When I was five, we moved to upstate New York to live on a farm that grew potatoes and corn. Every summer, migrant workers would come to work on the farm. They lived in a shack behind the main barn – the shack looked like a line of stalls. Each family shared a room. My mother took me there the first day they arrived. We went to see if they needed anything like towels, sheets or cooking utensils. Anything we had to give was welcome.
In that place, I saw abject poverty for the first time. And yet, I’d come from an island in the Pacific where families shared a single room, living as it were in houses with no walls. In Samoa, the people native to the islands had no shoes, wore cloth wrapped around them, had no jewellry but flowers, but to me they were not poor. They had a community, tradition, a home, a country. They had boats and land, and could farm and fish. All that flew in the sky, grew in the ground and swam in the sea was theirs, and they lived with that nature more or less in harmony, and they seemed to me happy.
The migrant workers at the farm travelled in family groups. The children waited at the bus stop with us and in their eyes were a sort of resignation. In a week, a month – they would move on. They would enroll in school, then leave. I saw the girls come to the bus stop wearing my old clothes. They had no lunchboxes, they carried no books. Even as a five-year-old I realized that these people were nomads, that they had nothing, and that they were truly poor. And yet, they were Americans. They were part of our country although they owned not a single part of it.
When I heard the word immigrant next, I was a bit older, and the discussion was about illegal immigrants coming to work. I thought they were talking about migrant workers, and I remembered the families at the farm living in one room shacks with no showers, toilets, electricity or kitchens. It took a long time for me to differentiate between migrant workers and illegal immigrants; to me they were the same. They were treated the same, as if they weren’t working but sitting around begging. They were despised, or worse – not even noticed, as if they didn’t actually exist outside their hands for picking vegetables.
We moved to the Caribbean. I was ten now and had already lived in five different states, including a Pacific island. I felt a slight kinship with the migrant worker children I’d known. We moved into a place, made friends, then left. In St Thomas we lived in six different houses in ten years, and I went to two different schools. I was as rootless as dandelion seed, and yet I was American – I knew that much. I had a passport and a country – a country I’d seen quite a bit of actually.
In school we talked about America – the immigrant nation, and again I pictured the migrant workers. I also pictured the Native Americans who had been displaced to make room for the hoards of immigrants from across the sea. My family, I discovered, had come from several countries. They had come from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Cuba and Lebanon. They had come on boats and planes, they had settled north and south. They had played parts in the history of the country. I was the great-granddaughter of immigrants, none of my ancestors had been born on American soil. My great-grandmother was an immigrant who came from Lebanon. Five of her sons fought in WWII for the Americans, arriving in France on the coast of Normandy on D-Day. All five – three by boat and two by parachute, debarked the same terrible day. All five survived. Their mother and father had been immigrants.
I moved to France when I was 18. I met my French husband and married in France. I am an immigrant. I am still as rootless as dandelion seed – with my husband we lived in Argentina, England, France and the US. We lived in Bordeaux, Normandy, Paris, Lyon, and now we live in Mantes la Jolie, a village largely populated by immigrants. People joke – they call it “Mantes l’Algerie”, after the large Arab population. They could call it Mantes la Turkey, or Mantes la Africa – it’s what I love about this town. I love seeing the people in their native clothes. I love going to the market and smelling the curry, the gumbo, the saffron, and seeing the silk and cotton scarves, the Arab and African dress, and eating the Turkish bread and pizza. It’s a village of immigrants, and I feel like I fit in, somehow.
Most French people are tolerant, but some are angry and make disparaging remarks about the immigrants. I remind them that I too am one, and they look at me in astonishment. The fact that I’m American seems to protect me from being a real immigrant, but that’s what I am, and I probably cost the French government far more than most of the immigrants here. I know it’s all about the impression that because there are more immigrants, the natives somehow have less. It’s not true. There is an economic depression that has been getting worse for 30 years now, but it’s no use telling people that the problem is the rich, not the poor. It’s easier to blame someone weaker than you. The rich are protected. The immigrants are vulnerable.
So when people start talking about immigrants, I listen. Because I am one, because my great-grandparents were, and because I knew people who were natives to their country and who were treated like immigrants because they owned nothing and were nomads. The word immigrant is from migration: the movement by people from one place to another with the intentions of settling temporarily or permanently in the new location. It’s been going on since the dawn of time, and will continue as long as there are people on the planet, which, seeing how things are going, may not be for very long now.
So make room, people are coming. As long as there is war, famine, or simple curiosity, people will move. And if you are one of the angry ones, the ones who think they have less because the immigrants are taking more, check the facts. Hardly ever discussed is corporate welfare: the grants and subsidies, the contracts and cut-price loans that government hands over to business. Think of the tax havens for the rich, the Swiss bank accounts, the Panama papers, and know that there is enough to go around, the rich just don’t want you to know that, or to share. They are making the immigrants into scapegoats. Let’s not let them.