By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor
August 18, 2010
When I read the news report that Samson Afriyie (former Youth Organizer of the NDC in the Atiwa constituency in the Eastern Region) had defected from the NDC to the NPP because his DCE (Emmanuel Atta-Twum)) couldn’t make good his promise to secure a US visa for him, I laughed out loud. Not because I chose to be callous but because of the funny feelings that the aggrieved person’s claim aroused in me. When the dust settled, I felt sorry that someone would carry his sentiments to that extent. So, Mr. Afriyie, you also want to leave Ghana for the US, eh? Come along with me, then.
Before we start: Are you highly educated and already have a job offer? Are you a professional being invited by an organization? Are you looking for opportunities to attain higher education? Are you skilled or unskilled? What is your motivation for a US visa? I need to know so I can help you explore issues appropriately. All the same, here we go.
Contrary to what some tell-tale anecdotes about life in the United States will have Ghanaians believe, the conditions in that country are anything but rosy. The US is the world’s strongest economy but it also has a good number of the world’s poorest of the poor. I live in New York. Anytime I step out of my room, I come across someone who is destitute and unkempt; someone whose condition reflects extreme bleakness and reminds me of the woes of an unfulfilled life. This evidence of forlornness is depressing but it is a reality that cannot be removed from a capitalistic system of deep-seated individualism. It is pervasive and must be admitted as a downside of the glory that the US exudes to the outside world. Whenever I am confronted with the presence of such desolate people (who are US citizens but have been defeated by the Fates to become homeless, jobless, and seriously destitute), I cringe. In consequence, I shudder to think about the fate of an immigrant who enters the system without any roots therein and falls into desolation.
I may be painting this picture of gloom not because I want to discourage people from “trying their luck” in the US but because it is real and must be brought home to our youths. Those of them who have no skills or any good academic background and may contemplate taking the risk to leave home for the unknown should pause to think seriously about the implications. From what I have seen in many of the towns and cities of the US that I have visited, this country is not a “paradise-on-earth” as they might have been influenced by the Hollywood world of movies or tell-tale personal accounts to believe.
I will provide a glimpse into the situation, at least, from what I know so as to guide anybody who may be contemplating deserting home for the unknown.
THE HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT
Contrary to rumours, the job environment is bleak, especially in difficult economic times like what we are in today. Job openings are virtually non-existent to absorb immigrants, especially unskilled labour; they’ve been shrinking for many years now and there is no guarantee that a new entrant will get any meaningful job to do. (How about the current 9.7% employment rate of the US?)
Even when one identifies a prospective opening, the procedures for securing jobs are so cumbersome as to immobilize any applicant, especially an unskilled immigrant. From the perspective of required documents (to verify the applicant’s status—whether authorized to work in the US, in the first place) to other considerations (work experience, professional qualifications and job specialty, letters of recommendation, race and ethnicity), going through these procedures could be terribly overwhelming. I have come across many immigrants (especially those who don’t have the authorization to work or the permanent residency status) who are more miserable here than they would have been were they to have stayed back home. Don’t doubt it.
LACK OF COMMUNITY
The problem extends to other areas. Unlike citizens from other countries (Jews, Nigerians, Chinese, Koreans, Mexicans, etc.) who are so altruistic as to rally round any new comer from home, Ghanaians in the US have carved a bad name for themselves (although they have numerous ethnic-based associations and attend funerals and organize activities to socialize with each other). They don’t support each other as citizens of other countries do. Instead, they backbite, undercut, and even go to the extent of reporting each other to the US authorities to be flushed out. Stories of this kind of sell-out are common. The fear is that if a Ghanaian enters this country without first securing a reliable source of livelihood, he will find the going to be very very tough. Forget about any support from the Ghana Embassy or Permanent Representative to the UN.
CUMBERSOME PROCEDURES FOR REGULARIZING ONE’S STATUS
Procedures for integrating oneself into the system are cumbersome. Students who enter the country on F1 (student visa) status for higher education soon face hurdles when the bills mount. Although they may be given tentative social security numbers, they are not authorized to work outside the designated environment (usually the university campus). Those who are daring find ways to circumvent such a restriction even though they live in fear of the repercussions. Their work-study concession expires at the end of their designated I-20 coverage period.
That’s where the problem worsens because if they are unlucky to land any job in the formal sector or if their employers aren’t willing to regularize their immigration status by helping them acquire a valid work permit (H1B status) leading to a permanent resident status (Green Card), they will be at a dead-end. They stand alone to face the vagaries of the situation. Unable to contain the buffeting, some of them wisely retrace their steps back home but the recalcitrant ones remain in the country to join the poolof illegal immigrants. In this country, being an illegal immigrant is like walking a tightrope toward hell and damnation.
Those who enter the US on their own(unskilled and lowly educated) but can’t regularize their stay because they don’t have the required documentation are pitiable. Not only have they already hit a dead-end but it appears that they cannot retreat either. A paralyzing standstill. Ask them and they tell you that they don’t want to return home. And they give several reasons to firm up their claims. Either some of them had left home under dubious circumstances (duping others) and are wary of the consequences or they haven’t been able to do anything at home to absorb them if they return. Some are known to have neglected their families and incurred their displeasure, which rules out any sympathy toward them if they choose to cut everything short to return home. These are the desperate ones who are between the devil and the deep blue sea and will do anything to survive. Lucky ones turn to the informal sector as store attendants or cleaners. That’s only in the big cities. Elsewhere, they will be chased away.
Those who manage to strike up good relationships end up using other people’s identities to secure menial jobs just to keep their heads above the water. The commonest job they do is working at the nursing home to take care of invalids and the aged white folks. This job avenue is divided into two: private and public. Those who enter private homes to take care of the needy have not much to fear from the law enforcement agencies because they may not need any official documentation to do such a job. They don’t leave any documentation trace behind them to be followed. All they need is the goodwill of someone already established in the field who can recommend them to the needy. And they must know how to take care of their patients (their hygiene needs, food, and others) to earn their wages.
Entering the public sector is where the danger lies most. Those who manage to secure others’ identification documents (work authorization, Social Security number, etc.) always live in fear of exposure and punishment. Their double-identities turn out to be double-edged swords that could cut both ways, especially if found out. They try to be smart and look over their shoulders quite often. They fear even their own shadows. These days, the employers at these Home Care establishments are beginning to enforce measures that will soon expose them. The introduction of such measures as photo identity and fingerprinting are likely to scare the real owners of the documents that they appropriate for work. Conscious of this danger, most genuine residents are chary of allowing others to use their identities.
One common avenue open to such people is marriage to citizens or those in good status so that they can derive an improved and official status from that relationship. Two problems have now made this approach dicey. First, the fee that the prospective partner charges is astronomically high (I hear it is now $17,000.00). Even if one succeeds in paying, there is no guarantee that the “marriage” will be concluded. I have heard of instances where the prospective partner collected all that manner and vanished into thin air. Second, the US authorities are now privy to this bogus method of regularizing one’s status and promptly expose the culprits for punishment. So, gradually, the noose is being tightened in many ways to make it difficult for people to outwit the system.
Those who pass as “American citizens” by way of the Diversity Visa Lottery also have their problems. They can’t say that they have been smoothly integrated into the system and are enjoying the benefits of their sojourn. I know a lot of them who have regretted throwing their lives into disarray with the allurement of this Diversity Visa Lottery labyrinth. The promises don’t materialize easily. Those who thought they were immediately going to live in improved conditions realize too late that they have no way to get out of the maze unscathed. Some have been wise enough to pursue higher education in the hope that they will get good jobs thereafter. Their dreams are big, at least, for now.
Those in the system as professionals can’t throw up their arms in celebration either. Having gone through thick and thin to regularize their status, they have other issues to be wary of. The cares and fears of their working and living conditions make it unreasonable for them to throw caution to the wind to jubilate over their integration into the American system. In one way or the other, the system’s devastating impact on the individual is virtually inescapable. How about the utility bills that come almost every day and the high rent?
In most cases, people are living from hand-to-mouth but can’t do otherwise. Others are praying hard that our politicians will do the right thing to improve conditions in the country so they can return home and be gainfully employed. Fed up with their dire circumstances, some have packed bag and baggage and left for home. At least, they are assured of some entrenched benefits at home that are not available in a foreign land—community; free-for-all situations without any prying eyes of the security services; laxity in the payment of rent and utility bills; and the usual Ghanaian easy-going lifestyle. Home sweet home!!
America is a land of plenty. Food is everywhere and the individual is not expected to starve. But in a land where homelessness is rampant, it is obvious that an immigrant who is not gainfully employed and is not lucky enough to be accommodated by others will definitely find himself homeless. There are many nooks and crannies for such a person to sneak into for some sort of respite; but when winter dawn sets in, no one needs to tell such a destitute that he is in real danger. How about other requirements such as medical/health insurance?
There is no gainsaying the fact that other frightening conditions make it unreasonable for someone to want to leave the comfort of his homeland to be in a foreign land where everything that happens is determined by how much money one has to buy space for oneself or to construct one’s identity. In a land where there is a crime (murder, rape, robbery, assault, etc.) every five seconds, the state of happiness that tell-tale accounts portray are misleading and no one should allow himself to be swayed into making wrong choices.
Race relations are not unproblematic. Contrary to what one might believe in Africa, the relationship between those from the continent and their African American counterparts is not rosy. African Americans harbour some disdain against Africans and don’t hide it, especially at the work place. I have heard some of them justify their disdain with the claim that “WE” are responsible for selling their forefathers into slavery and that when we enter the US, we deprive them of job opportunities. In sum, they see us as savages and are cautious in their dealings with us. There are some good aspects, though. Those who are lucky to come into contact with the good ones enjoy mutual benefits from their interactions. But I am yet to come across any who doesn’t carry any disdain for the African from mainland Africa.
END OF THE ROAD
These are the grim realities that Ghanaians back home must know. I have given these impressions from my position of situatedness, which makes it peculiar. Someone else may have something more assuring and illuminating to contradict mine. But for now, that is my perspective, which I want my fellow Ghanaians back home to consider before they leap into the abyss of the unknown.
So, my friend Samson Afriyie, do you still want to leave Ghana for the US? If it is the failure of the DCE to procure the US visa for you that is the cause for your turning coat, think about it again. Your DCE may be giving you a blessing in disguise. More importantly, you can achieve your goals in Ghana if you know how to position yourself. Look around you. Nowhere is “cool” in the US.