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Immigration- A Personal Story

We hear a great deal these days about immigration and 'The American Dream.' It seems appropriate now, after the events of the past few years, to place quotes around the latter term. My perspectives on both issues are influenced by personal experience.

I came to the United States in 1973 as an immigrant. Few possessions arrived with me beyond a holdall with some clothing. My only important asset was a wonderful wife. Passage to the country was achieved with the aid of a low cost ticket sold by Pan American intended, as I recall, as an economical means for students and young adults to travel to the US. The ticket was for a round trip. I purchased it knowing that I would not be using the other half.

My wife, an American I met while she was working in Britain, had saved a modest sum of money while in college. We used it to acquire a serviceable vehicle. With only half a college degree resulting from my studies in the UK I embarked on a rather typical immigrant path, working at what jobs I could find while attending school at night. One of those early jobs was with Friendly Ice Cream Corporation as a trainee manager. A typical day shift began early. My morning routine before opening included washing the windows, cleaning the floor, emptying (and scrubbing) the trash bins and cleaning both bathrooms. After restocking any needed items I made sure that the parking lot was free of trash. With that series of tasks complete I began my day cooking hamburgers, scooping ice cream cones, serving customers or washing dishes, whatever was necessary. Daytime shifts were usually twelve hours in length. Afternoon/evening shifts continued until the work was complete, sometimes at one or two in the morning.

In 1974, we accepted a position as houseparents in a group home. This allowed me to attend college full time and complete an undergraduate degree. At this point we had a young daughter. Like most (or all) social work jobs, the pay was poor. One advantage (and disadvantage) was that we had accommodation in the house. While providing a place to live it left us exposed to the inevitable stresses of the situation.

In 1975 we decided to move on and relocated in the town where my college was located, removing the need for a daily commute. I found work in a pharmacy delivering prescriptions in the evenings. Eventually I became the night manager of the small section of the store that sold cigarettes and liquor. Following graduation in 1976 I found work with a payroll processing company, first as a data clerk then as a delivery driver.

In 1978 I was accepted to graduate school in Massachussetts. Before school started I spent the summer as a parts picker in an industrial supply outlet. The first couple of years of school were taken up with course work and the selection of a thesis topic. While completing the research and writing I worked at a number of jobs. Apart from an unsatisfying stint selling insurance, the rest of these were in retail. For a time I was a trainee and later manager of two Radio Shack stores. The first was a a small store in a remote, ostensibly dying plaza. For a week that typically exceeded 70 hours my reward (after taxes) was around $134. This was in the early to mid 1980s. I had already sought and been offered another job when the unexpected happened. I was 'promoted' to another store.

This was not straightforward. Each time a manager moved the process included a closing inventory and an opening inventory. In those times inventories were counted by hand and were lengthy and demanding. There was no way that I could reveal my imminent departure and risk several weeks of no income so I said nothing. I think you might imagine the nature of the telephone conversation with the District Manager a few weeks later when I informed him.

Other retail jobs followed selling insurance, a job taken because it was available and got me out of the thankless situation at Radio Shack. For a time I was manager of candy, stationery and health and beauty aids at a department store. Immediately following that I managed two shoe stores, both owned by the same family, again for long hours and little reward. My most extreme job move came next, from shoe store to college lecturer. In all of these moves I had kept my college education hidden as much as possible, knowing that it would likely keep me from employment.

In the interim my wife had also worked at a series of jobs, including stints at Friendly's and as a cashier in a grocery store. I will be eternally grateful to her for the invaluable contribution she made, which allowed me to complete my education. She also attended college at night, acquiring a qualification in Medical Records to add to her undergraduate degree.

Two decades of hard work began to pay off. A move to New Jersey took us away from the worsening economic situation in Massachussetts. We were able to obtain professional work that finally allowed a standard of living that was a great improvement over what we had experienced before. In the meantime two additional children had been added to the family. We were able to send all three to college though each had to work hard to supplement what we were able to provide.

I have shared this story to make a point. As an immigrant who worked hard to become established I do not condone breaking the law by entering the country illegally. However, we need to find a way to solve this issue in an equitable manner. Immigrants represent a huge potential resource. They also represent some of our most grateful, loyal and patriotic citizens. The immigration issue has, in my opinion, been used by politicians to distract the average person from the real reasons why unemployment is so high.

It pains me also to hear people who are running for office talk about class warfare while demonstrating a disturbing cluelessness (and lack of concern) of the plight of those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. There is much talk of the 'middle class' and virtually none about the poor or those falling out of the 'middle class' at alarming rates. Any attempt to question the role of the rich in the state of the common weal is described as class warfare. This is a willful distraction. If anything, the class warfare is being directed at large numbers of the population by candidates whose goal seems to be to favor those at the upper end of the economic spectrum. It is politicians who seek to divide and distract us from the real issues and to turn one group against another.

Having been a grateful beneficiary of the opportunities offered by this country I worry greatly that our democracy is being coopted by those who mask greed with talk of values. The founding principles and ideals of our country mean a great deal to me. Though not born here it has become home as surely as if I were a native son. In my heart I am.


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