America great; that the country has everything and everyone it needs to remain innovative and competitive in a global marketplace.It would be remiss to think that only Americans can make America great. Click To Tweet
There’s no denying that the matter of immigration is a complex one, on legislative, philosophical and moral levels—especially in the context of war and terrorism. But we can’t forget that underneath that complexity are pleas for help, and when we say you can’t come in, it’s like watching someone drown and doing nothing while holding a spare life jacket. My family was lucky to not have been fleeing war, but we did end up in a position where we needed help. I think everyone on the planet, no matter who you are and what you have, can recall at least one moment in their lives when they were completely powerless, when they had no choice but to ask someone else for help. And I think in recalling that moment, we can also remember how good it felt to get help. Why, then, wouldn’t we want to pay that forward?