The journey across America: understanding a nation’s immigration experience

Follow Katy Long as she journeys across America, tracing the history of newcomers to the country across two centuries and three thousand miles.
The journey across America. Photo: Lucy Peers/ODI, 2017

Over the next two months, Katy Long will be travelling across America, tracing the history of newcomers to the country across two centuries and three thousand miles. At a time when America is fiercely debating the nature of national identity and the future of US immigration, this project offers a vital perspective on the history of US immigration at both a personal and political level.

Each week, she will provide a visual update, chronicling how – despite facing hostility – each new group of arrivals has played a crucial role in shaping the very definition of what it means to be an American. The updates will be weaved into a longer narrative and published as a book later in 2018.

Follow the journey on Twitter (#americanjourneys) and Instagram (@americanjourneysproject). All photos are courtesy of Jessie Parks/ODI (2018). 

San Francisco (✔)

I moved to San Francisco from London in April 2014. It was not love at first sight. The city felt cold and grey, the fog surrounding the rows upon rows of homeless tents downtown. But slowly I fell for the city’s charms: for its sparkling bay and steep streets, for the liberal community I found in the parks dotted throughout my neighborhood. 

But two years later, on 8 November 2016, Donald J Trump Jr. was elected President. Walking San Francisco’s streets the next morning, I saw only shocked and stony faces. Whose America was this? Were we — recent immigrants to America — welcome here anymore?  In San Francisco we felt at home. But could we just continue to hide in our liberal bubble, our white privilege protecting us from the seep of toxic politics?

To try to answer these questions, we decided to drive across America, from San Francisco to New York. Talking to people we meet along the way, we would unravel America’s immigration story. We’d fit our own American journey into the story of the 74 million immigrants that had come before us.

So, on a cold March morning we took the ferry to Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Between 1910 and 1940, the island’s immigration station functioned as the gateway to America’s West Coast. But Angel Island wasn’t a place of welcome: it was a place intended to deter and to exclude. During this period, immigration from Asia to America was almost totally prohibited.

Those detained on Angel Island — the vast majority of whom were Chinese — had to try to persuade the officials interrogating them that they had the right to enter. They usually claimed to be the citizen children of American-born Chinese. Yet it’s estimated that up to 90% of those arriving were actually ‘paper sons’, relying upon coaching books to answer officials’ questions.

Ancient history? Not really. These Chinese migrants relied upon chain migration, navigated a travel ban, and fought in the courts for the right to due process. The parallels between their stories, and the debates swirling around US immigration policy today, are impossible to miss.

Angel Island is a memorial to the worst of America. But alongside this despair, I think it’s also a place of hope, a reminder of the promise of opportunity. Standing on Angel Island, as the rain pours down from a black sky, I read plaques dedicated to these migrants by their descendants: thank-you notes full of gratitude for bestowing the gift of an American journey.

And now our own journey is about to start. In my next post from San Diego, I’ll explore what it’s like to live in the shadow of the now notorious US-Mexico border wall.

San Diego (✔)

I first saw the wall snaking across the desert. The US on one side, Mexico on the other. It was the same wall – a line of rust-red metal stakes – that I had seen in a thousand news reports, but the vast and empty skies on either side of it brought new perspective.

I was there with Hugo, a volunteer from the humanitarian NGO Border Angels. As we walked towards the wall, dropping water for the migrants who try to cross clandestinely, he told me how many wrap carpet around their shoes, hoping to hide their footprints from the Border Patrol.

The next day I visited the border again, this time at Friendship Park, the southwestern most corner of the US. For many decades, Mexican-American families divided by immigration statuses could meet here: before 2009, many used to picnic together on the beach below. But today Friendship Park, at least on the US side, resembles a maximum security prison. Just getting to it is arduous – you must hike a mile and a half through marshlands, avoiding contaminated sewage floods. Visiting hours are restricted to between 10am and 2pm on weekends, and only 10 people are allowed into the inner plaza, where it’s actually possible to approach and talk to loved ones through the reinforced metal fence, at any one time.

Our final encounter with the US-Mexico border was in the city of Calexico, California, two hours east of San Diego. Here, everyone speaks Spanish. Many of the students and workers are border commuters, who have US documents allowing them to work and study in the States, but choose to live on the Mexican side. Calexico (with a population of 40,000) is essentially a suburb of Mexicali (population 700,000) – so while better jobs and education can be had in California, a better and cheaper family life can be had in Mexico.

After four days at the US-Mexico border, I left with a renewed sense of just how absurd this entire obsession with ‘big, beautiful’ walls is. Crossing the border has already become much harder. This is true both for those moving irregularly (border patrol arrests were at a 46 year low in 2017) and for those moving legally, who must often waste hours each day in line at the crossing points. A taller wall will not deter the cartels from their drug and people smuggling operations, nor will it erase the deep ties that bind together communities on both sides of the border. As a result, even the comfort it provides to those genuinely fearful of immigration will prove short-lived. In San Diego, I heard the wall being called a distraction, a folly and a tragedy. It is all these things. What it is not is a solution – for anyone.

We’ve now left California. In my next post I’ll be reporting from Cactus, Texas, a tiny town in the most Republican county of Texas where resettled refugees now make up a quarter of the population.

Cactus (✔)

At first glance, Cactus, Texas, is all bleached grass and empty space. When I arrived there was frost on the ground, and a pervasive, pungent smell of cow. The odor is a reminder that JBS’ meatpacking facility is the lifeblood of this community. And the struggle of this industry to recruit willing workers explains why, in this tiny rural town, nearly everyone is an immigrant, and a quarter are resettled refugees.

Cactus' factory had long employed migrant workers, but in 2006 a massive immigration raid led to 300 undocumented Latino workers being arrested. The workers who came to fill their jobs were not Americans: they were Burmese refugees, recently resettled in the US. The jobs in Cactus required no English and paid well, and rent is cheap, especially compared to urban centers like Dallas.

Today, most of the original Burmese families have moved on but the connection between refugee resettlement and Cactus’ beef plant remains. Alongside newer Burmese families there are now Somali, Sudanese, Congolese and Haitian workers. There are also large numbers of Latino workers once more, including a recent influx of Quiche-speaking Guatemalans.

All this explains how Cactus – a dusty, impoverished place, twice destroyed by tornados – is also a place where the only restaurants in town are Thai and Somali. What it doesn’t explain is the energy of the white Americans working in the town, trying to ensure that these migrants and their children are supported on the first steps of their American journeys.

In Cactus Elementary School, Principal TJ Funderburg is hugged by students as he walks down the corridor. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, and is determined that his students aspire to do the same. ‘I don’t want to see them come back to Cactus,’ he says, ‘Or if they do, it’s got to be as a manager at the plant, not on the factory floor. And they see that. They see how hard their parents work, how hard that work is.

So on the one hand, Cactus is a typical, dead-end factory town. Yet on the other, it is a beginning for many resettled refugee families. You need a bottom rung on any ladder. Later that day I went with staff from the Refugee Services of Texas to Amarillo, a larger town about one hour south. I met a newly arrived Congolese family in Amarillo who, after twelve long years in a refugee camp in Burundi, cannot believe their luck. They tell me they will work hard, become American citizens, and one day buy a house.

In the past two years, the US’ refugee resettlement program has been subject to vicious cuts, the victim of a toxic political climate. Given this, the Texas Panhandle is not where you expect to find a warm welcome for refugees. This is deep-red Republican country: over lunch, conversation turns to Barack Obama's middle name and complaints about liberal ‘fake news’.

Nevertheless, I left unexpectedly optimistic. In the end, local economic pragmatism – and a measure of human kindness – may prove a match for fear and hate.

I'll be writing next from Nashville, where we'll be spending time with the largest Kurdish population in the US, and asking how the Syrian Civil War and US immigration policies are affecting this community.

Nashville (✔)

‘What does it mean to be American? Honestly, the way the country is going at the moment, I don’t know. Just work hard, be free. Try to live a better life.’

A month into our journey, I’ve asked dozens of people what it means to be American, and the vast majority of answers I’ve heard are variations on this theme. But what makes this answer different is that Nazim is also Kurdish, having arrived in the US from a refugee camp in the late 1970s, aged two. Sitting in the back room of his mobile phone store in Nashville, Tennessee, he shows us photos of a Kurdish past on Facebook – while talking to us in a strong southern accent about his all-American life.

Nashville has at least 15,000 Kurdish residents, more than any other US city. In the past 40 years it has become known as ‘little Kurdistan’. The first refugee families arrived here in the late 1970s from Iraq. A second wave followed, in the early 1990s, fleeing the genocidal violence unleashed by Saddam Hussein. More recently, a third group has arrived in the wake of the Syrian civil war and ISIS’ advance into Kurdish territory, but deep cuts in the US refugee resettlement program and President Trump’s travel ban have made this increasingly difficult.

However, while Nashville is a relatively liberal city, rural Tennessee is a different story. The Kurdish Americans we talked to said that while their Caucasian appearances often mean they encounter less casual harassment than other immigrant groups, their names mark them out as not only foreign but Muslim. There have been repeated attempts to introduce anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant legislation by Tennessee politicians. The state legislature is currently considering a bill that would require all of Tennessee’s local law enforcement agencies to sign up for Trump’s deportation force, and another that would prohibit any government agency from accepting non-state IDs, making it difficult for immigrants to enroll their children in school or access critical services. The state recently sued the US Government – unsuccessfully – in a bid to halt all refugee resettlement to Tennessee.

Yet primarily, the second generation Kurdish Americans I talked to spoke about a different struggle: balancing their Kurdish heritage with their American upbringing. Many older Kurds, for instance, have struggled to accept their children marrying outside the community. As we listen to one mother talk about her opposition to her son’s engagement, it strikes me that her fears are similar to the anxieties voiced by many white Americans, who are also afraid that migration will result in a dilution of their cultural identity.

The message from Nashville is clear: integration is inevitable, even if it is also inevitably painful for those who must let go of old certainties about what it means to be Kurdish, or what it is to be American. For Nashville’s young Kurds are also young Americans in a new South. And as far as they’re concerned, they’re already home.

Bayou la Batre (✔)

In Bayou la Batre, Alabama, southern accents are thick and seafood is king. As we drive past the shrimping boats moored along the Gulf Coast waterway, the pelicans and gulls chatter. But while the bobbing boats are idyllic, Bayou le Batre’s recent history is marked by a double disaster. Hurricane Katrina flooded the town in 2005: five years later, the BP oil spill devastated the fishing industry.

Alabama is not a place foreigners come to. Across the state, only 3.5% of the population are foreign born. This is also the old Deep South: locals we talk to are acutely sensitive to the idea that ‘Northerners’ think they are unreformed racists. Confederate flags still hang from many of the bungalows we drive past.

But Bayou la Batre’s story is different. Today, 20% of Bayou la Batre’s residents are originally from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia

These Indochinese refugees came to the US in the 1970s and 1980s. They had worked in the fishing industries back home, so when they were resettled in the US they made their way to the Gulf Coast to put their skills to use. Once there, they found an American seafood industry in desperate need of workers. Although most of the shrimping boats in the Bayou were (and still are) American-owned operations, by the 1970s it was already becoming increasingly difficult to fill jobs on shore. Older workers were aging, and their children wanted office jobs. 

Randy Collins, a longtime local resident of Bayou la Batre, is unequivocal when asked about the impact of this immigration. ‘Honestly, in my opinion, the Vietnamese, they saved this town. We needed the workers. No Americans wanted to do the jobs.’

Now, 40 years since the arrival of the first Indochinese refugees, the pattern is repeating itself. Tuan ‘Dave’ Do, who coordinates the local community program for the NGO Boat People SOS, speaks wistfully of his desire to see more young Asian members of the community stay in the region. A generation ago, the Bayou offered a vital economic lifeline in a bewildering country. But today, these workers are aging – and now their children want office jobs too.

When we visit Travis Stringfellow’s oyster opening factory, he tells us that increasing numbers of his workers are from Latin America, all brought in on temporary H2B visas. Stringfellow says he’s never had an issue securing the visas for his workers. But 47,000 applications from businesses for the 33,000 H2B visas available nationwide were received within five days of the 2018 Summer visa program opening on 1 March.

Bayou la Batre never intended to welcome immigrants or refugees. But immigrants and refugees have nevertheless been able to make a home here, because the Bayou needed workers and they were willing to work. As we leave the Bayou, heading northeast towards the urban lights of Atlanta, I keep thinking about this: about how in the Bayou, it’s not cultural diversity but jobs which matter. And that’s an important lesson for anyone wanting to shape the future of American immigration.

Clarkston (✔)

Clarkston, Georgia is a remarkable town. Half an hour outside Atlanta, in the past 30 years Clarkston has become famous as the ‘Ellis Island of the South’. The buildings downtown are the same shade of strip-mall beige we’ve seen across small-town America. What catches your eye are the customers entering the grocery store, in colorful headscarves and wraps, African and Asian and Arab.

Thirty years ago, Clarkston was identified by US refugee resettlement agencies as an ideal location to place new arrivals. A combination of cheap apartments and good transport links to low-skilled jobs allowed refugees to find a foothold. In busy years, Clarkston has welcomed 1,500 refugees. In 2018, only a fraction of that number have arrived.

I first came to Clarkston a year ago. I was fascinated by not only by the story of the refugees making their American homes here, but also the fact that in recent years, increasing numbers of Americans have also moved to Clarkston, attracted by the diversity of this immigrant community.

Almost as soon as I left, I knew I wanted to return. The diversity of those it welcomed was evident. But had Clarkston also managed to solve the longer-term challenges of immigrant integration?

This time, I met refugee and immigrant students who debated American politics with fluency and passion – one Somali refugee even professing his support for Donald Trump (to the horror of both the other immigrants and the liberal white Americans listening!). Gathering for a BBQ at his professor’s house, we ate hummus, injera, kebabs and mac 'n’ cheese. 

This is one part of Clarkston's story. This is the melting point. This is the welcome America can offer.  But the other part of the story is that on closer inspection, those threads of belonging are often thin.

Meeting in Clarkston the following day, the same Somali refugee who had defended Trump admitted to me he sometimes felt lost now he’d transferred to the larger city university, where there are far fewer refugees. He felt he had only one true white friend – the Professor whose office we were meeting in and who had invited him to her home last night. Other students talked about Clarkston as a place of safety, telling me how they were harassed in Atlanta for wearing the hijab.

And while Clarkston is a sanctuary for many of its residents, the community is not without its divisions. Different national groups tended to cluster in different apartment complexes: two black female volunteers told us how many Arab refugees living in their building had initially been wary of making contact with them.

All this is a reminder that celebrating diversity is not necessarily the same as living integration – and the difference between sanctuary and ‘ghettoisation’ is sometimes marginal. Nevertheless, Clarkston is a remarkable and uplifting city. It is a place where refugees and immigrants can start their American journey as part of a community, and where there are Americans determined not just to profess welcome, but to practice it.

Roanoke (✔)

Virginia is where America began. In 1609, adventurers founded the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown. In 1776, their descendants would play a pivotal role in declaring the American colonies independent, and in then shaping the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were all Virginians. Freedom of religion was central to their America. Jefferson listed his authorship of the Virginia Statue on Religious Freedom as one of his proudest achievements.

In truth, before visiting Roanoke, I dismissed this as nothing more than guidebook history. But visiting the foothills of the Appalachia region, it’s clear that Jefferson’s legacy still matters. For in ‘Trump’s Heartland’ (90% of some counties here voted for him) there is a small but vibrant Muslim community. 

In Princeton, West Virginia, we attended Friday prayers at the Islamic Society and shared takeout pizza. Nearly all those attending prayers are doctors who emigrated from Pakistan and India 30 years ago, and who have spent the majority of their careers delivering much-needed healthcare in an impoverished Appalachia. Like many other communities in West Virginia, their numbers are shrinking – as the doctors near retirement age and their children pursue professional careers in cities elsewhere. But 20 years ago, nearly half of physicians in the region were foreign-born.

I asked these doctors whether they had experienced acts of Islamophobia. They felt that their professional status in a small community – they are seen by their patients as ‘doctors, not Muslims’ – has kept them relatively insulated. Voices crack with emotion as they recall how, after their centre was vandalised in 2001, a hardware store donated free materials and 300 people came to help with the repairs. Less support was offered when the same happened in 2014: relations have hardened. They expressed more fear for their American children’s futures. 

Then these doctors – Muslims and immigrants but also Virginians and Americans – speak about Thomas Jefferson, about the fact that he read the Koran, about Virginia’s commitment to religious freedom. I’m reminded of how powerful the ideal of America is, even for those who know very well the shortcomings of its practice.

These words are echoed at the citizenship ceremony we attend that day in Roanoke. As a hundred immigrants from 22 countries stood in a packed courtroom to take the oath of allegiance, the presiding Judge tells these newest American citizens: ‘You are enriching us if you came expecting to find us better than we are’. 

After the ceremony, these immigrants share their stories of what becoming American means to them. Some fled civil war and dictatorship, others endured long years of separation from parents or spouses before being reunited. All share the sentiment that one man attempts to put into words: ‘Thank-you… it’s been a long 17 years. But we finally made it.’ There’s not a dry eye in the room. And in this courtroom, at least for this hour, the American dream lives on.

Washington DC (✔)

Before I moved to the US, ‘America’ was easy to see. It was the Stars and Stripes, the President and the White House, patriotic crowds at baseball games.

But from the inside, ‘America’ is much harder to find. The federal system of government means states and cities set most everyday laws. For many, federal America feels like an east-coast constitutional abstraction.

So when I arrived in Washington, D.C. (where Federal Government is not just legal authority but architectural reality) I wanted to understand the drivers of federal immigration policy, from ICE raids to debates about visa quotas. On the one hand, determining who is allowed in and who can become a citizen are clearly fundamental national questions. But on the other, immigration is lived in communities – communities with vastly different experiences and intentions in welcoming newcomers. 

So just what does it mean to set national immigration policy in a fractured America?

As Professor Katie Benton-Cohen tells me when I visit her in Georgetown, federal oversight of immigration was not inevitable. In fact, it’s a relatively recent invention. Until Ellis Island opened in 1890, states – and not the federal government – registered immigrant arrivals. The naturalisation of US citizens was only federalised in 1906.

Today, immigration policy is set in D.C.. But even if states don’t control who arrives, many set the tone of the welcome they offer to immigrants – with or without status. The gulf between declared federal immigration policy and local reality can sometimes be extreme, particularly in so-called sanctuary cities who refuse to cooperate with federal efforts to deport undocumented migrants. Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General, has filed suit against the Sanctuary State of California. But under the Obama administration, it was actually states at the opposite end of the political spectrum, such as Arizona, who broke with federal immigration policy to impose much harsher ID laws

Sarah Pierce, a Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, explains that this is part of the reason why, despite decades of debate in Congress, there has been no comprehensive immigration reform for a generation. There is universal recognition that the current system is flawed, but states have adopted very different approaches to respond to America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants (who are here partly in consequence of these failures). Some allow resident undocumented migrants to pay in-state tuition fees and hold drivers’ licenses: others practice zero-tolerance. I start to wonder whether US immigration policy might function better if – like in Canada – states could also play a role in choosing who to admit?

After spending time in Washington, I begin to understand why so many Americans are desperate for politics to take place anywhere but here. It’s hard to connect these policy debates with human lives. So we leave the political arena and take a trip to Columbia Heights, an area where, for decades, immigrants — in particular the city’s Salvadorean community — have built their American lives in the shadow of Capitol Hill. 

Within a few short blocks we talk to Mexicans, Peruvians, Indians and Salvadoreans, who tell us about their hopes and fears for the future. Guille, who arrived from Peru in 1963, aged 18, reflects ‘I had to work hard, but I could achieve a lot…but [for new immigrants] it’s completely different now.’ And I’m quickly reminded that even in Washington, you don’t have to look very hard to find the human cost of playing politics with immigrants’ lives. You just have to choose to see it.

New York City (✔)

Two months, 20 states and nearly 7,000 miles after leaving San Francisco, we arrive in New York: the final stop on our American journey.

It’s an appropriate ending. There’s no city quite so inextricably associated with the stories of America’s immigrants as New York. This is a city filled with polyglot insomniacs, a city that is impossible to imagine without its immigrants and their dreams. I’m writing this sitting in an Italian café in Brooklyn, opposite a Puerto Rican-owned laundrette and next to a Vietnamese sandwich shop. My son’s babysitter this afternoon is from Colombia; earlier we traded toys with a Trinidadian family in the playground. A few blocks south, ultra-orthodox Jews share the sidewalk with Pakistani women in saris. 

Welcome to New York. Welcome to the world.

Nowhere is the legacy of immigration more visible than on the Lower East Side. For generations, the city’s newest and poorest immigrants crowded into tenement housing here. Mass Irish and German immigration began in the 1840s. Then came waves of Italians and Eastern European and Russian Jews. In 1892, a federal immigration station at Ellis Island was opened: by the time it closed in 1954, over 12 million immigrants had been processed. Ninety-eight percent of those applying for entry were admitted.

But what do we do with all this history, when immigration is framed in such contentious and contemporary terms? The answer I receive from Kevin Jennings, Director of the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum, where tours explore immigrant experiences in 19th and early 20th century New York, is infused with urgency: 'we must tell these histories whole’.

Kevin and I talk about how the history of American immigration is sometimes romanticised. Yet there was always resistance to immigration, always suspicion: the 1924 National Origins Act drastically reduced legal immigration for a generation. Kevin’s hope is that in presenting the past with all its prejudices, visitors will reconsider present day policy: ‘We don’t need to hit visitors over the head… When we tell them about the treatment of Irish Catholics, or the 1924 Act, they can see the parallels with today. It’s the opening for a conversation.

The opening for a conversation: the same phrase could be applied to my own American journey. On the one hand, the America I have found is a more fractured place than I ever imagined.  America is a place struggling to come to terms with an ugly history of racial oppression; a place where extreme privilege sits alongside extreme poverty; a place where the divides between generations and between rural and urban communities are often wide chasms.

But on the other hand, this America is still more open to newcomers than the one I expected to find. Yes, there are ICE raids and deportations and wall-building and travel bans and refugees denied entry. There is a vicious minority intent on scapegoating foreigners. But the prejudice and fear I’ve heard expressed by ‘natives’ in local communities has largely existed in the abstract, filtered down through national media, or as an expression of anger and insecurity about inequality and absent government and corruption and poverty. And these same locals are often relatively relaxed about the immigrants actually living and working in their own communities.

My conclusion? The welcome for newcomers will always be cautious, and it will never be universal. But it is not yet absent. Again and again, all across America, I heard the same lines. Come legally. Work hard. Build a better future. We will make a place for you. Your children will be American.  

It is not a promise, but it is a possibility. The challenge now is to turn that ‘opening for a conversation’ into the opening of hearts and minds. My American journey may be over, but my work? It’s only just begun.

American journeys