I am a legal immigrant. I did not choose to come to the United States—I was carried here, by my parents, who arrived with one suitcase and nothing else. They were not fleeing political oppression, religious persecution, or economic collapse. In fact, as white South Africans in the 1970s, they were born into a life of exclusive privilege and prosperity. My father had grown up poor but made his way to medical school. A life of wealth awaited.
Yet my parents chose to immigrate to the United States instead, living in a basement apartment with no family nearby, enduring a Chicago winter they could never possibly have imagined. My father had to redo part of his medical residency as my mother tended to an eight-week-old infant alone.
After many years and much hard work, they achieved the American dream. But they certainly would have been more comfortable in South Africa.
Years later, I asked my father why they had left South Africa. To this day, he has the same answer: “Illegality became the law.”
As students, he and my mother had both volunteered in the black and “coloured” townships where whites were rarely seen. They saw, firsthand, the injustice of a regime that stripped citizens of their vote, their property, and their dignity. And at that time, they could not have foreseen Nelson Mandela’s “miracle.”
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