Monday, September 14, 2009

The ‘American Virus’

Recently a Cambodian woman in the U. S. was sentenced to 33 months in prison for arranging sham marriages between U. S. citizens and Cambodian nationals so the latter could easily immigrate into the U. S.

This is a well-known practice, so much so that I am really surprised that the USCIS, as it’s now called, did not catch on sooner. This is not only confined to Khmer people, but to Vietnamese, Chinese, and other nations with a high percentage of people in abject poverty. While the Chinese and other nationals will go just about anywhere that can offer them a chance at earning more money than at home, the Khmer and the Vietnamese clearly prefer the U. S. over any other country.

I can’t imagine that there is anybody out there who doesn’t know how this works. But for the uninitiated, here is the lowdown on it.

A Cambodian in the U. S., whether a naturalized citizen, green card holder or just there on a visa, looks for an American who is willing to marry a Cambodian national for the express purpose of immigrating into the U. S. Needless to say that the Americans available for this kind of deal are usually not too well-off themselves. Mostly people find one through Cambodian businesses and their clientele, by word-of-mouth, or any other confidential means. But from what I know, most of these transactions are for family members, even extended ones. In that sense, the case of the Khmer woman who seemed to make a business out of it was an exception.

Of course, the American doesn’t do this for free. Since most of the time the prospective Khmer bride/groom doesn’t get tourist a visa to the U. S. it becomes necessary for the American to travel to Cambodia where they meet. Sometimes, to make it more credible to the very suspicious embassy consuls, they travel back and forth several times. Then they get married in Cambodia, get the civil marriage license from the Sangkat, get a family book, and all the other documents necessary to apply for an immigrant visa to the U. S.

As spouses, Khmer partners have the first priority in family-based immigration, and there is no limitation on the numbers of visas available. Once everything is processed, and the Khmer partner survived the embassy grilling, they are good to go. The whole thing can take anywhere from 3 months to 1 year, depending on whether all documents were submitted on time.

The U. S. removed one big obstacle from this procedure when they opened the embassy in Phnom Penh to hold those immigration interviews. Formerly interviewees needed to travel to Bangkok for this - another substantial expense.

In the U. S. the newly-weds are supposed to live together, share a joint bank account, etc.; in general, actually live like husband and wife. The ones I know don’t, although I am sure there are some that actually go through with this. After 2 years (it used to be 3), there is another interview with the USCIS to verify that the marriage was real and not just a sham. Of course, if the partners play by the rules, are convincing in their interviews, and have their paperwork in order, they will actually be issued a green card that is good for 10 years (although that may differ in some cases). Both can then go on their own way and eventually file for divorce. If it’s amicable and there is no distribution of property involved, this will be comparatively inexpensive. Additionally, the Khmer individual is eligible for U. S. citizenship after 5 years after they take civics lessons and a mandatory test.

The costs altogether are considerable, though – in my view outright prohibitive. As you all can imagine, the American partner will not bear any of the expenses or costs that need to be ponied up. The fee for the American him-/herself can range from $2,000 to $10,000. In some cases, I heard even $20,000 changed hands. Since most Khmer don’t know the procedures and don’t speak enough English they need to use an immigration attorney to handle all the paperwork.With travel expenses, sometimes two or three times, the fees in Cambodia, which are also no small item, as everything needs to be done expeditiously, and all the other miscellaneous expenses, the whole shebang can add up to anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, sometimes even more.

As a neutral person, I have often wondered why people go to such extremes to immigrate to the U. S. In my view, if you are poor in Cambodia you will also be poor in the U. S. And most of the time, the would-be immigrants don’t have the money to pay for all this, so they borrow from a family member in the U. S. and maybe scrape together the jewelry they own and sell it.

Just imagine you spend $30,000 to $50,000 to go to the U. S. to do what? Work as an unskilled laborer for minimum wage of $5.75? But when you ask people in Cambodia would you do that, they will in the majority reply without hesitation with a resounding yes. So is poverty in the U. S. better than poverty in Cambodia? And why not go to France or Germany where the social system is much more refined? There the government will provide you with a minimum income of about $600 a month forever if you can’t find a job. Finding a job is the most difficult part of it all. Most of the people coming here don’t speak English at all. They even might have some sort of education but all they work at is on minor jobs on assembly lines in factories, cleaning jobs, etc.; in other words, menial jobs of the lowest category. And those factory jobs are disappearing by the thousands every month right now.

How will they be able to repay that loan? They will practically be in servitude for their entire lives to the person who loaned it. I know of one such person who employs in his store at less than minimum wage three of his relatives whom he brought over. He found willing Americans, paid for all those expenses, and now these three people are in debt to him forever; and he wants it this way. Because they will have to work for him practically their entire lives, and continue the business after he retires so they can support him then. Not a bad idea as such, but at what price for the relatives?

Some will say, at least they have a job, a roof over their heads, and food to eat. Yes, correct, I agree. But it still has that slave labor ring to it, doesn’t it?

The U. S. is the only industrialized country without mandatory health insurance. (The debate over Obama’s health care reform is currently raging at a feverish level.) The U. S. is the only industrialized country that has employment at will, which means employees can be fired at a moment’s notice for no reason at all. After someone has lost their job, they can get unemployment benefits for 6 months. That’s it. After that, you are left to fend for yourself. No wonder you see so many homeless people. In the U. S. roughly 14% or some 43 million people live below the poverty level, which incidentally coincides with the number of people who can’t afford health insurance. Outside the big cities, there is no public transportation system to speak of. Consequently, everyone needs a car just to get to work. If you work 8 hours a day at minimum wage, you make about $1250 a month, which will leave you with about $935 after taxes if you are single and $1000 if you are married.

With a monthly rent of $600, at least $200/month for the car, health insurance of $250/month, which I consider vital, and $300 for food, how can you survive on that kind of income? You can’t, and that’s why these people get a second job, share the apartment with a roommate, and literally work their butts off to make ends meet. The price is high, and there is practically no way out of it, since these people spend all their time working and have no chance of getting a better education; they simply don’t have the time, let alone have some kind of enjoyment with other things like movies, bowling, travel, etc. Is that the kind of life you want to spend $30,000 to $50,000 on, just to get there?

Of course, once they get married the picture changes slightly. With both working two jobs, they can earn a decent income and with a frugal life-style, they will eventually be able to afford all the things that the American way of life stands for: a car, probably you will need two, a house, and maybe a trip or two. If they have children, and most will, the children just follow in their footsteps. A higher education is expensive in the U. S. – another big drawback in this country – and who can afford it ? (It’s free in all EU countries and Japan.) They will also get the uncertainty of a modern industrialized world. They may lose your job overnight. I know someone who worked for the 3M Company for 15 years and was laid off because they transferred their operation overseas. Also, see below the trailer for a documentary on the closing of GM plant – if anybody gets HBO, it’s definitely worth watching. Yes, I do know people who have come here in the late eighties, found a job mostly as a blue-collar worker, or started their own small business, became part of the American social fabric with their own house, cars, etc. But the majority of them couldn’t climb up the social ladder very far according to the U. S. census. Part of the reason was that they spoke none or insufficient English. Even people with a higher education had to get menial jobs. It still surprises me how little English some of those people speak after so many years in the U. S. - some still don’t speak any at all.

They or their parents had no choice at that time but to leave Cambodia after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Many of those people had worked for the Lon Nol government and would be persecuted. But that was then, and this is now. Is it still worth the price? I believe it is exactly those people that emigrated in the late eighties that infected their relatives with that ‘American virus’- American politicians like to call it the American Dream. They made it and they keep telling their relatives they can too. There are about 200,000 – 250,000 Khmer overseas people living in the U.S., France, Canada, and Australia (plus a small number in other countries). The 150,000 or so living in the U. S. managed to infect a great part of the homeland Khmer population with that ‘virus’. Ironically, it is the U. S. that appears so attractive to them, the very country that brought on the misery in Cambodia in the first place, because of its failed policies in SE Asia. One never knows, but if the U. S. government hadn’t overthrown Sihanouk, perhaps the Khmer Rouge would not have won the civil war later. And which country bombarded Cambodia illegally, killing thousands and thousands of people? But that’s another story. Sometimes, when I think about this, I am really baffled. And just as ironically, the same applies to the South Vietnamese. They are afflicted with that same ‘virus’. But here you have over one million U. S.-Vietnamese spreading it. Yes, the present younger generation that was born in the U. S. is better off, or are they? Again according to the U. S. census, roughly 25% get a college degree, about the same as among white Americans. But as we all know this is no guarantee for a well-paying job these days. Yes, there are success stories, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

The situation and attitude is slowly changing in Cambodia, I think. With the world economy in the doldrums, there is little incentive to emigrate; they would simply jump from being jobless in Cambodia to being jobless somewhere else. The U. S. has also become more restrictive in their application of immigration laws. Before it seemed more generous, possibly because of a collective feeling of guilt. Many have started their own families and don’t want to leave them behind for an uncertain and unknown future. They barely scrape by but they have their families to turn to, to give them support, if not materially than at least mentally. So why venture out? And what about Cambodia? Doesn’t this country need its own people help rebuild the country - even the poor farm laborer? Who would do that if they all emigrated? Where is the love of your country that is so often invoked? Not all is well, a lot needs to be done. This is why Cambodia needs its people to stay, work for a better Cambodia, and thereby make a better life for themselves at home.

To counter some arguments from the start, although I am very critical of some aspects of the U.S., I have been living here on and off since the mid-eighties – first, because of a good business opportunity I was offered, and second, because I hated the weather in Europe. (I still found the time to spend more than four years full-time in Cambodia and countless months since.) There are many good things here, don’t get me wrong, but there is at least an equal number of negatives. For poor people, the U. S. would not be my first choice. It would be France or Germany, and the U. K. to some extent, with their social systems. But how many immigrants can they take in? Additionally, those countries suffer from almost the same economic malaise as the U. S. The U.S. is good for people who are already secure in their financial situation, or for the rich, for people who don’t have to worry where the next meal comes from. There are many disturbing things in the U. S., but they usually don’t affect more affluent people in their daily lives, they simply don’t see them because they are never confronted with them. But for the poor immigrant it’s an entirely different story altogether.

Trailer for the HBO documentary 'The last truck'


Anonymous said...

From what I heard its the rich and affluent who pay through the nose to have their offsprings go through the "marriage" in order to obtain the precious green card.

Anonymous said...

Cambodia for the longest time is plagued with corruption throughout all chain of authority. Expressing your freedom of speech in ways that may be offending to a politician warrant death to your entire family.

In terms of the poor, those who suffered from illness do not have the same access to health care as those who are from the US. Even if the intending immigrant from Cambodia is poor, they will be better off making money here in the US as compared to begging for a penny (100 riel)/day.

Because Cambodia and the US are not in the same standards of ideology, analyzing why one choose the US over Cambodia needs to be further reviewed.

KJE said...

There are some of those too. But mostly it's the poor relative of someone who is in the U. S. already.

To use Barney Frank's (U. S. representative) statement in a Congressional hearing: "On what planet have you been living?"

You must be kidding. The poor don't have access to health care in the U. S. either. If they can't afford health insurance they go to the emergency room for treatment and are slapped with a bill they'll never be able to pay. Medicaid - try applying.

Anonymous said...

I celebrated the Cambodian Pchum Ben festival at Port Saint Lucie, Florida and met new immigrants just arrived.
The reality is that there are more immigrants coming to the US.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Cambodians need to stay in Cambodia especially the educated one. Cambodia does not need a case of brain drain syndrome. They can leave for study and experience but need to return back home. The war is over and there no need to emigrate permenently anymore. Oversea Khmer need to stop this practice of smuggling people and start respecting immigration laws. What will a few grand help you with? You will have sleepless nights and a guilty conscience knowing you are breaking the rules. It is totally not worth it!

KJE said...

Yours is a very limited scope and view of things. Quite the contrary is the case.

Anonymous said...

US is a gracious country regarding immigration.
In 2008 more than 1 million people, from all continents, obtained legal permanent status in the US (more than all countries combined). Millions more are waiting to enter legally.
As far as illegal immigrants, 800 thousands foreign nationals (most of them are Mexican) accepted an offer to return to their home countries without a removal order after apprehension by US authority.

KJE said...

I wouldn't really describe the U. S. as a 'gracious' country. Although they admitted over 1 million immigrants in 2008 that doesn't mean it was solely for altruistic reasons; hard economic considerations played a much more vital role. The fact of the matter is that people immigrating are for the most part from poor countries. The U. S. offers them the chance to make more money than at home. But one should not forget that the U. S.'s wealth was founded on poor immigrants who worked for next to nothing. Slaves and the various waves of immigrants, e. g. Irish, German, Polish, Italian, and now mostly Asian worked hard and long hours to get a break. Cheap labor is needed to keep prices low, which will continue to grow a consumer-driven economy.
An estimated 12 million illegals keep the bottom sector of the economy humming. Agriculture would collapse without those illegal Mexicans.
The people who returned home voluntarily did so because of the collapse of the economy, and they couldn't find another job. (I don't know whether your number of 800,000 is correct, though.)I can't find anything gracious about that.

Anonymous said...

Why do you think that Europeans keeps coming to the US and not to UK, France or Germany like you recommend?

Anonymous said...

In practical life, people are rarely "stupid". They try to get the best return on their investment.
The flow of immigrants to the US is the strongest evidence that the US is relative better than their countries of origin.

KJE said...

You probably meant 'Cambodians' and not Europeans. I believe it is simply the greater number of the Cambodians living in the U. S. than in Europe. They just tell their folks back home about how 'wonderful' America is, in a sense 'infect' them. And the U.S. is compared to Europe the only country where you can immigrate without speaking the language, in this case English.

I agree people are not 'stupid'. I'd say they are ignorant. Most of them don't know what awaits them. It might appear that the U. S. is better than where you come from. It all depends on your personal circumstances.

Generally, though,
I would think that destitute people from a poor country coming to the U. S. will have as poor a life in the U. S. as at home. Poverty only take on a different form in the U. S. For instance, you are considered poor if you subsist on less than $2/day in Cambodia (figures vary according to sources), which is roughly $60 a month. In the U. S. the poverty level is set at roughly $920 per month. But looking at my post you will find that this is not enough to make ends meet, and as anybody who ever lived in this country knows.

The three European countries mentioned are not seen as immigration countries by Khmer, while in reality they are if you look at their numbers. The U. K. is home to a vast number of immigrants from their Commonwealth, France from their former colonies in Africa and Asia, and Germany from Eastern and SE Europe and the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The figures are somewhat diluted as the EU with a population of over 300 million people has freedom of residence and work (provided you have a job) for nationals of member countries. So previously Czech or Polish people, for instance, were immigrants, now they are simply migrants. If you go to any of these countries you will be amazed at the multitude of languages you will hear spoken there.