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The Right to Immigration and a Better Life

A personal reflection on a life enriched by immigration and its link to public health.  

Posted on June 27, 2018
Dean Ana Diez Roux in an Argentina cafe

All my life I have been an immigrant. At 6 years of age, I immigrated from Argentina to the United States via Venezuela. In the United States, I was fortunate to be welcomed by a wonderful school where I was assigned to a teacher who spoke a bit of Spanish. For a year I did not speak a word, but strangely enough I have no memory whatsoever of not understanding English. And a year later, I simply spoke, and that was it.  Since then English has been a language that I have loved, the language in which I first read great novels, and in which I wrote my first stories (although I must admit that poetry and magical realism still sound much better to me in Spanish and Spanish remains to me the comforting language of family and home).

When I was 12, I immigrated again, back to Argentina, where as an adolescent I struggled at first to understand the “rules” of adolescent life that seemed strange and so different from what I was used to. Yet, when I moved back to the United States again in my late twenties, I felt Argentinian to the bone, and very much a foreigner, even though much of my childhood had been spent in the United States.  I intended to return to my country right after completing my MPH, but that never happened.  By now (and I am surprised by this even as I write it) I have lived more years in the United States than anywhere else.

I have tried to bridge my two worlds in my professional life, a task that sometimes appeared impossible, and gave me a strange sense of a split existence: here and there, before and after. Perhaps this is why today it gives me great hope to work once again with colleagues here at our School, in the United States, and all over the Latin American region on our SALURBAL project. It is for me a return and a synthesis. Being an immigrant shaped who I am, the way I see the world, and has enriched my life greatly. It has given me an appreciation for the nuances and complexities of identity. It has shown me the value of difference and diversity. It has allowed me to see things that I would not have seen otherwise. It has given me insight. Of course, I have been a very privileged immigrant, I have gone to wonderful schools and lived in great neighborhoods. I have a terrific job. I have not fled persecution or poverty or war as so many immigrants do.

A wonderful article in this week’s New York Times debunks several myths and misconceptions about immigration.  It shows how immigration is often unrealistically perceived as a threat, and immigrants are often believed to be much more common than they are and have much greater needs than they do. We have all been progressively shocked, disgusted, and discouraged by the anti-immigrant sentiment prevalent not only in the United States (where it is highly prominent and sadly reflected in policies too numerous and perverse to detail here), but also all over the world.

Immigration has much to do with public health. I have discussed these links in some of my other Dean's letters. It shapes life histories and as such is intimately linked to health and well-being. Immigrants can reap health benefits and suffer health threats associated with the process of migrating. They often suffer discrimination, hazardous jobs, and dangerous living conditions. In some cases they face major trauma such as that inflicted on immigrants who face dangerous border crossings by sea or land, who are detained, or who are cruelly separated from their parents. But they migrate seeking safety, opportunity, and a better life. They migrate in search of health for themselves and their families.

As a School of public health committed to health as a human right, we recognize the right of all people to a better and healthier life. We recognize the right of immigrants to seek health and fulfillment wherever it may be. We are committed to generating evidence and advocating for policies that promote the health of immigrants including access to services and health care, decent and safe jobs, and protection from discrimination and trauma in all its forms.  We welcome all immigrants old and new to our School for who they are and for what they can contribute to our common mission to promote and protect the health of the public. I say this as an immigrant myself, sitting in a café in Buenos Aires, writing in English, while speaking in Spanish.