I entered the US at the end of the week which was full of rancorous controversy over immigrants. My plane arrived in O’Hare airport at the same time as a flight from Brazil. The immigration queues moved fast. I picked up my luggage and exited to find banners welcoming immigrants, and people ready to give legal aid to travellers in distress. Right at the point of entry, I saw the best of the US: both in terms of efficient officials and a participatory democracy.
On a short visit for a meeting, one sees little of the hurt that many people feel since 2008, in terms of jobs and incomes. The people I’d come to meet included native Americans as well as later arrivals (but, as far as I knew, none descended from the Pilgrim Fathers). All of us, legal US residents, as well as foreigners on short trips, were lucky people, because we had steady jobs and medical insurance.
When you are in a country for a week on work, the immigrants you get to meet are usually those in the hospitality industry and transport. I had interesting conversations with four taxi drivers, one from Bulgaria, one from Benin, one from Nigeria, and another from Ethiopia. The last person drove me to the airport as I left the US. His opening statement was that I was leaving on a nice day. I said the whole week had been nice, and I’d liked being in Chicago. He replied, "Yes, I guess we will pay for it later." I laughed, and asked "Nothing comes free, eh?" He burst into laughter and said, "That’s the US for you. You think you’ll earn a lot, but it all disappears."
There, just as I was leaving, I got the distilled essence of the immigrant experience. This echoes what I’ve heard from immigrants in India and China, Europe and the US: they arrive thinking they will lead a much better life; it is better, of course, than what they left behind, but it isn’t as easy as they thought it would be.