Living Abroad

According to one site, the U.S. State Department estimates that around 6.6 million Americans live overseas. Just in case it doesn’t occur to you, that means that they are either diplomats or immigrants in other countries. Immigrants. There are Americans who are immigrants in other countries. They are either treated as guests with some form of permanent or temporary residency, or else they are permanent resident aliens heading towards naturalization in their host country.

For various reasons these Americans have chosen to live in other countries. For some it is a matter of business, for others it is an adventure and for still others it is a mission from God. Motives vary, but their nationality is the same. They come from Hawaii, Nebraska, Texas, New Hampshire and pretty much every other state in the Union. Some are from families that moved to the U.S. where they were born or else acquired citizenship, but many come from families who have roots going back generations in North America.

For a time I was counted as one of them. I was an expatriate American. Living in Brazil for nearly three years, when I moved there I had no intention of ever leaving, except for brief visits to the United States. Unfortunately, finances and circumstances conspired to cut short my time there.

U.S. citizens who live in the United States don’t appreciate the courtesy being extended to their fellow citizens in other countries. We are able to move to most any country in the world we choose, if we are willing to work within that system to do so. Sadly, the United States is not like this towards people of other nations who would like to move here. I know many good, honest, hard working Brazilians who would make a real contribution and be true assets to the United States in their own ways, but because the U.S. immigration process is so screwed up, they are unable to make the move.

The hospitality we receive, we are unwilling to extend in return to other. This sin saddens me deeply.

Troublesome Teddy

Muslims are so sensitive. Caricatures of their prophet incite riots and other forms of extreme violence. People make death threats, and mean it. Now a British teacher in Sudan has been sentenced to 15 days in jail for allowing her 7-year-old students to name a teddy bear “Muhammad.” Apparently their prophet needs a lot of defending.

Christians get into the act too, though typically the reaction nowadays is more of protest and anger than actual violence. I’m old enough to remember how up-in-arms everyone got over The Last Temptation of Christ. Just the other day a well-intentioned friend sent me an e-mail detailing the anti-God agenda of a new fantasy film, The Golden Compass.

In times past (especially in my late teens and early twenties) I would have gotten pretty uptight over insults to Jesus and the Christian faith, but now I have a different perspective. If Jesus was scorned and rejected, suffering agony and disgrace at the hands of those who should have welcomed him, all without turning in revenge against them, should I expect to take up arms against those in our day who seek to mock him? Hardly.

My Lord and God is far better than all that. He is no tottering idol, requiring my hand to steady Him and keep Him from falling. Rather, He sustains me.

So Difficult (3)

Zach had never seriously considered moving to a foreign country. Raised the only child of working-class parents in the northeastern United States, he wasn’t even sure what he wanted to major in. It was during his sophomore year of college that several friends got together saying they wanted to go to “Carnival” in Brazil, and so Zach dug into his ample savings for his part of their discount group travel package. He really wasn’t into partying, but was curious about what other countries were like.

The trip changed his whole perspective on life. While his friends drank themselves silly in Rio de Janeiro, Zach met a nice girl named Alessandra who took him around the historic points in the city. She was a university student herself, studying law. She loved history and knew a lot about her city’s past. They fell in love.

After Zach returned to the United States he decided to enroll in a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program at a different university in his state. Through grants, scholarships and hard work he was able to graduate nearly debt-free. He had maintained contact during this time with Alessandra through daily letters, e-mails and several phone calls a week. First she graduated, and as he was preparing for graduation he applied for a fiancee visa for her. They were wed in a small ceremony in Massachusetts the day after his graduation. After another month in the United States, they moved to Brazil.

Zach took a job teaching English, and Alessandra found a position with a bank doing the paperwork for repossession of vehicles. After a couple of years they had a son, who they named Rafael.

When Rafael was two, Zach and Alessandra decided to move back to the United States so they could study and also work for better wages, planning to save up money to buy a home in Brazil and to get Alessandra established in her own law office in Brazil. They weren’t too far into the process for Alessandra’s Green Card before they discovered that they had to exceed the Federally-determined “Poverty Level” in order to qualify, but due to the difference in wages between the two countries and the exchange rate, they were actually far below the designated minimum.

Zach’s father had already passed away while he was in college, and his mother lived on a small retirement income, so she was unable to sponsor them by showing her income. With no siblings to help or even close extended family, Zach and Alessandra had few options. They could either apply for a tourist visa for Alessandra, which was not guaranteed by any means, and then attempt to adjust her status once in the United States, or else they could stay in Brazil. Since even the adjustment of status would require proof of three years past income, they decided that choice was too risky.

So, Zach and Alessandra stayed in Brazil, earning miserable wages and seeing frustratingly little progress in their life plans. Zach and his son Rafael, as U.S. citizens, could go at any time to the United States. Alessandra, the wife and mother, could not, however.

This scenario is entirely plausible and is what will happen to anyone lacking means to prove financial stability to the United States government.

So Difficult (2)

Camila is an illegal immigrant. An Ecuadorian by birth, she entered the United States illegally and now attends an American public high school. She came to the United States when she was five, brought by her parents at great risk across the Mexican border. Camila speaks Spanish, though it is a bit flawed and her English is much better. In fact, just listening to her and her high school friends talking, you would not be able to pick her out. There is no Spanish accent.

All Camila has ever known is the United States. She knows next to nothing about the country in which she was born, but knows all the best shops in her adopted hometown in northern California. While she loves her mother’s cooking, hamburgers and french fries are comfort food for her. Camila is a child of the U.S., through and through.

Still, she isn’t a citizen…she’s not even legal.

She’s getting ready for her Senior prom. Her mother is proud and her father reminds her to use good judgment. Her date will be coming soon, an Anglo boy who she’s known a few years. He’s nice, but there’s nothing serious between them. They both just want to dance and celebrate the end of their high school years. He’ll be heading to college in the Fall, but she doesn’t like to think about that. It’s not that she’ll miss him, but rather that she feels terrible and left out. Despite being on the school honor roll all four years of high school, she didn’t apply to colleges when her friends did, sharing their excited talks about “the best” schools. Without legal status, she has no such options.

She doesn’t blame her parents, but why should she be punished for their decision to come illegally to the United States. This is the only home she’s ever known, and in Ecuador there’s nothing for her. As it is, she’ll probably end up cleaning houses or doing other work “off the record,” since she doesn’t even have the Social Security Card most employers require. She could get a fake card, but she likes neither the risk of being caught nor the thought of doing something that could ruin her chances if ever a chance at amnesty opened up.

So Camila heads to the prom and tries to forget tomorrow, with all her doubts about what lies after graduation. She can’t even imagine, and it scares her.

So Difficult (1)

Julio has dreamed of going to the United States to study since his first English class at age 13. Now 20, he has worked hard toward his goal. His English is pretty sharp, despite not having much opportunity to practice it in his hometown of Campo Grande, Brazil. He has worked for years to save up money for airfare and to have money in his bank account to prove to the American consulate that he has the means to study. Truth be told, he would have to work in the United States to continue to pay for his studies, but he won’t admit that in his interview for the visa. His father owns a business, which he will cite to show where the means will come from for his time in the U.S. In reality, like most small business people in Brazil, his father barely makes ends meet and won’t be able to contribute much to his oldest son’s dream. Working on a student visa in the U.S. is prohibited, and though Julio knows and regrets that he’ll have to do something illegal, it is really his only option if he wants to achieve his goals.

The day of the interview arrives, and Julio waits a few hours for his turn to come. The line is long, a mix of people looking for tourist, business and student visas. A lot of people leave the office downcast, some even in tears. Julio’s turn comes, and he composes himself, swallowing hard.

The interview goes well. The official, a young American man speaking terrible Portuguese and then switching to English when he realized that Julio can speak it, seems friendly and upbeat. Julio answers the questions well and the two seem to develop a rapport as he explains how he intends to study English first, and then transfer to a community college when he is ready. Though his face is smiling, Julio’s palms are sweating. Just as it appears his paperwork will be approved, the official is called away from the interview window (it looks a bit like a teller location at a bank) by someone out of sight.

A few minutes pass and the official returns with a sober expression. Leafing through the paperwork one last time, he returns some of it, puts the rest in a file and then silently slides a pink form through the slot in the window to Julio. Without a word he steps out again to the left. Looking down at the paper, hands shaking, the prospective student who spent more than a month’s wages to get this process underway and who has dreamed of the U.S. for years, reads first in English and then in Portuguese that his request has been denied. Though the money he spent on the application and process won’t be refunded, he is told, he is “free” to try again in six months. No further explanation is given or officially even owed to him, and as a guard tells him that his interview is over and that it’s time to leave, he swallows hard once again to keep from embarrassing himself on the way out in front of the others waiting in line.

They Are Leaving

Hard figures aren’t available to me, but I know what the Brazilian community in the northeastern United States is experiencing. People are leaving.

The anti-immigration crowd should be delighted. Entire families are relocating back to Brazil voluntarily. Why? There are a few primary reasons for why this is happening.

First, no one can legally obtain a driver license any more. I’ve heard that it’s still possible in the state of Washington, but immigrants who go there have to lie about where they live to get a license. Then, when they return to their home state, they fear being pulled over with the out-of-state license and either fined or told they need to change their license to a valid in-state license (for those not familiar with the U.S. system, driver licenses are issued by the states and valid for the entire country, but the driver has to get a new state license if they move to a different state). Eventually, with the REAL ID legislation that was passed, no states will be issuing licenses to illegal immigrants.

Second, the dollar is too week. For the past several years the American dollar has been worth two or even more than three Brazilian reais. For the year or so it has been hovering around 1.75, making it less and less worthwhile to work in the U.S. and send money back to Brazil. Anyone living in the States has to pay bills here (and most Brazilian immigrants I know also pay their taxes, including income tax), so what is left over to send back to Brazil is no longer paying out as well in Brazil as it was before.

Third, the political climate is changing. The federal, state and local governments have become quite adverse to illegal immigrants. Here in New Jersey one city crippled its economy by banning all illegal immigrants from renting apartments or being employed within city limits. Sections of that town are now vacant where once business was vibrant. The mayor of yet another city has spoken out repeatedly against illegal immigrants, once even criticizing McDonalds for putting up a billboard in his town in Spanish.

To me, this is tragic. It is becoming noticeable in Ironbound, the predominantly Portuguese and Brazilian neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, that there are fewer Brazilians. Not having as much contact with Hispanics, I don’t know what is going on with them and other ethnic groups. Although I do not believe that people should come to the United States illegally, for a number of reasons, I also fear the xenophobic trends I see in this society as well as the economic consequences the departure of so many hard-working people will bring.

Sunday School Teacher

This morning marked the end of my lengthy series on Great Themes of the Bible. The Brazilian church in Newark must have enjoyed it, because they are asking me to continue as the Sunday School teacher for the adult class. After some thought I decided to take a break in December and go back to teaching Sunday School again in January. I’m pleasantly surprised in their interest in having me continue, as it indicates that my teaching must not be entirely insufferable.

At the moment I have no real idea what I’ll begin teaching in January. The synoptic Gospels would probably be biting off more than I can chew, but perhaps some other book of the Bible or even a topic. My wife would like for me to teach on fasting, but that can’t be the topic of weeks of lessons and I’m not sure how much I can get together about it.

It looks like I have some thinking and praying to do.