Dear America, This is my love letter to you.

Dear America,

This is my love letter to you.

On September 3, 2005, 6 days after giving birth to our first child, four of which were spent in the NICU of the very same hospital where I was born 32 years earlier, I arrived at your door, an immigrant. I was scared, nervous, and worried about my baby. I was worried about how I would cope as a new mother in a new place where I knew absolutely nobody.

At Customs and Border Patrol in Detroit my baby daughter and I were given TD status — dependents of my husband, a TN visa holder, who had accepted his very first academic position at a small, liberal arts college in Michigan. Anyone who has struggled through a PhD in Canada knows the exceedingly competitive realities of the academic job market. My husband is an historian — a very good one. More than 300 people applied to the position. When it was offered to him, he couldn’t possibly turn it down. Despite his best efforts in Canada, there were no jobs for him. This job, in the United States, was his chance to realize the dream toward which he had been working for so many years. So, we left our families, our friends. We sold our first home. I left my career as a teacher to pursue this new life — a life that we knew would bring challenge, for sure, but that we hoped would allow all of us to reach new summits.

In time, my husband published his book, and got his tenure.

Our little baby grew up.

We had a second baby in 2010. An American citizen.

We made dear friends.

We witnessed the inspired election and presidency of Barack Obama.

I earned a PhD from Michigan State University.

In so many ways, America, we love you for all that you allowed for us to do. I love you for the wings you gave to our ambitons. I love you for the kindnesses we received; and for those we were able to return through our service to students, to community, to friends. I also love you for the ways that you broadened our perspectives and challenged us to rethink our privilege. We love you for the ways that living in your systems brought us closer to your history, and to you as a nation.

But, and this is the hard part of this love letter — we also struggled because of systems that did not work for us, or for our community. Michigan’s economy, particularly after the crash in 2008, was brutal. Families could no longer afford high tuitions, and enrollments at the college slumped. The college nearly went under. At one point, my husband and many of his colleagues were fired so that the administration would be free to hire back only essential staff. Some of his tenured and tenure-track colleagues were not as lucky as he was. In our little town, property values plummeted. Those who had lost their jobs had mortgages to pay on homes that were worth less than what they owed. At the same time, enrollments in our local public schools were plummetting too. Michigan’s Schools of Choice law allowed families to take their children to any school they wanted and, for reasons I will never understand, many families in our little town had done just that. By the time my daughter started kindergarten in our community school, the middle school had closed down. Hundreds of local kids were going to schools in other districts. Our school district had hired three different superintendents in five years. By the end of her 1st grade year, lack of funding, lack of services for children in need, and lack of leadership had created a school climate so stressful, that I could feel it and see it in every interaction I had with teachers. And, my daughter wasn’t happy. She started to have sick tummies a lot and didn’t want to go. Her teacher — a woman whose deep commitment to children I never questioned — wanted to help, but it was also patently obvious to me that she was stuck in an impossible situation. She had 29 students, many of whom had learning disabilities and there were no extra professional learning supports for them. She was pressured by high-stakes testing mandates to get all of her students reading at “level C” by the end of the year. If her kids weren’t reading, she would receive a poor evaluation and the school itself would not meet yearly progress targets outlined by the No Child Left Behind Act. The bullying that my daughter was experiencing was going unnoticed, not because her teacher didn’t care, but because her teacher was set up by the system to fail.

And so, my husband and I were forced to weigh our child’s emotional wellness against our deeply principled position that she should attend our community schools. We desperately wanted our schools to be good for all of the students in our community — but by the end of the year, our daughter was so profoundly unhappy that we couldn’t keep her there. That year, the superintendent who had “promised to stay on for as long as it took” resigned. We had no assurance of leadership that would last. Our child needed stability and so did we. We enrolled her in a school 7 miles down the highway and we just tried to live with the guilt. By leaving, we had contributed to the problem. We knew families who stayed in the schools hated us for it, and we didn’t blame them. We knew that our choice impacted them — but as we were trying to make ends meet ourselves — my husband doing his best for the college, and me driving an hour away to study — we needed a school that felt safe and supportive for our child. We needed to depend on the system to provide for her needs.

We also struggled with health care costs. People are often surprised to learn that when we first arrived, the family insurance premiums that my husband’s employer plan provided were more costly than our monthly mortgage. As Canadians, raised on the belief that access to free, universal health care is a human right, it was deeply demoralizing to pay such a large chunk of our single income to an insurance company whose raison d’être was to serve shareholders, and not us. Opposition to President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act confounded us. We were thrilled with his hard-won successes, but we couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want a single-payer system that would mean fewer hours on the phone challenging insurance company decisions, that would simplify the lives of their healthcare providers and give them more latitude to recommend all available options rather than just the ones an insurance company would likely pay for, that would calm the worries of affordability when in the middle of the night, my child awoke with an earache and I knew the Emergency room visit would cost $500.

When I gave birth to our first daughter in Canada, we paid $75 for the 4 days we spent in a private room. Our health care system covered all of the costs for the birth and the intensive care she received. The supplemental health insurance that I purchased at work covered most of the room fees. And then, I had a year of paid maternity leave. As a first-time mother in a new country, I needed that time to heal, to adjust, to learn. In contrast, when I gave birth to our second daughter, my choice to take a semester off to heal, to adjust, and to learn meant I lost my health care coverage. Our second daughter’s birth, which was so, so easy in comparison, cost us more than $6000.00 out of pocket in insurance premiums, deductibles and costs that were not reimbursed by the insurance plan we purchased. I had no paid maternity leave and I went back to work, 3.5 months post-partum exhausted, because we couldn’t manage financially if I didn’t. All the while, I wondered why American families didn’t have access to the same kinds of maternity, paternity and peri-natal health benefits as those living in other Western democracies.

In 2012, I became a permanent resident. After 7 years of living as a guest in America, I finally had status. I was allowed to stay and work. But that same year, people in Aurora, Colorado were gunned down at the movies, the children and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School were murdered in their classrooms, and Trayvon Martin was shot dead on the street while carrying a bag of candy. When attempts to pass changes to gun legislation were again, thwarted by the gun lobby, I wept. I had left my own country for an America that was controlled by a majority of representatives whose actions showed that the right to own a gun was more fundamental than the rights of children to live. My heart was broken. It still is.

Last year, I was offered my dream job at a University in Canada. My husband and I had talked for years about US citizenship, what it would mean for us, whether we wanted to pursue it so that we could finally have a voice and vote. And in those same conversations, we talked about the guns, the systemic, racialized inequalities, the education legislation that had harmed our little town and the teachers in our local schools, the expense of health care coverage, the rhetoric on the Right to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and to limit women’s reproductive rights, the weak State economy and our low wages relative to our levels of education. And we had become so disheartened by a Congress led by people who dismissed science, who used religion and gun culture as screens for platforms that undermine human rights, who refused to compromise. We had felt the pain acutely when other families left our town for brighter opportunities. We didn’t want to be the source of that feeling for the friends we loved, but we also realized there was a hole in our hearts that could only be filled by home.

Tonight, I signed the formal declaration of my abandonment of permanent residency status, and I watched Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic nomination for President. Her candidacy gives me profound hope for women around the world, for liberty and justice for all, and for you, America, which is probably why tonight, I felt I could let you go. Mrs. Clinton’s example inspires me deeply and I hope that you elect her as your first woman President in November. Canada has never done what you accomplished tonight. Kim Campbell was prime minister for a little while, but she never ran in a general election as the leader of her party.

In the decade of my life that we shared, I tried to live honestly, to serve, to do important work, to raise our daughters. And, because of you, I see my own nation differently. I see its flaws, its inequalities, its systemic and politicized injustices. I see Canada’s position in the world and the ways our politicians manipulate public sentiment so we can all feel smug and accomplished on social issues, even as the Truth and Reconciliation Report shines a light into the dark corners of our own rascist history. And because of the examples set by powerful American women — Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren — who use their voices without fear, I know that I too, can speak out, advocate, challenge, and work for change in my field. Because of Bernie Sanders, I know that millions of people are outraged by the same disparities, tensions, and inequalities that I noticed, and that when resolved, will make you a more perfect union.

America, you have a way of making people love you, even when you are hard to love. My hopes for your success are as deeply felt as those I feel for my own country. I know that my own struggles in and with your systems are the very same struggles that millions of Americans experience every day — but who do not have another place to call home. Because of you, I am more humble, and more committed to my responsibilities to serve. Even though I had to go, I thank you for making me stronger, more resilient, and more aware of my place in our world.

I love you and always will.

Michelle

8 Replies to “Dear America, This is my love letter to you.”

  1. Goosebumps reading this. Thanks, Michelle. You are so wise and your insights are honest and valued by someone who is proud to be related to you! Makin’ me proud. Thank you, thank you.

    1. Ah, Lorrie, Thank you so much. I just had to write last night — I was sobbing wayyy too much during Hillary’s speech 😉 xo

  2. Quite amazing story Michelle. I read with much interest on your perspective of two wonderful countries where we are so privileged to live. We are so similar but there is no place like home. Well done. Karen M ?

  3. Living in Canada as a small child, I think my love for her has never gone away. I know her national anthem as well as America’s. I read this piece and my heart breaks as your challenges resonate so deeply. This part “the formal declaration of my abandonment of permanent residency status” is what is catching me as the words feel so harsh and not at all reflective of the act itself or you. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Thanks for reading and for commenting, Meagan. The I-407 form does, indeed, call it Declaration of Abandonment of Permanent Residency and it does feel pretty harsh! The form also asks for Signature of Alien, which, when I signed felt like a final confirmation of my status as outsider. As a footnote, we went to the border at Ogdensburg, NY yesterday to give the cards back and the officer looked at our forms — and wouldn’t let us turn them in. Can you believe that?! After all of the times we have interacted with Customs and Border Patrol Officers in the last 11 years — we had this totally unknown experience yesterday of someone who was really, really trying to think of what would be in our best interest. When I turned over the cards, he asked, “Do you really want to do this?” To which I replied, “Well, of course, we have mixed emotions about it, but we moved to Ottawa last year for my job, so it has been a year — we sort of have to give them back, right?” He looked at us and said, “I mean no disrespect, but you guys don’t look like you really want to do this. I know what it took for you to get these cards –never mind the cost — probably, $10,000” to which, we said, “yes” and he said, “Listen. I could take these forms, but you can apply for a travel document that will give you another year to decide — you may not be living here now, but what if Michigan State calls you back offering you a lot of money? Or (to Chris) you get an amazing offer in the US?” To which we said, “Really? We don’t have to give them back just yet?” And he said, “Nope. Take more time.” So, after all of that crying and soul searching and writing, America, Officer Kroeger thought maybe we didn’t want to let you go and, we kept the cards. xox

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