By Sue Henninger
When immigration came to the forefront as a global, national and local issue, we thought a great idea would be regularly highlighting immigrants who live in Tompkins County. Ute Ritz-Deutch, coordinator of the Ithaca Area Amnesty International for New York state, took the idea a step further by suggesting the inclusion of refugees, migrant workers, and political asylum seekers in the articles.
Historically, America has been a country made up of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life, something of which Tompkins County is reflective. We encourage people to join Tompkins Weekly as we learn more about who lives in our community.
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As Kiranjit Longaker spoke about her experience as an immigrant, it was clear she had put some thought into the complex issues and policies that surround immigration. Longaker was born and raised in Guelph, a city in southwestern Ontario, Canada. She attended the University of Guelph for undergraduate and graduate studies, where she studied social and political philosophy and ethics.
While volunteering in a Massachusetts yoga center, she met her husband and the two were married on Valentine’s Day in 1999 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Longaker subsequently applied for the green card that would allow her to live and work in the United States as a permanent resident. It took some time to get the card and the only paid work she could obtain was at the yoga center under a religious workers visa.
“I didn’t like it,” she recalled. “It was demoralizing.”
The couple relocated to the Ithaca area to be closer to her husband’s family. Life in the U.S. wasn’t a huge culture shock for her initially, but certain differences between the two countries became more apparent as the years went by. Longaker, currently a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, who is also working on obtaining a PhD in criminal justice, spoke frankly about the differences between her birth country and the U.S., particularly around health and child care policies. Canada isn’t perfect, she observed, but there are no health care concerns there, like the often prohibitive expense of medical care in America and having to negotiate confusing insurance systems. The only drawback is that you have to wait longer for some treatments.
Raising children – hers are now 14 and 12 – was another area where Longaker found the differences between the two countries more pronounced.
“This country doesn’t have family values,” she said. “It says it does but it doesn’t back up the talk with policy. To me, this shows a lack of commitment.”
Longaker added that the U.S. doesn’t always seem to have a clear understanding about how a secure and connected childhood, achieved through supporting all families with things like a generous parental (maternity, paternity and adoption) leave or affordable child care, will result in stable and respectful citizens and a better culture.
When the time came to renew her green card, Longaker filled out the paperwork, submitted the $500 fee, and waited for the card to arrive. When it didn’t appear after some time, she contacted the Post Office. They insisted it had been delivered, and she was forced to reapply which was not only frustrating, but costly and time-consuming especially when the card didn’t arrive a second time. Her experience made her wonder about people who didn’t have the resources she did.
“Many people can’t afford these fees and there’s no way to waive them,” she explained. “You’re throwing money out there and you’re never sure if the card will come or not.”
During this waiting period, Longaker also experienced difficulty getting across the border.
“It was scary,” she admitted. “My kids were with me.”
The border official suggested she apply for U.S. citizenship since she had already been living in America for years.
“Join us!” he urged, and she agreed that maybe it was time.
In early 2016, Longaker applied for U.S. citizenship. She fulfilled the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act, was approved, and took part in a naturalization ceremony in Ithaca on August 3, 2016. It was an intense moment for her.
“During the naturalization ceremony, I felt a sense of community and connection, like I was committing to be a part of a country I had actively chosen,” Longaker said. “It seemed like everyone who was attending or conducting the ceremony was really happy that we were becoming citizens,” she added. “I remember thinking, ‘All kids should have to have a class trip to attend a naturalization ceremony.'”
Despite these positive feelings, Longaker acknowledged that the hardest part of becoming a U.S. citizen was renouncing her Canadian citizenship.
“It was as big a deal for me as choosing to get married,” she said. “It felt like a big deal to say those words, as though a core part of my identify was shifting and, while the emerging identity was welcome, it was still hard to experience the shift.”
Though the U.S. recognizes her only as an American citizen, Canada will always keep her as a Canadian citizen and the Longaker family’s connection to Canada remains strong. She and her husband both have family there and spend lots of time north of the border, at camps, vacationing, and visiting relatives.
Another factor that influenced Longaker’s decision to become a naturalized citizen was that she wanted to vote in the 2016 election.
“I knew my one vote wouldn’t make a huge difference but I felt like the stakes were really high and that, since I was living here (in the U.S.) and raising my kids here, I should be heard,” she said. “It was important not to just exist here, but to be an active voice in the country I’m living in.”
The rhetoric of the last election was painful to her, and she feels the political situation in the U.S. has impacted the country’s relationship with some of its Canadian neighbors.
“There is more tension in Canadian’s minds,” Longaker said. “Canadians don’t want to spend their money in the States or visit as frequently.
“They don’t want to be providing financial support to a country with these beliefs,” she added.
Tompkins County welcomed her with open arms, but she wonders if others, especially those who don’t look “super-white,” have English as their first language, or who enter the country in ways other than by marriage, may have a different experience. Being a Canadian immigrant is regarded differently than being an immigrant from Mexico she said, even though all three countries make up North America.
“When people think ‘Canadian’ they think of someone white of European decent,” she said. “That doesn’t feel like anyone different is coming into the country; we’re both democracies and have many similar values.”
Longaker challenged this notion.
“This is a country of immigrants,” she said. “It’s about people actively choosing this nation to live in.”
She added that the U.S. is a country built on a diversity of people which gives it strength and a spirit of innovation, but also a host of complex issues to navigate, like how to form a national identity.
Given this, Longaker was happy to share her personal narrative.
“When people know each other’s stories, I think there will be more understanding and interest,” she said. “People get anxious when they think certain things are changing beyond their control.
“Hopefully this type of column will make people be less afraid,” she added. “If, as a society, we treat fears in a soothing way, instead of a confrontational one, it will be better for all of us.”