Thursday, December 19, 2013

Guest Post: Bridget, I'm an American!

When you picture the life of an expat, what do you see?  You probably know that there are challenges inherent in exploring a new country, navigating new customs, and maybe learning a new language, but I'd guess that most of what you imagine is full of excitement and adventure and opportunity.

Now picture the life of an immigrant.  What do you see?

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines an expatriate as one who has "withdrawn (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one's native country" and an immigrant as one "who comes to a country of which one is not a native to take up permanent residence," but the unofficial distinction between the two terms is incredibly loaded.  The differences are heavy with economic, social, and geographical bias; it's safe to assume that it's more difficult to be an immigrant than to be an expat, and I do know that I'm incredibly lucky to have identified - and, perhaps more importantly, to have been identified by others - as an expat.

I am lucky, no question, and even as Jon and I deal with the frustrations of his visa process we remind ourselves that we could be facing far greater obstacles.  A few weeks ago, I realized just how easy it is to be an expat as opposed to an immigrant when one of my best friends posted a Facebook status from her office.  Bridget received her Masters of Social Work a few years ago from one of the best programs in the country and now works in the South Bronx at a community center for women and their families that caters primarily to an immigrant population, and she helps people face and overcome challenges that Jon and I - and, to be honest, most of the expats I know - can't even fathom. I asked Bridget to share the story behind her post because I think we can all use a little perspective and she was happy to oblige, so please help me welcome her here today!

“Bridget, I’m an American!” began one of the most delightful phone calls I have received. Cecilia* had been coming to my office once a week for six months to prepare for her US citizenship exam.

She submitted her application in July with the assistance of a notario. Notario fraud is a problem that plagues the South Bronx as well as many other neighborhoods with heavy immigrant concentrations. Notarios are individuals who claim to have legal expertise. Often that legal expertise does not extend beyond going down to the courthouse, paying $15, and becoming a notary. They often charge exorbitant fees and provide services that can put immigrants at risk.

The notario who helped Celia with her citizenship application failed to inform her that she qualified for a fee waiver based on her income, which would have saved her $680. He also failed to inform her that she would have to pass an English reading and writing test at her citizenship interview. Cecilia had never learned to read or write.

I run an immigration program at a wonderful community center called Mercy Center in the South Bronx. Our community is made up largely of immigrants who struggle to meet their basic needs. I help individuals with citizenship and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals applications and I provide accurate information. The services I provide are tangible. But what makes my job meaningful and possible is that the wonderful people who work at the Mercy Center have created an environment that truly celebrates individuals.

To claim that my team and I taught Celia to read and write would be grossly unfair to her. We simply gave her the resources and celebrated her progress. We showed her free computer programs and helped her develop a study plan. And then we cheered her every week as she mastered a new set of words. “Citizens can vote.” “Flag Day is in June.” “Washington is the father of our country.” With every new sentence Celia learned, her confidence grew. She learned what she was capable of. She enrolled in Mercy Center’s English classes. After a few weeks of class, she told me that she refused to speak to me in Spanish because she would be an American. We celebrated that, too.

The day she called me to tell me, “Bridget, I am an American. I passed the exam!” I jumped up from my desk, let out my most patriotic “WOOP!” and shared the news with the other aspiring citizens in my office. We all cheered.

I believe that by providing information and resources, we can help immigrants improve the quality of life and avoid traps like dishonest notarios. But by celebrating individuals, we make the South Bronx a more hopeful and joyful place to live. I’m so grateful to the participants I work with, who remind me daily how exciting and gratifying it is to learn new things. I love my job!

Celia, second from left, and Bridget, second from right
*Celia’s name has been changed out of respect for her privacy.

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  1. What an awesome story. Bridget, your job is awesome.

  2. What an awesome job. What you do for these people is truly amazing. God bless!

  3. Love this! What a great field in which to work- although I'm sure every celebration has an equally powerful devastating counterpart. I think sometimes, no matter where you stand on immigration issues, it's hard to see past the political movements to the individual faces. Woop, indeed, Cecilia*!!

  4. This is wonderful! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Wow, Louise. That sounds unforgettable!

  6. I am crying. Love you both :) xoxo

  7. This is awesome!! I was a tiny one when my dad became a U.S. citizen, but this inspires me to learn more about what the process was like for him. It's so wonderful that there are people like Bridget working to help people through such a big process, and even more wonderful that so many immigrants are working to achieve it.


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