The first time I came to Ireland, I was 20 years old, and it was my first time abroad. They rejected my documents on three separate visits for no discernible reasons. When I returned to the island in my mid-20s and then early 30s, I found I attracted less ire from the authorities – in part due to other minorities who seem to be taking the brunt of it. Once, I talked to a pleasant, educated middle-aged Brazilian woman while waiting in line and then watched her get berated during her turn with the immigration officer for simply asking a question.
Ireland is, arguably, one of the most socially progressive nations in the world, being active in pursuing gender equality, having recently voted by public referendum to legalize gay marriage and now having an openly gay leader. Still, when I try to explain the experiences of the immigration office, I am often met with a shoulder shrug and a “Well, that’s the way of things, isn’t it?” I point out maltreatment isn’t a deterrent to illegal immigration, since we’re the ones trying to make sure our paperwork is in order. The other common response: “Sure, look at what the U.S. is doing.”
When I was in college, I attended a Bible study group composed of students from all around the world but especially from China. It was probably the most intelligent circle of people I was ever in, many of them having received prestigious fellowships, Ph.D.s or recognition in their field. It was years later, however, when I realized the slight air of superiority I assumed over them because they had an accent when speaking English.
I would later get my comeuppance living in Germany, where I could see natives assuming that because I couldn’t speak German well, I probably wasn’t as smart as they were. The cherry on the top came when the family members of my then-German girlfriend took her aside and asked why she was dating a foreigner when there were plenty of good Germans still around. It was humbling, if not infuriating. Once one has experienced being “the other,” they begin to view the experience of foreigners differently.
The fear and animosity toward someone who is different is nothing new to human beings. The extent to which it is being politicized by many world governments, however, is a new phenomenon. From Brexit to the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil to the political discourse in the U.S., hate is now a political tool. Discrimination against “the other” is being legitimized in exchange for votes, the recent U.S. midterm ads providing plenty of examples.
I am often disturbed at how the immigrant caravan has been allowed to be given so many headlines, masking over many more pressing issues in America – not the least of them being a crisis in the dairy industry.
Regardless of which political party one supports, those riled with such fervor at the thought of illegal immigration much ask themselves how a group of suffering people hundreds to thousands of miles away can invoke such hate. It might be a good time to remind ourselves birthright to a country isn’t a right that has been earned. In the history of mankind, no one has done anything to deserve to be born into a place with a stable economy and government. It’s simple luck if you’re on the right side of the fence.
During World War II, almost half a million German soldiers were interred in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in the U.S., many of them in small towns across the Midwest. For those living in those towns, it was the first time they got to see “the enemy.” Historical accounts suggest American citizens were more fascinated by the Germans than afraid of them. They were eager to see someone different and to learn how someone else’s culture and beliefs might compare to their own. Many of the German prisoners worked in fields to help cut down the labor deficit brought about by the war, very few of them attempting to run away or incite violence.
Maybe America was a great nation after World War II. The difference between then and now, however, is: We have lost our curiosity about other places. We don’t seem to believe any longer that there is something to be gained by learning from different cultures. One benefit of traveling is being able to witness different ways of constructing communities, daily routines and perspectives.
The first time I lived in Ireland, I was shocked to see people parked their cars with two wheels on the sidewalk, and when I moved to Germany it was impressive to see how clean cities and public spaces can be. Traveling across either ocean as an American is expensive, but it is also true we don’t prioritize it as a culture. We prefer bigger trucks and wider TVs. That is likely to our loss.
When the immigration office opens at 7:30 a.m. in Galway, it is difficult to keep the order in which you stood outside once (if you get a seat). Eventually, one of the officers comes to the waiting room and hands out numbers designating the order that we will be seen, asking who was first, second, etc. It would be easy for someone to lie and get an earlier ticket than they deserve, but they never do.
We’re tired, we’re a bit nervous, and some people have a lot on the line in their upcoming conversation, but there’s also a sense we’re in this thing together. Most of them there are going to have a much tougher time than I will outside the office because you can tell they’re not Irish. Still, despite being from all over the globe, we’re able to share a few jokes, let each other know what’s going on and simply respect each other. It’s not a bad model for the rest of the world.
Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.