Vai's View: A legal immigrant's take on immigration

Published: Monday, Jan. 31 2011 6:00 p.m. MST

Vai Sikahema's passport, taken when he immigrated from Tonga as a boy, is the oldest photo he has of himself.

Provided by Vai Sikahema

Enlarge photo»

I've followed the immigration debate with great interest for the same reasons it interests everyone else. But also because my family immigrated and settled in Arizona, the epicenter of the debate. Moreover, I'm a devout Latter-day Saint and am intrigued with the way the issue seems to divide perfectly good members of the Church.

I don't necessarily have solutions, just observations and personal insight.

The issue is complex and I certainly understand the reasons for the hostility and rancor. Still, I'm impressed with those who are measured in their approach and resist the urge for vitriol and hate. I recognize many of the factors that contribute to this boiling cauldron: the apparent disregard for the rule of law which governs our country, perhaps growing frustration with the economy and job market, fear — imagined and real — not to mention our government's disinterest in controlling the problem. Yes, perhaps in some cases, there may even be a little bit of racism.

As I've watched and followed the issues of immigration over the years, I've formed my own opinions. It may be easy to think that because of my background, that I am an open border sympathizer, ignoring the enormous costs on society. Although I tend to be a "black-and-white" kind of guy, I do find myself conflicted in certain situations because there are "gray" areas.

My drive to work in Philadelphia takes me past Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell everyday. As I do, I always marvel at the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. I'm hardly an expert, but I appreciate that they recognized the fledgling republic they were constructing required a moral people who would abide by the rule of law, if it was to survive and succeed. They expected it of themselves, of us and anyone who came here.

It occurred to me that as an immigrant family, we have the luxury of 40 years of experience living in our adopted country, successfully assimilated, having reaped all the promises America offers the "tired...poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

Our immigration took three and a half years. My parents came to America on student visas to study at Church College of Hawaii (now BYU-Hawaii), spent a year in school while working at the Polynesian Cultural Center before saving enough to send for me. Not long after I arrived, we moved to Arizona where another two and a half years passed before my siblings joined us.

It was in Arizona where we applied for resident alien cards or as it's more commonly known, green cards. The process was long and arduous, especially while we were separated from my younger siblings. I remember going with my parents to Phoenix for several meetings with the Immigration & Naturalization Service. In one of those meetings, my parents were summoned into an INS agent's office while I sat unattended in the waiting room.

When they emerged a couple of hours later, my mother was crying and my dad looked defeated. Mom was ready to return to Tonga to be reunited with her children, but my father insisted on waiting for my siblings' visas all the while working on extending our own.

As children, we were left in Tonga with our maternal grandparents when I was six, my sister was three and brother two. I was now nine and didn't appreciate my mother's heartache and separation anxiety because my siblings were now six and five. Our separation, though voluntary, was excruciating and even now as adults we continue to deal with the effects of it.

Times have changed since those days when I think it was a little easier to get a green card and citizenship. Since our immigration, millions have flooded into the country through Arizona's southern border. Partly because my parents followed the proper procedures, filing for extensions on their expiring visas, paying fees, answering a barrage of questions from INS agents over a two-year period and my own understanding of our system of government, I'm a rule of law proponent.

Arizona's controversial legislation, S.B. 1070, I believe, was borne out of the state's frustration with the fed's failure to stem the steady flow of illegal immigrants pouring in through Nogales and other southern border towns.

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