Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 1, 2017 - Confessions of a White Undocumented Immigrant

Today I live exactly seven tenths of a mile from the exact spot where I was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. But on July 1, 1995—Canada Day—I crossed the Peace Bridge into Canada where I lived as an undocumented immigrant for over four years.

It didn’t really occur to me to be concerned as I was doing it. Perhaps I was wrong for being so cavalier to just waltz into another country simply because I felt like it. I also recognize that I was not leaving the US out of concerns for personal safety or even prosperity. I just went because I liked it there. The privilege of being a white male in our society was entirely lost on me during this time. I simply took it for granted. Today I feel differently. Today I know.

Toronto, Ontario is a beautiful city. I had immediately felt at home there a year before, in 1994, when left my New York apartment by invitation of a friend from acting school to co-write, build, produce and perform in a stage production at the Poor Alex Theatre in the Big Apple of the North. I loved the city immediately. I learned my way around so quickly it impressed the locals. I felt pangs of loss when returning back to the States after the show closed.

Following the break up of a relationship in New York one year later I decided to move back to Toronto permanently-ish. I knew I wasn’t leaving the US forever, just for now.

The one overarching principle I lived by was adventure. When faced with a choice, I always choose the more adventurous option. There’s something in even the failure of a bigger venture that deepens the experience of life. Failing smaller adventures produces smaller benefits, in my mind. Succeeding at a larger gamble is of course the preferred option, but I seem to learn more from my failures than my successes. I know I am far from alone in this reality.

But larger gambles also come with larger stresses. I was fortunate to have a small amount of money to last me the first six months, but as that money dwindled my anxiety increased. I wanted to break into acting there full time—Toronto is a hub of television, theatre and  film—but my immigrant status gave me short shrift with casting directors. I even tried to volunteer with the Toronto Film Festival, but was booted out on my first day when they realized I had no paperwork. I never got to see even a single celebrity.

As my funding dwindled I placed an ad in a local paper advertising my services as a private “cater-waiter” and housekeeper. I built a small, but steady clientele of homes whose toilets became weekly companions of my quest to survive in a place where I was regularly reminded of my status as an “other.” But I folded the ends of the toilet paper into neat little points just the same. I took pride in my work even as it slowly took my pride away from me.

As an undocumented worker I had few rights and little recourse. Clients often took advantage of me knowing I was in a poor position to complain. One even had me clean his entire basement—a long and filthy undertaking—with no intention of paying for it. When I showed up to collect my fee he lied and said that Immigration agents had just called him asking about me. From that point on I lived in a state of panic that I would be arrested and thrown out of the country. It was months before I stopped looking over my shoulder and realized I’d been had.

I did eventually manage to get some under-the-table acting work in non-union productions that looked the other way because of my singing and acting ability. It’s hard to find white leading males who fit into the costumes of low-budget productions. But the larger shows had more options and never gave me the offer of union work I needed to gain a landed immigrant status.

And then I got sick. Really sick. As an undocumented immigrant I did not enjoy the benefits of universal healthcare enjoyed by Canadian citizens. I knew what it was like to get sick in the US without insurance. They let you die. But I was not in the US.

That was the realization point for me. Despite my immigration status I was being treated with dignity by the Canadian healthcare system. I was even given a private room in the hospital. Was it because I was white? Was it because Canada’s universal insurance included me in its universe? I assume a little of both. Back in the States I didn't have insurance. I would not have fared as well.

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV) 33 When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

I was treated like a human being by the government of Canada, even if not by a few of its citizens. I was treated like a guest, not a criminal. Of course I can draw conclusions as to why this was the case. But the fact remains that the world did not stop spinning because I was treated with dignity in a foreign country. What would happen if we Americans decided to treat the foreign-born as if they were native-born as scripture encourages us?

Christians who today call for the building of walls would do better to build friendships instead. They pick and choose which Mosaic laws to follow as suits their fears. But they are colluding with the wrong side of history.

What must it be like to be a brown-colored undocumented immigrant in the United States today? How can I imagine my own small, decades-old anxiety multiplied by the factors of color and politics? I cannot. I can only remember my own small fears and do what I can to pray for those who seek a better meal but are denied a place at the table.

May we all one day know both safety as well as prosperity in our chosen lands. It is our birthright as humans and children of God to know both.


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