I am generally reluctant to use my own story as an example but in this case I think I need to use it as a passport of sorts. I was born in Lisbon, Portugal, six years after a peaceful revolution that replaced the longest-ruling fascist regime of the twentieth century. When I was young, political conversations between family members involved a lot of words I didn’t understand. Portuguese democracy was young. We were joining the European Union. I remember my disillusioned grandfather saying, more than once, “One of these days we’ll all be speaking Spanish.”
Life was not easy in the city for my dad, who was a waiter, and my mother, who was a hairstylist turned stay-at-home mom. My father tried immigrating to Australia first, but that lasted all of two weeks. Then, through acquaintances, he turned his attention to the United States. He came here first for six months on a tourist visa. He made up his mind that the United States was the place he wanted to raise his young family but, as the law required, with his visa expiring he returned to Portugal.
From there he applied for a work visa and dutifully waited for the paperwork. It took 18 months but he was finally approved for a two-year stay in the United States. He spent those next two years here, away from his wife and children, now 5 and 2, so that he could go about the process of immigrating legally. He sent us toys and called every Sunday, always in the afternoon, we now able to afford a phone, but he missed birthdays and holidays and walking us to school. All the things a father does for children at that age. To my friends at school, I used a fancy new word I’d learned without understanding: sacrifice.
He eventually made the trip back to Portugal where, once equipped with a green card, he made arrangements for my mother to accompany him to the United States. My sister and I stayed behind at first, living with our grandparents, waiting for our parents to be ready to receive us. I was ten by the time the four of us were reunited again. We had no other family in the U.S. We literally left everyone behind.
Six years had gone by since the time my father had started the immigration process. During that time, I’d forgotten the meaning of my father’s presence. My sister, younger, had perhaps not known it until then. Living with him, with us all under one roof, was tricky. During those six years my father had changed. It wasn’t really our father, as we remembered him, that we were getting back. The loneliness had weakened him and, as has been well documented in immigrants who spend long periods of time away from their families, he had developed an alcoholic dependency that would slowly kill him for the next ten years.
I share this personal and painful story now because I think it serves as a cautionary tale. We did everything the right away, according to the law, and the cost on our family is that it killed us. Quite literally. I know so many people who have immigrated, both through so-called legal and other means, from Portugal and elsewhere, and the pain is plenty. That’s not news. I’ve had more than one person familiar with my story tell me, “Wow, your family did it the right way. You must really resent these illegals.” No, I say. Far from. My family’s particular circumstances don’t make me feel superior; I feel luckier. Or maybe, knowing how my father’s life was cut short as a result, unlucky. At least in some ways.
There is a lot of talk these days about immigration. Mostly by people who know very little about it. They are removed from it, in a variety of ways, and their understanding of it is incomplete. They say they want to build a wall. They say they want to send the immigrants back. But I don’t judge those who speak that way. My case here is for more compassion, not less. And this is the way in which my story is my passport. I ask only that in considering my story, you see it for what it is. Just one story. One of millions of stories that are all, in their own ways, infinitely complex and filled with hopes and pain and loneliness. Immigrating isn’t easy. I would ask you, who are reading right now, even with the present turmoil and uncertainty in the United States, how bad would things have to get for you to immigrate somewhere else? What would it take, really, for you to abandon your current life, family, job, car and home, and immigrate to a country where you don’t know the language or the people? Do you think it would be easy or difficult for you to find a job by searching in a language you don’t speak, in a place where your education and attributes are less attractive, if at all recognized? I bet things would have to get pretty bad for you to leave your loved ones behind. Way worse than the current situation.
And then I want you to understand that the people who came here, who, like me, immigrated to the U.S., didn’t come here because they want anything from you. They came here because they want something for themselves. And by treating them with dignity, the same dignity you would demand for yourself, you are not giving up anything. You’re gaining. Only gaining. Because this is, after all, a democracy. And in democracies, we believe in the intrinsic value of people.
I’m all for open discourse but because of both where I was born and where I was raised I have little tolerance for absolutisms. I can’t think of people as immigrants, one whole mass undifferentiated between them. Immigrants? Which one? Point out him or her. Let’s hear these stories. Let’s debate ideas in a way that sounds as if we’re actually talking about people. Let’s have a conversation that approaches all humans with the dignity they deserve because this isn’t a conversation about them — it’s a conversation about us.
Hugo Dos Santos is a Luso-American writer and translator and a graduate of Rutgers University-Newark.