Immigrants flock to Washington though the
federal government employs only U.S. citi zens, and Washington is as federal as the
Vatican is Catholic Church. They are ei ther economic or political refugees, but it's
often hard to separate political grievance
from economic despair. They come here
because a cousin works as a maid for a
World Bank official and already has a car, or because their best American friend has a home address in the District--the consul who used to have them over for drinks in Shiraz or Hue or Beirut. Or their choice is Washington, the capital of the Free World, so they can launch a truly important ,emigr,e journal, or at least demonstrate in front of the White House. ,Emigr,es from Afghanistan and Hungary, Vietnam and Somalia share the sinking feeling that while the communists are on the march worldwide, American power is in retreat, and they pledge to do their damnedest to reverse the trend.
Washington these days is more and more like Paris was in the 1930s, when refugees from fascist and semi-fascist regimes fled to that proverbial land of liberty, fraternity and equality. Didn't Napoleon once say that every man has two countries: his own and France? Didn't an American president --was it John F. Kennedy?--call the United States a nation of nations?
But in France--or Germany or Switzerland--the bureaucrats who process the refugee's quest for liberty resemble the bureaucrats he fled, and the best he can hope for is that his grandchildren may be accepted as equals in the fraternity of the natives. Life is an endless queue in front of the pr,efecture, and a carte de s,ejour is a conditional privilege. Citizenship is an odyssey of depositions and d,emarches, and an invitation to the home of a real Frenchman, German or Swiss is the rarest of honors.
The great broad land across the ocean is lacking in central caf,es that serve as parliaments for exiles, and communal pride rarely hinges on the outcome of a soccer match. But the United States is a country meant for immigrants. It is safe haven for the persecuted intellectual and the ambitious consumer, and, regardless of d,etente and recession, it is the Zion of anti-communism and the Promised Land of economic opportunity. American public opinion is the world court of last appeal, and Washington is an international bourse of grants and projects.
There are ,emigr,es who daydream about the day the secretary of state will receive them and say, "Your idea for the West to recapture your homeland is brilliant. Take a this desk next to my office and let's do it." But, more often, immigrants debate the prospects for opening an ethnic restaurant in Bethesda or downtown, and they look for signs of a mass uprising against McDonald's.
Immigrants waver between hope of return and fear of deportation. At night they are back in the homeland--hostile strangers live in their houses and policemen chase them. After the solidity of a nightmare, the workaday world is as insubstantial as an image on the TV screen.
One day they decide to save every penny to return home and buy a gas station; next day they plan to buy a run-down house on the Anacostia riverfront and make a killing when that area is rehabilitated. A high point of the year is a neighborhood barbecue--Americans are so friendly, so open to a stranger's strangeness! But then comes an emergency phone call, and the distance between one's two countries is never greater than during those minutes of direct contact. Nor is loneliness ever sharper than in mourning for a beloved grandfather one's children did not have the good fortune to know.
The children grow up to speak fluent, accentless English--a miracle! But what they know best in their mother language are words for their favorite dishes. Putting them through college and--one hopes--medical school becomes a pilgrimage as solemn in purpose as the one that brought the parents to the New World.