A Visit from the Neighbors
Canadians have a much easier time crossing the border and becoming citizens than Mexicans do.
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A shout rang out: “I am not a criminal!” A door slams. A man is curled in a ball on the floor. A woman in the audience cries.
It’s the last night the cast of “Do You Know Who I Am?” gathers to publicly tell their immigration stories at the Longmont Museum and Cultural Center. They are Mexican. Four of the five are “undocumented and unafraid.” At the end of the performance they boldly state their names.
“Juan Manuel Juarez Luna.”
“Victor Uriel Galvan Ramirez.”
“Hugo Enrique Juarez Luna.”
“Oskar Juarez Luna.”
Oskar began his monologue getting up from his position on the floor to tell the story of crossing the border as a child, asleep on the floor by the passenger’s seat. As they drove through the desert in the middle of the night, his family took turns holding him because his young body was the warmest.
A decade later he would be denied entry to the Army. Spending most of his life in the U.S. didn’t give him the papers he needed to fight for his country.
Across town and a world away another group of immigrants gathers at Lowry Beer Garden in Denver for a networking event with the Canada Colorado Association (CCA). The room buzzes with laughter and conversation. Beers are poured, greetings exchanged. They are Canadian, they are documented and they have nothing to fear. Everyone wears a nametag written in thick permanent marker.
Nina Morton came to the U.S. because she couldn’t take the snow in Winnipeg anymore. Originally from Calgary, she and her now ex-husband moved from province to province before settling in a city locally nicknamed “Winterpeg” for its heavy snows and temperatures below negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit. After a few years they fled south, bickering over how far to go — Texas or Minneapolis, Atlanta or Seattle — before settling on Denver.
The question wasn’t whether they could go, but where they would end up.
‘It really bothers people that I’m here in the U.S.’
U.S. immigration is a politically and emotionally charged topic. Concerns range from public safety, to economic security, to unjust treatment of immigrants. Regardless of where they stand on the issue, most Americans recognize that we have a problem.
Part of the problem is that, in the collective American eye, immigrants are not created equal. Immigrants in this country have very different experiences depending on where they come from.
Our neighbors are some of the most drastic examples of that. From the south we have our most talked about immigrants, Mexicans, and from the north possibly some of our least, Canadians.
Of the 46 million immigrants in the U.S., 12 million are Mexican. But this means there are another 34 million people that make up the rest of the story. That’s more than the population of Colorado and every state that touches our borders combined. You could even throw in Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas. There are still more non-Mexican immigrants. Of those, only 800,000 are Canadians, about one South Dakota’s worth.
To be fair, there are more Mexicans living in the U.S. than immigrants from any other country. Although 2014 marked the first year on record that more non-Mexicans were apprehended at U.S. borders than Mexicans, according to the Pew Research Center.
“It really bothers some people that I’m here in the U.S.,” Oskar said at the beginning of his monologue. “But others, they just simply don’t care or have no clue. But there are some who really want to help out. Somebody once told me …”
“Go back home!”
“Go back where you belong!”
His brothers interjected, demonstrating comments hurled in their directions as immigrants in the U.S.
“They were talking about Mexico, but I don’t even know what Mexico’s like. I’ve been here since I was a little kid,” Oskar said. “Saying the Pledge of Allegiance, saluting the American flag since I can remember. And yet people say I’m a criminal for breaking the law when I crossed the border. I didn’t choose to be here. I didn’t sit at the table with my family and take a vote as if we were debating where to go for summer vacation.”
‘Everyone assumes you’re American’
Canadians immigrants are arguably some of the least likely to be noticed. Not only because there aren’t that many, but there’s also almost no way to distinguish them from your average white American. They speak English, have virtually no accent and they look just like us.
“It’s so easy as a Canadian,” Morton said. “Everyone assumes you’re American.
“I’ve been here since (1999) and I just got my citizenship,” she said. “You know when we’re coming up on an election, and they’re always trying to get you to sign up. I always say, ‘Oh, I can’t vote’ and I just walk by. I knew they’d be thinking ‘What?’ Whereas, if it were a Mexican person they’d be like ‘oh well, of course you can’t vote.’”
Mexicans look different enough to have become the target of regulation like Arizona’s “show me your papers” immigration law allowing law enforcement officers to stop people they suspect of being in the country illegally and ask for their documentation.
The Juarez family fled Arizona when the law was passed in 2010, the week of Oskar’s high school graduation and right before Juan would graduate from college.
“My family and I were scared,” Juan said. “When one of us would go out, we were worried we were gonna get pulled over by police and eventually be deported.
A friend of Juan’s had his car stolen. Instead of investigating the theft, police deported him, leaving his wife and children without a father, Juan said.
“So my entire family decided that, to keep any of us from being deported, we would have to sell everything, more like give it away, and move to Colorado,” Juan said. “I had to drop out of college, leave my hometown. It was like starting all over again.”
The Juarez family would later learn of a similar law in Colorado, requiring law enforcement to report suspicious persons to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But this time they refused to run.
‘I’m bloody sick of these bloody taxes’
There are only a few ways a foreign born person can immigrate into the U.S.
“There’s family, work, asylum and investing $500,000 or up in a business,” said Ken Stern, a partner in the immigration law firm Stern & Curray, with ties to CCA.
Wait times for Canadians and Mexicans applying to immigrate through family connections are drastically different. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, parents, spouses, or children under 21 of a U.S. citizen don’t have to wait for their visas. For every other category of family, USCIS assigns a priority date that shows how long ago an applicant must have applied for their application to reach the desk of the people in charge. Mexicans have a longer wait in every category.
The shortest time difference is for a spouse or child of a permanent resident. For either country of origin they must have applied in 2014, but Mexicans must have applied three months earlier. An adult Mexican sibling of a U.S. citizen must have applied six years earlier than a Canadian. A married Mexican who is the child of a U.S. citizen has to have applied 10 years earlier than a Canadian. And being married can save years of waiting. An unmarried Mexican adult, who’s the child of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, must have applied in the mid 1990s to have their application looked at today, almost 14 years earlier than a Canadian.
For Canadians, the family based wait is of little concern. Most of them come in through employment, Ken said.
Krystle Landry, an attorney with Evergreen Law and member of CCA, has migrated between the U.S. and Canada three times. All for work.
“My dad was a doctor and he was sick of being taxed to death in Canada, so when I was 9 we moved to Georgia,” Landry said. “We lasted 10 months. Moved back to Canada, ‘cause [Georgia] was just rednecks and heat and fire ants. Then we got to back to Canada and he was like ‘Oh I’m bloody sick of these bloody taxes,’ so we moved back to Georgia, but to Statesboro, which is a university town.
“He found a house he liked and he bought it and that was it,” she said. “He moved all six of us, and a baby. So they’re still in Georgia. I moved back to Canada to finish high school, and I went to university in Nova Scotia. And came to Colorado cause there are fewer law schools and more jobs.”
Landry got U.S. citizenship when she married nine years ago. Her primary motivation was saving money when she took her husband’s name. Changing your name as a Canadian costs $1,000, while U.S. citizenship costs $595, name change included.
Betty and Garth Wilson, Canadian immigrants who were at the first meeting of CCA 25 years ago, found their move to the U.S. similarly simple.
“I’m an engineer and I worked overseas for 11 years and the company was headquartered here in Denver,” Garth said. “When I got enough gray hair they said, ‘Come and work in [the] head office.’ And I fell in love with the place. The mountains, the climate — you can’t beat it.”
With the help of an immigration attorney, the whole process took six months. Paperwork, a citizenship test, a few thousand dollars, and an interview where they pledged allegiance to the flag, and Betty and Garth walked away dual citizens.
‘Come on in’
Peter Martinek, a director of CCA, moved to the U.S. with his American wife. He got citizenship three years ago, after waiting 17 years, through the birth of both of his children.
Why the wait?
It had nothing to do with the difficulty of obtaining citizenship. It was just procrastination on his part. Despite knowing that a green card can be revoked at any time, there’s no real concern for Canadians. Martinek had to renew his residency every 10 years, sending in paperwork and updated photos. When he finally decided to get citizenship the whole process took five months. He said he was never concerned that he might not be granted citizenship.
Rob Martin, a Canadian immigrant and member of the CCA who moved here for the military and stayed for a wife, said the only time he’s ever nervous is waiting for the green card.
“I worked for a four-star general and my job required me to travel to Canada with him whenever he went,” Martin said. “I actually had to walk into his office one day and go ‘I can’t go with you this week.’”
His application hadn’t been approved yet. He sent in a signed letter from his general to expedite the process, but was denied.
“I got it about three weeks later, but that was a bit of a hassle,” Martin said. “You can’t cross the border once you’re in the application process, so I had to wait.”
It’s the only time he ever faced the struggle of not being allowed to cross the border.
Even when they’re not asking to stay, Canadians have it much easier than Mexicans when visiting the U.S.
“Citizens of Canada can make their application right at the border,” Stern said. “So whether it’s at the airport or a land crossing they bring their paperwork and give it to the inspector. The inspector looks it over and says ‘come on in.’ Everybody else has to apply to a service center and wait months and months and months.”
This may be why Canadians are the most likely to overstay an authorized visit, according to Homeland Security Research. They come over on tourist and business visas, blend in, and never leave. There are 93,035 Canadians who crossed the border in 2015, promised to return home, and never left. That’s 50,000 more than the next largest group to do that: Mexicans.
Crossing the border is a much bigger deal for Mexicans.
The worst was the Juarez brothers’ grandfather died.
“I still remember like it was yesterday,” Juan said. “Watching my mom cry like I had never seen before. We were devastated. And my mom, my mom knew he was sick but she couldn’t go back and say goodbye cause she knew if she went back to Mexico she might not be able to come back to us.
“Because of a piece of paper with numbers that we didn’t have, I had to see my mom suffer,” he said.
‘It was like a dream come true’
Landry, Martinek, Martin and Morton told their border crossing stories casually. Fleeing the snow in Winnipeg, or the heat in Georgia. Looking for jobs or following love. Stern joked about building a Canadian border wall, so that they could keep out their scary southern neighbors.
When Juan spoke of his inability to visit his dying grandfather, a woman in the audience began to cry. Oskar recounted becoming a criminal in his sleep and laughed at the absurdity. Mexican voices rose in frustration, sprinkled with Spanish. A language barrier that looms larger than the fences on our southern flank.
Many of the Canadians in the CCA came for college and never left. Victor Galvan, Oskar, Juan, and Hugo Juarez all struggled for years to even go to college because they couldn’t afford out of state tuition. Living and working and paying taxes in their states since childhood did nothing to secure their statehood.
In Galvan’s case, he has lived in Colorado since he was eight months old. He watched his mother escape his abusive father. He joined her to become a two-person burrito factory, waking up at 3 a.m. on summer mornings to make the burritos that would keep food on their table and clothes on their backs, Galvan said. His mother took every job she could get so he could go to school, where he excelled.
“My mother told me never to miss an opportunity to try something I might love,” Galvan said. “I did everything that caught my attention. I was in theater, choir, speech and debate, ethics club, junior achievement, wrestling, weight lifting, padres y jovenes unidos, parents and youth united. I had tons of performances and competitions, my mother was too busy working to attend.”
But when it came time to apply for college, he knew no amount of burritos sold would pay out of state tuition. He couldn’t apply for scholarship. They require a social security number.
He thought he’d found his big break when his advisor called to tell him he’d received the Denver Mayor’s Youth Award for Overcoming Adversity, which gave him one free year at Community College Denver. Before he could start, it was taken away because he was undocumented.
Juan also received a scholarship, for soccer, that would pay half of his tuition at his community college in Arizona.
“For me it was like a dream come true,” Juan said. “I finally had the financial aid that would help me get through.”
After completing his first year, Arizona law changed to mirror Colorado’s, requiring undocumented students to pay out of state tuition. His costs would triple. He was already working full time. He didn’t know how he would pay for school.
Adding insult to injury, Juan found out at the same time that his soccer scholarship was being taken away because of his status. He spent years working toward his degree anyway. He could only afford a couple classes at a time, but he kept going.
He would never finish college in Arizona because of the “show me your papers” law.
‘I’m gonna make sure their dreams are realized’
The Juarez brothers and Victor Galvan have faced obstacle after obstacle as Mexicans living in the U.S. Members of the CCA cited their biggest obstacle as transferring credit from Canadian banks to American ones so they could get a credit card, buy a car or take out a mortgage on a house.
Crime rates and economic burdens are the two most cited reasons for not wanting Mexican immigrants. But a study from the Census and American Community Survey shows that immigrants are less disposed to crime than Americans. A study of incarceration rates from the 1980s to the 2000s also shows that immigrants are increasingly less likely to be the ones committing crimes.
As far as the economy, studies show that undocumented immigrants contribute $12 billion in taxes alone, according to the Social Security Administration. By removing all the undocumented immigrants, private industry output would fall between $380 billion and $620 billion, and the long term net effect on the economy would be a trillion dollar loss, according to the American Action Forum.
The Juarez brothers and Victor Galvan are allowed to stay in the U.S. under DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA was started by the Obama administration in 2012 to allow immigrants who arrived as children to stay in the U.S. on a renewable two-year work permit.
But it’s not a law, it’s a policy, so it could be revoked be a future president who’s less supportive of immigrant rights.
“My mother’s husband, my husband, my mother, my father, friends from high school, I could go on and on about all the people I love who are immigrants and are undocumented and the daily injustices, obstacles and threats,” said Ana Cristina Temu, the only American born member of “Do You Know Who I Am?”
“Sometimes I just want to hand someone my social security number, just take it, take it because that’s all that it is, a nine digit number holding this country’s people back from their full potential,” she said. “I have to wake up in the morning and witness the hard work immigrants put into this country. And then I watch us, the privileged judge, hate, blame and criticize.
“As a citizen I feel the responsibility to fix the problem because I can vote and because I can walk out those doors without the fear of being sent to an unknown country or being ripped apart from my family,” Temu said, in the ending words of the final performance of “Do You Know Who I Am?”
“Do you want to know what my dream is, what my nine-digit American dream is?” she asked. “I’m gonna make sure that their dreams are realized. Will you help me?”
As the CCA networking event winds down Canadians finish their drinks, exchange phone numbers and promise to meet at the lobster dinner this summer. Even those that are not yet citizens, despite knowing their green cards could be revoked, have no fear of being forced out of a country they’ve come to call home. They roll up a Maple Leaf flag and glance at the end of a hockey game playing in the background of the beer garden as they walk out the door.
The cast of “Do You Know Who I Am?” sits on boxes talking with the crowd. People had clapped, and cheered, and cried, and took turns thanking them for their bravery in telling their stories and reliving their pain. The microphone comes to rest in the tiny hand of a Mexican American girl.
She starts with a smile in her voice.
“Thank you for telling your stories.” But her voice starts to shake. “It really made me think of how grateful I am to have papers.”
She starts to cry and the audience starts to clap.
“What my parents had to do to get to the United States. I’m really thankful to have papers and also for all the things that my parents have gone through.”