Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pilgrim fathers and today pilgrims: preparing for your own Thanksgiving in the USA

It is that time of the year when knives are sharpened and plump feathery beasts are served on elaborated tables as guests of honor. If you are in the USA, you mustn't miss this national celebration: Thanksgiving. The American tradition wants to commemorate the first harsh winter of the Pilgrim Fathers, who supposedly celebrated with a banquet the abundance of this rich land and thanked the Lord (I guess) and their kind neighbors (the original inhabitants) for the protection, help and generosity given to them. In fact, they had a lot to be thankful for.
When we went to see Plymouth plantation and the Mayflower, visitors get a little taste of what life could have been like when the first pilgrims and puritans set foot on the new continent. Seeing what they had to go through, I thought that if it had been up to me, there would be nothing to celebrate today! I would have turned the boat around. Their desperation had been strong enough to make them put up with all the hardships they were about to embark. Religious persecution in England must have been a far worse demon than a bleak stormy ocean, unfriendly savages and overall a life of deprivations (but after all, they were puritans, so I believe they didn't expect to find Las Vegas on the other side of the world). 
But let's go back to that winter in 1620. The first immigrants had made it safe and sound on a wooden ship after a month sailing from England to Cape Cod, which is a miracle by itself. Close your eyes and try to imagine sharing a common room/deck with more than a hundred people for more than a month with almost no food left!? They must have been extremely disciplined, no doubt about that. I am saying it only because I can imagine myself getting cranky, complaining about the food, lack of privacy, seasickness, noisy and smelly travel companions...probably, after the second day of navigation they would have thrown me overboard!! As pilgrims of the 21st century, we can hardly take a flight of 9 hours without complaining, can you imagine a voyage longer than a month in ghastly weather conditions?! 
I swallow hard and proceed, I am thankful I can travel by plane, even though I am not a fan. We, modern pilgrims, also have a share of issues when coming to the USA; from less than relaxing flights, which can drain you out if you are a nervous type by nature (sometimes I feel like getting on my knees and kiss the ground under my feet), to even far less friendly airport security checks. My first time in the USA was greeted by a brutal "unwelcome to the USA" in Denver. I had no idea what racism and profiling was, but I learnt all this all too quickly in the longest and most extenuating 3 hours or more I was held for questioning by a nasty C.B.P. officer-woman. Hard to believe that a high school student would spend a summer abroad to study the language! Anyhow, after that first shocking experience, I have traveled more and met definitely nicer and friendlier C.B.P. officers. At JKF I met a really nice border patrol officer and we both had a hysterical laugh. I was asked to take my sneakers off. The only problem was that the day before there had been a power cut on all the East coast, nothing was working and passengers had spent the night sleeping on the floors. It was August, very hot and humid. With a smile on my face and not at all embarrassed, I asked him if he was sure, because my shoes were a bacteriological bomb judging by their smell! He cracked down laughing and I was glad: some people have a sense of humor and I love laughing! 
However, back to our story of almost four century ago: landing successfully on the American shore was only a brief moment of glory for those brave souls. There was no hotel or already set up lodgings to welcome them with a warm shower, warm food, proper clothes and nice clean sheet to sleep in. They were welcomed by a cold winter and the wilderness of New England. Not surprisingly, half of the people who undertook the first voyage died in the first winter in Plymouth, MA. They had to be self reliant in everything and rely on each other. The housings they built were unfit for that climate, as well as the seeds they had brought from England which were almost useless to cultivate in that environment. They were doomed if it hadn't been for the intervention of some friendly Natives, the same ones the puritans called "savages", the irony here is the pot calling the kettle black. In fact, the puritans had a weird way to show their gratitude.
It is very likely that some indigenous people were moved out of pity or human kindness towards the helpless hoard and their help was crucial for the survival of the Europeans through the first winter. However, as history teaches, the relations must have been chaotic from the very beginning to say the least. Despite the help received, the puritans didn't trust their neighbors and soon enough built fences and towers around their settlement. On the other side, the indigenous people felt a danger coming from those newcomers who were spreading and taking over their land. And their fears came true. Not even twenty years later several tribes like the Pequot, who were originally located in the south east corner of Connecticut, had been declared "banned", the few survivors left were sold as slaves. The pilgrims had indeed a weird way to show their gratitude. Prosperity was finally coming to them and nothing was going to stop them.
But now back to us, and to the turkey awaiting! Being away from home will make you feel a bit homesick as this festivity is typically celebrated with family and friends, so don't pass on invitations of friends to stick together for this holiday. Enjoy their company and taste the typical American cuisine: cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffed turkey, gravy, pumpkin pie and pecan pie. Let's get in the mood and think: what are you thankful for? 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Green card: thanks but no thanks!

If you have been in the USA long enough, you must have heard a great deal about the green card, the last step before applying for the American citizenship, only for those determined enough and not easily put off by long and extenuating procedures to apply for it. You have worked so hard, you made it where other people failed or they just weren't as lucky as you, but finally you are there at the final step of a long process: you are eligible to apply for a green card. A dream that comes true for some who long for this piece of paper that can elevate them immediately to a status of "almost American" compared to the lower status of "legal residents". Finally you can enjoy some real freedom: you can apply for jobs, change jobs, get in and out of the country avoiding that long line of "Non-US residents" at the airport. That's all good and fun! 
And yet, a few people turn this prospect down. The first reaction you get, when you tell people that actually you were in the process of getting a green card and had second thoughts, is 'you must be mad'.
When I still was in the USA, I was told of a German woman who moved in a little village close to ours. Nothing special, if she had come into the country with any type of visa, but within our international group the word spread that she actually got in because she won the green card lottery! The exciting thing, for us all, was that she didn't have to deal with all the paperwork we had to (true, she had to do different and more stuff anyway) but she skipped all those stages where we were. We all wished we were in her shoes, after all it's an opportunity that is given based purely on luck, you don't really have to work or study for it. You must still be eligible, meeting some criteria, but from there on, it is all downhill. When a year had almost passed, we learnt that she had had enough and was going back to Germany. We were speechless: so soon! What made her change her mind?
Similar stories though can be found everywhere on the Internet.
I mentioned before the stories of friends of mine married to American citizens. You'd think the process for them was straightforward but it still took them time, effort and money (yes, there are a lot of fees to pay!). It seems that whoever planned this procedure wanted to discourage people from tying the bond. Anyhow, these couples successfully went through the application process and got the green card. After living for some years in the USA, they moved to their native countries and didn't bother to maintain their green card, in fact you must spend an allotted time per year in the USA, and that's how they lost their green card!! Despite what outsiders may think, they have no regret whatsoever. But whenever they fly back to the States, their families get separated: daddy with kids born in the USA go in one line, mummy and kids born outside of the USA, go in another. I don't know why but this idea freaks me out.
And at last, it was our turn: we got offered a job and the lawyers started the engine. We were rolling with both applications for the H1B visa and the green card. But when everything started sinking in, both of us got cold feet. I still don't know if it was the right thing to do or we threw away the biggest chance of our life. So far though things have been good and we can't complain.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ellis Island: who knew?

When I visited Ellis Island and its awesome museum (yes, it does inspire awe because of the human history and stories it contains), I was deeply moved by the entire experience, which should not be part of America alone, but a treasure of all mankind. Witnessing what immigrants had to go through, from the voyage by sea to the severe medicals they had to undergo, was a lot to take in. The system was in some cases brutal, for instance, if one of the immigrants had a disease, they were immediately separated from the rest of their family (like in a concentration camp, I thought), and boarded on the ship to be sent back to an unknown future. Hence, ship companies, in order to prevent these situations, applied even stricter rules for their passengers to save their own interests. Passing through the rooms where people were examined and questioned gave me the chills; that is where I learned the story of an admirable man, Fiorello LaGuardia, whose career started here as an interpreter and helped many immigrants getting through the interviews. If only those walls could talk how many stories they could tell!
At the end of the visit, in the computer room, I accepted the challenge, or rather the invitation, to check if any of my own relatives had passed through its doors. To me was nothing more than a game because, as far as I knew, none of my ancestors had moved farther than 50 km from their native village, let alone crossing the ocean in those steam ships! In my mind I was giggling at the idea of imaging one of my folks, people from the mountains, undertaking this adventure in open sea. I wanted to prove the computer wrong 'see, told you I am the first one ever in my family to have set foot on American soil', which of course makes you stand up in the family!
My fingers started tapping on the keyboard. My jaw just dropped: I had found my maternal great grandfather who arrived at Ellis Island in 1912, more than a century ago. He came from a village that at the time was in Austria, and he was 32. He was so old, I thought, for that time. Looking at the dates though it made perfect sense, probably he was running away from the great war, who knows? But why leaving all his family behind? Probably he couldn't afford to pay for them all. He was already married and had some kids (one of them was my much beloved and missed grandpa).
Without realizing, I started crying. I felt so stupid for thinking those petty things a little while ago and laughing about it so lightheartedly, while now I was facing the whole tragedy of a man who was there for a better future, like all people who had passed there. I had so many questions and once I was back home, I was able to ask them to one of his children who was still alive.
When I was in New England I thought that was a terrific opportunity to grasp, so I convinced my husband to explore the place where my great-grandfather had lived. I delved a bit into his story and found out that he was headed for a mining village in Vermont. We drove to this village, forgotten even by God, and my mind went stray. 'How did he reach this place at the beginning of the 20th century?' It was Thanksgiving day and while everyone was eating turkey, we left our car and browsed around the area. It felt chilly, "was he covered enough?" I tried to find a sign of his passage. Dilapidated buildings, almost a ghost town, no sign of human life. I felt a pang 'certainly this place has known better days' I said to myself. But deep down I was crying' why on earth did you leave your lousy village to come to a shitty place like this one? Couldn't you have picked a warmer and nicer place, for God's sake?" He must have heard me and for my insolence he punished me straight away!! In fact, all the pictures I took of that desolate place to show back at home were gone, my camera just vanished like in thin air!
I have all the admiration in the world for what my great-grandfather went through. Four years later he left the USA, moved back home, as penniless as he left, he died of emphysema caused by his years working in the coal mines. Another forgotten soul that contributed to making America big.

Monday, November 11, 2013

When immigration policy fails

A frequent topic of discussion with my international friends in the USA was our visas.
We were comparing, evaluating, estimating our "alien status" as if we were talking about our own babies. If you think about it, a visa is a process that has nothing to envy to a pregnancy. It takes time and preparation. And once you are delivered with it, you suddenly are charged with joys and responsibilities. Welcome to the craziness of the visas' world!
Once you are hooked up in the carousel of visas and you think you are all set, think again! You have to learn all the limitations that come with you visa,  about leaving or not the country, having to leave the country or not. Do you think things get easier once you get the green card? Wrong again. Two friends of mine married to American citizens, said just forget about it! They went through a lot to get their green cards, eventually moved back to their countries, respectively France and Brazil, and never bother to maintain their green cards, which among many things imply having an American address and spend X amount of time per year in the USA. Guess what?! They are happy people even without it! To tell the truth though, I wish I had it only to avoid the endless line at the airport when you fly in. After such a long flight, another nightmare is about to begin: all non US-passengers are lined up like cattle and treated like suspects. Guys seriously, do you look at me? After a 9-hour flight my neurons are not even connected. Not only do I look like a zombie but walk and talk like one: I could kill for a bed and some sleep! And for the record, it is only a figure of speech...
But let's go back to visas. There are too many and I am only familiar with few of them.
In my previous post entitled "I have been offered an H1B visa" I warn my young readers against fab offers, sometimes too good to be true, and in this article I will still talk about H1B visas in this time of worldwide economic crisis.
Getting an H1B visa is not an easy job. Very often people who get to this stage are those ones who, after graduating from an American university, find a company that will sponsor them, investing in their skills. But not all degrees are the same: a scientific and technical background is highly requested and valued, whereas humanities are not equally considered; so if you studied electrical engineering, you are more likely to get a job than if you ended up with a degree in literature. Sadly this is true everywhere.
But being a foreigner is twice as hard when applying for a job, especially in a time of economic strains. Instead of helping out the economy in these tough times, immigration policy does the opposite by tightening up its immigration laws, slowing business's growth and targeting foreign workers inefficiently. When immigration policy dictates times and ways to companies and business in general, it is really slowing down and jamming their productivity. On this issue, you might find interesting these articles on CEOs asking for strong action about immigration policy:

Having assessed though the needs of big companies to have international qualified workers, now let’s see the same issue from the worker's perspective.
As I already said in previous posts, for a worker whose paperwork is in order, it is frustrating to be limited within the law by the law. Rather than tackling the real issue of illegal immigration, immigration policy goes after qualified, legal workers. By the way, this has created a lucrative "spin off business" where immigration lawyers charge an arm and a leg to both companies and foreign workers to deal with the paperwork!
But let's face it: it is easier to go after those ones who are "visible" to the system than chasing the "invisible" who are a commodity for the American economy. The invisible, illegal workers, are underpaid and do jobs that Americans don't want to do. Hence, it is convenient to turn a blind eye on the whole issue, swiping the dust under the carpet. Both contenders in this game win because both get what they want: the pragmatic, cynical America has cheap, un-insured labor so that it can afford to keep motels and restaurants open 24/7 and on the other side, the illegal workers who have their "dream" to work for. The only loser in this game is legality and the other side of those foreign workers who comply with the rules.