July 13, 2009

When Migration Doesn’t Lead to Economic Success

Sometimes migration to America doesn’t turn out as good as we might like to think. Ken, for example, was in the US for fifteen years, but never lived the American dream.

Ken, a tall slim, light-skinned man, was born in Trenchtown in 1958. He described the neighborhood as calm and peaceful, until the 1970s, when conflicts between Jamaica’s two major political parties – the JLP and the PNP – began to emerge. After graduating from Trenchtown High, Ken went to school to learn to be a machinist, and later a welder. He had trouble finding a job in Jamaica, and decided to move to England, where his father had been since he was a toddler. After five years in England, Ken was deported, as he had overstayed his visa.

Back in Jamaica, now in his early thirties, Ken was able to secure a tourist visa to go to the US. He traveled to New York, where he stayed for six months. He came back to Jamaica again, and then went back to the US, this time to a small town in Connecticut.

In Connecticut, Ken worked a series of low-paying jobs that kept him on the brink of poverty. Ken married an American citizen, and hoped he would be able to obtain legalization. With a green card, he figured, he could get a better job and not have to work as a day laborer or at least earn more than minimum wage. As an undocumented laborer, Ken rarely earned more than minimum wage and had a hard time getting more than part-time and temporary work. With his wages, Ken lived in rented rooms, unable to afford an apartment.

Ken was having difficulty dealing with the stress of not being able to pay his bills when he learned his mother passed. This pushed him over the edge, and he was diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder. This made it even more difficult to hold down a job. Around the same time, his marriage fell apart, and Ken lost his chance of getting his green card. Eventually, Ken lost his job and even his room. He found himself living on the streets and staying with friends.

Ken was sleeping at a friend’s house when he was arrested by ICE agents. The immigration agents came to look for his friend, and, as he was there, they picked him up as well. Ken was taken to immigration detention. However, when Ken told them he was married to a US citizen and that they were applying for his legalization, they released him. Back on the streets, Ken realized that his bi-polar disorder was getting out of control. He checked himself into a mental institution.

When he was ready to be released from the mental hospital, Ken had to tell the hospital staff he had nowhere to go. Ken had been in the US for fifteen years, and had been married to a US citizen for six years. But, he didn’t have a wife, a house or a job to go back to. With nowhere to go, Ken was deported.

Ken has spent twenty years of his life abroad trying to improve his economic situation. He had very little success in that endeavor. At fifty years old, he is back in Jamaica. He has been in Jamaica for three years, and barely earns enough to get by. He is fortunate in that he lives in a rent-free room in Trenchtown. When I asked him where he gets money to survive, he just shook his head, and said that he often asks himself the same question.

At his age, with a mental disorder, and no work history in Jamaica, it is nearly impossible for Ken to get a job. Like most deportees I have talked to, he’d like to start a business. But, he does not have the capital he needs to start up. He is left to depend on the good will of others. He has friends in America who he says will send him twenty dollars from time to time so that he can eat.

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