Imminegration

Imminegration

Courtesy / The New York Times
Two of my closest African acquaintances are settled in America. Both hurdled right over all the obstacles to immigration into the States: One is a political refugee and one is an accomplished physician.

It’s left me scratching my head. What distinguishes these two individuals from the hundreds of thousands pounding on our southern border with similar motivations and urgencies?

The Nigerian-born physician now practicing in northern Wisconsin shepherded my family as my mother entered hospice with an empathy and straight-forwardness generally absent from the American psyche.

The famous Kenyan writer is now a professor at the University of California-Irvine. His quick wit and piercing analyses refined many of my progressive beliefs and undoubtedly does so for many young students.

I like them both very much. Both are representative of a very large number of accomplished Africans in a wide variety of fields who easily immigrated here and often now contribute more to the development and strength of America than we natives.

We need to reduce every single possible obstacle to immigration. But I realize that can go too far, disrupting our society so severely that the very attractions encouraging people to come here would be compromised.

That’s really sad. It’s the ultimate proof of how divided and unfair the world’s social organization is, a world pasted together by walled-off sections of wealth and power. Global society struggles to determine if there’s enough wealth or unmined resources on planet earth to provide everyone with sufficient comfort. But most importantly we remain too selfish to do so.

So who do we let in to our privileged life?

The doctor got effortlessly into America because we need doctors, especially in rural places like northern Wisconsin. The writer was much beloved by his countrymen and played a prominent role in the country’s progressive opposition to a horrible dictator of the 1990s. But following his ruthless jailing, he fled the country. He had by then achieved enough fame that virtually any country in the world would have offered him citizenship.

The Kenyan dictator is long gone. The troubled part of Nigeria from which the doctor fled at the turn of the last century isn’t so troubled, anymore. Both countries are doing well, probably better than most political prognosticators a quarter century ago suggested.

Men like the physician and writer are desperately needed by their developing homelands. They could accelerate the development in special ways that their peers unable to leave are hamstrung from doing.

But both men stayed in America. Like thousands of others.

What distinguishes my two friends from the throngs at the southern border is the same thing that distinguishes me from a man who grows up in Appalachia instead of Chicago: privilege and race.

Privilege comes in many relative forms. Even the most impoverished individual who has developed the wherewithal to fill in forms, who is networked with previously privileged family or countrymen already abroad, and who can scrounge up the most basic resources for such things as air travel is infinitely more likely to fulfill their dream in America.

Race is not just a distinction between black and white. The writer was Kikuyu and the Kalenjin tribes that were in power at the time could be vicious against their arch enemy. The Nigerian was born at an incredibly disruptive time when his homeland was being torn apart by Cold War ideological extremes. Back then any future at home looked bleak.

Both are African, although of widely different areas and races. It’s better to say both men are black, because today it is the brown person, the woman or man from the south who is irrationally discriminated against. When they came, black was OK.

It isn’t as if they’ve forgotten home. The Kenyan diaspora contributes about a billion dollars annually to the Kenyan economy, essentially by wiring cash home. That’s a whopping 1% of the country’s GDP or roughly a fifth of the government budget.

But sending cash is a short-term, often compromised solution to almost nothing. Africa needs to develop its education and improve its health care and raw cash does not replace professionals.

By not repaying the privilege that got them here except by sending money back home, and by America encouraging just such behavior, we widen the gaps with their homeland and increase the value if necessity of privilege. Meanwhile no good vetting system enforces this defacto modis operandi. There are likely hundreds remarkably similar to my doctor or writer friend who can’t make it across the border.

Western immigration systems are designed naturally to benefit the adopted country. But intrinsic in the design is an endless loop of growing privilege. The gap between the rich and the poor forever widens.