What to tell our children about immigration: a person cannot be "illegal"

Lindsay Tennant

Immigration, refugees, and so called “illegal” people have been in the news so much, worldwide, that this topic will inevitably come up with your kids. This is an issue that’s close to my heart, having experienced it from many sides, so I’m going to share what I’ve learned and how I communicate it to my kids.

I guess we should start by teaching the next generation that no human being is illegal. How can a person be illegal? What makes someone have the right to tell someone else where they can and can’t live? I mean, I grew up with the same xenophobic bullshit that most of us probably did, but man have my eyes been opened—and opened WIDE.

My first encounter with “illegal” people was when I worked in restaurants. A lot of dishwashers and busboys were there illegally. It was then that I started to think about how these people were just people. They got up, went to work at the same place as me, went home. Why was I allowed the privilege of the law, and they weren’t? It really didn’t sit well with me.

The next experience that made an impact was when I became an immigrant. I did it the legal way because I am lucky enough to be born in the United States, have a bachelor’s degree, and be white.  It was relatively easy for me—as long as I paid all the extortionate fees and jumped through all the hoops and, you know, married a citizen of the country I moved to. Even after I was married to my first husband and here in the UK on my spouse visa status, I was still not allowed any recourse to public funds, which in simple English means: I was not allowed any benefits (welfare for you Americans). I’m just throwing this in here to remind everyone that these immigrants are not coming over here to steal your benefits because we aren’t allowed any!

So, I am an immigrant. Actually, I’m an economic migrant, because I moved to the UK due to the lack of jobs in my field back home, and I was able to make more money in the UK than in the US. Did anyone bat an eyelid at me? Nope. I am the right kind of immigrant because I speak English and celebrate most of the same holidays. I am educated, earn enough money to satisfy the income requirements, and I have the preferred skin tone. I am a dual citizen of the US and the UK and have I mentioned I am so unbelievably lucky?

The most important part of my immigration experience, though, has definitely been my work with refugees in Europe. I volunteered in a refugee camp in Northern France known as the Calais Jungle for the better part of a year. Every weekend, when it was time to go home, I would leave my friends (and my future husband) in a squalid makeshift camp as I drove on up to the train, showed my passport, and easily entered the UK. It killed me every single time, and it still does. I did this exact same drive two days ago. I left my husband in France and just drove back home to the UK. Can I express to you how unbelievably shitty this feels, that because my husband doesn’t have the right passport and wasn’t lucky enough to be born in the right country that we are unable to live together?  We’ve been together for two years now, and it is ridiculously hard to satisfy all of the visa requirements.

Now, I started this off by saying we need to explore the topic of immigration with our kids. Well, I don’t have a choice… it’s a common topic in our house! My kids know that mummy has spent a lot of time helping people who aren’t allowed to come freely into this country and now they know that their stepfather isn’t allowed either. I know the situation is similar in the US right now, with what is going on in at the border. Throughout all of this, I have continued to remind them of a few things:  

People are people, and no one should be treated unfairly just because of where they were born.
No one leaves their homes and their life unless they have to—unless they are hoping for a better life somewhere else. Who are we to deny them this right? What makes us better than them just because we happen to be born somewhere that for the time being is safer?
What would happen if we were in their position and everyone turned us away and built walls and fences to keep us out?

Teach your children to be kind, and to stop being afraid of people from other places. Model this in your own life and behavior. Get to know some of these people. They are people. Really—they have the same wants and needs as you and me. They want to work, they want to live in safety, and they want the freedom to exist without the hatred that they’ve left. We shouldn’t be greeting them with more. This cuts them deeply. I know the hurt and the sadness that my husband feels when he sees all the money spent on fences to keep him out of a country where his wife lives, where he speaks the language, and where he would work really hard if given the chance. No human is illegal. It’s just not fair and we need to teach our children to do better.

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