Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”
I doubt my mother would pass the “extreme vetting” process Donald Trump has in mind for refugees seeking a new life in the United States. After 26 years in this country, she still speaks with a heavy accent, misplaces tenses, mumbles. She doesn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance. Her job as a night security guard requires staying awake and making sure the doors stay locked, the perfect position for an immigrant like her.
Before coming to America, Mom was a psychiatrist, working in a busy clinic in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. The city’s population was more than a million, but after 30 years as a doctor, she couldn’t run an errand without bumping into a former patient or grateful family member. It used to annoy me as a child, and I’d tug on her arm, impatient to move on. Once we came to the United States, that was no longer a problem.
We know a handful of ex-Soviet refugees with medical degrees who managed to remain doctors once they came to the United States. Most didn’t. They landed at JFK airport; they received three months’ assistance from a refugee resettlement group, secondhand furniture and driving lessons, if they were lucky; and then the bills came. Medical boards and years of sleepless residency are a gantlet for 20-somethings who speak fluent English and have no children. Mom was pushing 50, had no money and couldn’t speak the language. At first she tried to become a nurse, then a nursing aide, then an EKG technician. The closest she got to returning to the medical field was a stint helping an old woman take her meds.
I don’t blame the United States for this. You become a refugee because something has gone terribly wrong, because your life reached a point where your best option meant abandoning your goals, roots, identity and the graves of your forefathers, and placing yourself at the mercy of strangers. Not even the land of opportunity can magically make up for all that, which is why the United States has the best-educated taxi drivers and home health aides in the world. For many, menial labor and humiliation are the price of admission to America. You scrub, you drive, you dream that your children will do better, and you try not to think of the past.
I don’t want Americans to pity my mother; the most obnoxious sound in the world is the cooing tone some people reserve for talking to toddlers and immigrants. I don’t even need Americans to respect her. The only way for them to comprehend the full extent of her sacrifice would be to go through the process themselves: sever all ties and live as perpetual strangers in a foreign land, where the minimum wage is the best hope and dignity comes at a premium. People often ask if it bothers me that Americans take things for granted. I always reply that I think that’s fantastic. One out of every 113 people on the planet is stateless or internally displaced. We don’t need more.
My one wish is for Americans to appreciate the degree to which my mom and the millions of other stuttering, thick-accented immigrants in menial jobs have already been vetted, and continue to be vetted, every day. They’ve been stripped of their personalities, skills, jokes, opinions, dignity and dreams by the language barrier. They’ve been questioned about who they are and what they’re doing in this country — by police, store clerks, employers, customers and the ghosts of their past. They’ve been vetted since they set foot on U.S. soil, they’re vetted every time they open their mouths, and they’ll continue to be vetted, in an extreme fashion, for the rest of their lives.
When I was a teenager, soaking up English and reveling in my freedom, I was frustrated because I didn’t think my mother loved America in the same blind way that I did. Didn’t she realize this was the land of new beginnings? How could she retain nostalgia for her old life? Then I grew up and imagined having my education nullified, my career and aspirations destroyed, my communication ability reduced to the level of a child’s, and then having to go on knowing that, as far as some were concerned, the lowest, native-born drug dealer would always have a greater claim to this country than I did. And the sickening magnitude of my mom’s sacrifice hit me. I’m in awe that she loves the United States at all.
And yet she does, as do so many others. That’s the best-kept secret about America. Immigrants respect and cherish this land, not because they’re immigrants, but in spite of it. In spite of being reduced to Trojan horses, rabid dogs and poisoned Skittles. In spite of the Trumps in their lives. In spite of all the vetting.