The Politics of Leaving Home

May 17, 2017

I cannot stop thinking about sisterhood. I think about the difficulties I faced as a mother to two boys—one with developmental challenges—parenting on my own and navigating complex systems and endless challenges.  


I am a citizen. White. Privileged. Educated. Surrounded by family supports. But during those years, even with all of these assets, I felt stigmatized, anxious, incompetent, at a loss.


One of the greatest assets I had was my sister. In every instance where I was uncertain, she was decisive. Where I was disheartened, she was resourceful. She was in my corner every round, lifting me up and sending me back into the ring.


Over the weekend I was speaking with a friend who is originally from Cambodia but is now a permanent resident of the United States. We talked about sisters and how they are truly our second selves and our most loyal friends. In coming to the U.S. she has effectively lost her sister, not by distance, which can be overcome through technology so readily, but by social and political circumstance.



With permanent resident status, my friend had always believed that she was secure here. Yet current immigration realities in the United States have generated so much fear among so many, including those who believed they had fought the battle and gained a solid foothold, that no status feels secure.


She definitely no longer feels safe. And reality or no, this perception is pervasive. There is the fear among documented immigrants that travelling to their home countries may result in permanent expulsion. Travelling to see her sister may cost my friend, she worries, her life in the United States.


And her sister will never come here. She has no means, certainly, but the greater barrier is the U.S. immigration landscape. The waiting period to obtain a visa for the sibling of an immigrant is nearly 30 years. The list is that long. Thirty years.


“Go back to Mexico! Go back to [wherever you are from]!” These types of messages are heard more frequently in our increasingly uncivil midst. But what if the place you came from was not a home? What if there was no stability, no sustenance, no future?


In the area where my friend was born there is no economy. The structures that historically allowed people to be self-sufficient have been compromised—food sources such as farming and fishing are diminished, socioeconomic systems dismantled—so children leave school and their homes as early as age ten to travel toward industry and seek work in factories. Others leave to work in commercial rice fields. The “advanced” economies of the world, consuming, as they do, the resources of the planet, have overwhelmed the fragile ecosystem of her home. As a result, families disintegrate.


My friend was the child selected to finish school. She went to international university and eventually came to the United States. She left her sister behind.


This IS the story of immigrants in the United States. Regardless of status, they come for survival and they leave behind everything familiar and beloved. It’s always been the story, though we have changed the way that we tell it. 


The politicization of immigration has normalized some pretty nasty and inhuman messages. We have become comfortable with calling other human beings, those whose circumstance we refuse to understand, by vile names, attaching unsavory characteristics to whole populations. Not a new problem, but an increasingly loud and visible one.

According to Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who studies media coverage of immigration, “Media chatter plays a significant role in shaping both public opinion and policy.”


In a recent study of states that have enacted hardline immigration enforcement laws, Ramakrishnan found no evidence of the immigrant troubles frequently cited by proponents. There were no statistically significant changes in demographic shifts, crime, or economic instability. Instead, his research suggests that state-led crackdowns on illegal immigration are driven by political partisanship and party polarization.  


In this way, in our culture, we villainize and criminalize those who’ve already suffered great loss. We condemn those who have traded family and familiarity for life.


We have all heard the story lines: immigrants are taking our jobs, they are bringing diseases, they are criminals, rapists, druggies. The facts and statistics about immigrant populations refute all of these myths, but they continue to propagate.



Here are some tactics I have learned on my journey to change the narrative around immigration. They are yours to use as well:


  1. Be authentic and human when you talk about immigration. Your compassion and sincerity are your best tools.

  2. Use data, but lightly…and persistently. Grab onto a couple of facts and use them quietly and firmly when talking about human migration.

  3. Remain civil and try to understand the incivility of others, which may spring from fear, anger, and frustration.

  4. Consider the influences that lead people to hold beliefs about immigrants, such as propaganda in mainstream and social media, cultural isolation, historic family narratives, and current social context. 

  5. Ask questions that help get to the heart of people’s language on immigration, such as:

  • Is that really how you feel about immigrants?

  • Where do you think you got that perception?

  • Did your grandparents speak English?

  • How many languages do you speak?

  • Do you know anyone from Somalia?

  • Which jobs, specifically, do you think are being usurped by immigrants?

  • Have you lost a job (or home, or opportunity) to an immigrant?

  • How were your ancestors received when they emigrated from their homes?

  • Do you think immigration laws might have been different when your family came to the US?

  • What were the reasons your family elected to move to another country?

6.  Get the facts



My sister and I remain close. I wish the same for my friend, a world away from her own sister, and I wonder how we come to a place of resolution and an end to fear and separation for those around us. I refuse to believe that we are doing our best for sisterhood.



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