I was a teenager the first time I traveled outside of the United States, when my family spent holidays in the Caribbean. On one occasion, Annette was our guide, and she drove us up a hill where we could gaze out over the entire island. She pulled a mango from the tree next to our car and peeled it with her pocket knife. “Taste this,” she said with twinkling eyes, like it was magic.
I looked at my dad for approval, he nodded, and the sweetness of that moment was more than the flavor on my tongue. Annette created a kind of energy between us. She was no longer “just our guide,” and I was no longer just a spectator. We were on a journey together.
Jewish faith had taught me to welcome the stranger because once we were strangers in a strange land. Her offering seemed like such a simple gesture, but it made a lasting impression. In that moment, I felt and understood the transformative power of welcoming.
We drove down the hill to a point on the coast where the sea meets the ocean and waves collide, forming a natural divide. I stood there in awe. It never occurred to me that all the water in the world doesn’t flow in the same direction.
As we turned away from this wonder, I noticed a row of severely dilapidated shacks with children in tattered clothes. It was the first time I was conscious of the social divide, and it felt anything but natural.
Now an immigration lawyer for 20-plus years, I remember that scene when I consider the various factors that cause people to move across borders, seeking a better life for themselves and their children. As unique as each of our human stories may be, the reasons we migrate generally boil down to three things: Love, opportunity and refuge.
Not surprisingly, immigration law provides three main ways to gain permanent residence, also called “green card” or “immigrant” status. Love: U.S. citizens and legal immigrants can sponsor certain family members, including a foreign spouse. Opportunity: Employers can sponsor qualifying workers, and certain “extraordinary alien” workers can sponsor themselves. Refuge: A limited number of designated refugees may be resettled in the U.S. each year, and anyone who fears persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group defined by a shared, immutable characteristic may seek asylum. Only after several years as a permanent resident can someone apply to become a U.S. citizen. Various forms of temporary work and humanitarian benefits are available, too.
Whatever reasons bring people to the U.S. today, the last thing immigrants want to do when they arrive is change the very features of this country that attracted them in the first place. They believe a better life is built on the American foundation of freedom and opportunity. They are willing to work hard, take risks and sacrifice to live the dream. That is why they come.
During the past few years, the world has witnessed unprecedented waves of migrants and refugees, children and families flowing across borders, seeking refuge and opportunity. Reuniting with loved ones. I do my best to help people navigate the legal process, but the most important role I play is to make strangers feel welcome, like my faith tradition counsels. Because we really are all on this journey together.
My own grandfather sailed across the ocean 100 years ago, a Jewish refugee from Russia. I wonder how he felt when he saw the Statue of Liberty waving on the horizon, after such a long and treacherous journey. I wish I was there to offer him a magical mango.
Do you know your family’s migration story? How do you welcome the stranger?
Sheryl Winarick is a U.S. immigration lawyer and TED Resident who travels the world connecting people where they live. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.