Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Why people flee their homelands

Immigration is one of those topics where there is so much more heat than light that it can seem pointless to even weigh in on the topic, but here goes.

Most people in the United States have a view of immigration and it’s understandably negative. The perception that new arrivals to the country drive down wages, are a strain on social services and limit opportunity is not a new one. I was thinking the other day of the movie “Gangs of New York,” which I really ought to watch again, and how there was one scene where new arrivals to America in the Civil War era were greeting with the tossing of offal and filth, even as they signed up for military service in the Union Army.

Why do people leave the lands where they have lived, have family roots, speak the language, worship the same way as everyone else and subscribe to a strong set of traditions?

Beyond the legalities, I believe that it’s driven by a simple wish to have a better life than is available where they are, and they believe that such a life – despite many challenges and even the hatred of those already there – is possible even at the most basic level in the countries they are going to.

Look, the United States and Western Europe are pretty far from perfect, but when your country is basically self-destructing either through government action or inaction, or is completely beyond repair, you are willing to risk death and extreme indignity to come to a place like the United States or Germany and try to build a new life.

Subsistence in a democracy, even as you are hated, despised and used to generate extremist political rhetoric, has to be preferable to the hell-countries that many migrants are escaping.

I was listening to an NPR broadcast in which a young man educated in Syria described how he thought that he had a lot more to offer than just being cannon-fodder in the army. He had a degree in economics and believed that his life was worth something. He had tried and tried and tried to find some sort of life in his own country, torn apart by civil war and a mindless dictatorship, and just could not. Taking to a boat and trying to make it to Germany was, for him, a no-brainer.

Lots of young men have decided to basically vote with their feet if any sort of opportunity to affect conditions in their own country is lost.

For immigrants, it is a terribly dislocating experience to leave their country. “The West” has a lot of differences from the countries they are fleeing and an open society like the U.S.’s creates much tension.

Still, many people come here and want to stay. Why? Because we at least try to do more than just pay lip service to the idea of liberty and freedom. We may not always succeed, but immigrants are convinced that America and Western Europe are worth a try.

It’s easy to say to immigrants, “Just go back and try to fix your native land,” but the leaders of those lands often don’t believe that they need to be fixed. Seeing people leave makes these leaders very happy, as they figure that they are unloading troublemakers. The ones who stay will take up the slack for those who are gone.

My biggest decision
In 1985, I faced a situation that was akin to the one that immigrants faced. I had been working for the post office for a couple of years and (I know this sounds unbelievable) even had a girlfriend, and we were seriously discussing marriage. I wanted more than anything to make a life on Long Island but found the housing situation impossible at my wage level.

I cast about for ideas and finally one day a letter to the editor of Newsday opened my eyes.

There was much talk on Long Island 30 years ago about the need for affordable housing, and much of the effort to build such housing was opposed by those already there, who thought that it would not bring their children to the community but people of a different racial makeup who might then drive down property values.

There were many people complaining that the lack of rental housing and reasonably priced “starter homes” – as well as astronomical property and school taxes, and the scourge of the Long Island Lighting Company – would drive away people and businesses. Someone wrote to the newspaper and said, in effect, “If you can’t afford to live on Long Island, you should leave.”

It hit me like a punch between the eyes. The letter writer was right. Why was I killing myself trying to do what was pretty much set up as impossible?

I had served in the military and had seen many other places where people seemed to be making it or at least existing. Someplace else could hardly be worse than Long Island, I realized.

Unlike immigrants, of course, for me moving was a lot simpler and involved some pretty complex but very doable planning and then a long drive south on I-95. A year after moving to Florida, this immigrant from New York missed the family, missed the pizza and missed the Chinese food but had found a new life.

I bought a house and did so much more with my life that I couldn’t have done in New York. The potential fiancée was gone, and I won’t get into that here, but I had found a new and better life. I am convinced that when I’m 95 and start toting up the things I did in my life, moving to Florida will be one of the best things I ever did.

Best of all, it made me open to moving within Florida later on, and I have sometimes entertained the idea of moving elsewhere, but that is far less likely now.

Still, I think what New York lost, Florida gained when I came here.

Those immigrants trying everything they can to get away from failed countries and despotic dictatorships are doing what they can’t do for real: voting.

They know they are hated, and they know they are symbols and they know they are creating a problem, but they also know that whatever’s waiting for them in their new land – if they survive to arrive – it has to be a damn sight better than what’s behind them.

Sometimes in a situation, giving up and moving on is better than staying and wasting your energy. Those folks escaping their countries have made a go of it, and they’re doing what so many of us and even our predecessors did before: taking a shot at a better life.

I may not agree with them coming here, but I can see why they’re doing it. If you can’t agree with them, at least try to show a little compassion and humanity.

You can’t expect that from politicians, who love to play to our basest instincts, so just do it because it’s the human thing to do. And it’s way beyond what these people got in their native lands.

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October 9, 2015 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics | , , , ,

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