-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on May 19th, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 19 Mayis 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-
I am sitting in an upscale Italian restaurant in one of the rich suburbs of Virginia. There I met a 1.90-meter tall, bold waiter, Aldo Fabrizio Alianiello Chavez from Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
This young man, 28, after a short chat, tells me that he decided to leave America for good to go back to his country and with this statement he briskly captures my attention. I am surprised. After all, in this posh Italian Restaurant, he should be able to make an ideal living for an immigrant, and should be all right under these tough economic circumstances.
The current economic downturn in America makes many unhappy, especially the immigrants, who helped this country become what it is now. U.S immigration policy has been fairly open when it is compared with Europe, and historically this characteristic has given a big boost to the American Economy and its much-praised entrepreneurial spirit. Though the immigration rules have tightened since the 9/11 attacks, and recently, in many states, illegal immigrants started to face sudden deportations and harsher treatments. Therefore, "melting pot" America is not much of a pot; rather it is becoming a country with its increasingly hostile environment to its immigrants, especially the illegal ones.
I continue to talk with Aldo as I learn that he had his Bachelor’s in Agricultural Engineering from one of the best schools in Latin America. His coming to America story is also similar to many: "I wasn’t working at the time, a friend of mine who lives in the US told me to come here. A little after, I was convinced that this adventure might be it: my American dream that I can build my life on and start a family with. I flew here with $200 in my pocket, alone and the rest is history."
I immediately asked the question: So why are you leaving? What happened to the American dream? He pauses and looks out to window and continues: "The way of life here just didn’t work out for us. Since my wife couldn’t speak English, and we have three kids, I ended up doing all the work. It was just a never-ending nightmare. At times, I worked at 3 different jobs. I only had a chance to see my newborns once a week. This wasn’t the life I planned. Also, you just don’t make money here like you used to. Though, of course I know that going back is a very big decision because as you may know my country [Bolivia] is not in the best situation to be living in."
The political conditions are, indeed, very dicey in Bolivia with President Evo Morales, who was elected a couple years ago, and has nationalized its large natural gas and oil industry, and established strong ties with Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. Aldo continues: "But you see, it is my country and I want my daughters and son to learn and experience our traditions. So we decided that we are going back! First I sent my two daughters with my mother-in-law, then my wife with my youngest. Now I just bought my ticket and I’m leaving too."
I asked if any other relatives or friends left America like his family. Aldo said: "manyÉ in my immediate family my wife’s sister and brother, whom both got married here. Any many more friends and neighbors." How about the American dream? Is it really ending? I questioned. He hesitates and then responds: "I can tell you that it might be getting there. There are not as many opportunities as before. Living comfortably and sending money back home, as most of the immigrants do, are getting harder as days go by. Immigrants see their chances dim to get legal documents. People realize instead of struggling with all those difficulties, they want to live a better life in their villages. You will have less money but certainly with a lot less worries and stress. It is true", Aldo continues, "in my country, I might never get a 70-inch flat TV, but I will see my kids everyday. I am sick of being afraid that I might get pulled over by the police and get deported, while just trying to make a living."
The immigration debate has never diminished in America, though now it seems it is getting even more complicated. 11.9 million illegal immigrants were present in 2008, up 42% since 2000 and the previous efforts at reform have been botched dreadfully. Now there are many talks in Washington, DC, as President Obama is to start a fresh debate on a new immigration reform. Though the terrible economy and some of the protectionist policies that have been injected into the latest stimulus bills, such as "Buy American," have made the environment even testier for the immigrants and for such a fundamental reform. For example, Bank of America Corp. has been forced to withdraw job offers to a small number of foreign-born business students recently because of the strings attached to the bailout money that it received from the Federal Government.
On the one hand, with a new African-American President for the first time in its history, America is trying to prove to the world that the American dream is still intact. On the other, America is making that very American dream even harder for its immigrants to fulfill. I am one of those lucky immigrants who never had any prejudice and unfairness while living my new life in America and even getting my first serious job after graduating with a Masters degree. I can confess that I have received the true spirit of the American melting pot experience. The interview I received, for example, by my boss, was filled with the questions to recognize my skills and fitness for the position. Neither my accent in English seemed to matter, nor have I been asked about my religion, political background and affiliation. And like me, the majority of the immigrants are willing to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve their dreams and this energy made America so much better than its other Western counterparts. It must be understood that the true Americanism may bond more to this spirit than a mere birth certificate. Being all for tougher rules and regulations on illegal immigration must be separated from being a fan of the racism it might prompt, as we witness in different forms in America more often now.
While I was leaving I told Aldo that I might see him back in the United States in a couple of years. He half turned back, smiled and said: "uh, no, never." We will see whether America will be able to preserve the tradition that it was made by, or if it is gone, and will come back "never."