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All benefit from a legal immigration system

December 23, 2018

Recently, when I was visiting Los Angeles, I stepped into an Uber driven by an immigrant from Burundi. Burundi, you ask? It is a small war-torn country in Africa adjacent to Tanzania. The man kindly answered my request to tell me his story. He mostly skipped over the first years of his life living in Burundi. He was often without food, and there was little access to health and education. But then the story got going with his flight out of Burundi to a refugee camp in Lusenda — a large camp run by the United Nations and located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think he was in his late teens or early 20s when he arrived at the camp. He brought no family with him and did not discuss their fate.

He spent the next 10 years of his life at the camp living in a tent with five other men, and during that time, he met a woman who was also a Burundian and they married. He said that every 15 days they would receive their allowance of food and that at times, there were shortages of food or water. Eventually, he was selected to be resettled in the United States and he was flown to Philadelphia. The resettlement people took him to an apartment where someone explained how the water worked in the kitchen and bath and they gave him some money. So excited to be in America, he went shopping for food and ate all day long — wanting to try everything and shocked that for once, he did not have to be hungry. He was sick for days afterward.

The resettlement group told him they would give him money and pay his rent for four months, but warned him that was all the time he had to find a job. Outside one day, someone in a truck stopped and asked him if he wanted a job. They took him to a carpet factory and his job was on an assembly line doing the same repetitive motion all day long — one that apparently took some strength. So happy to have a job at all, he observed that few Americans wanted his job. Eventually he was so good at his work that he could produce 800 items when all the others only produced 500 a day — no surprise, he did not make friends at the factory. But his bosses loved him and eventually promoted him to teach new employees their jobs.

With a wife and four children to support, and relatives back in Burundi begging for money, he started driving with Uber as a second job. This guy sent money to Burundi every month to help others. He was genuinely so happy that he was no longer in Burundi and that he was in the U.S. He worked 12-16 hours every day. His story is what immigration really is. Of course there are some criminals who get through the immigration process, but probably a lower percentage of criminals than we have that are homegrown. We should send this guy back to Burundi to get more people just like him.

This is not an unusual story — it is an old American story that exists in most of our pasts. Immigrants are some of the hardest workers in our country, and we need to remind ourselves that we have a comfortable life here, very unlike many parts of the world. Everyone benefits from a legal immigration system. Let’s ask our legislators to work against a system of so-called merit-based immigration. Do we want to live in a country that gives preference to people with wealth rather than people with real needs?

Beth Chirdon is financial director of Youth Shelters and Family Services. She lives in Santa Fe.

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