I grew up in a suburban barrio of Los Angeles, surrounded by other Latinos, struggling to make it. The child of parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s following the collapse of the Mexican economy, I imagined I’d follow my father’s footsteps and become an auto-body worker.
After a few missteps, I ended up at one of the many alternative schools that dot L.A. County. With the help of several teachers, I graduated from high school, Pasadena City College and eventually, completed a Master’s degree at San Diego State University.
I quickly embraced my new identity as an academic, civil servant and researcher, even as I continued to experience the racism familiar to so many Mexican-Americans. Once, on an evening run in suburban San Diego, the low light of flickering stars above me, the headlights of cars passing by, two police officers stopped me. As I crossed the street, they jumped out of their cars, guns drawn.
I turned around slowly, put my hands on my head and fell to my knees. The officers walked up to me and handcuffed me. Eventually, they released me, explaining that I matched the description of someone who had stolen a truck.
With my new-found status as a graduate student, I set aside these painful reminders that some elements in society still considered me a second-class citizen.
I believed that the U.S. gives everyone a fair chance. And it seemed I was proof: In 2011, I won a prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship – a full academic ride for my doctoral work. I focused my research on the lives of 50 incarcerated Latina young women in southern California. Three years later, I had earned a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in sociology. I was lucky enough to be offered a job teaching at the University of Washington. I turned my dissertation into a book, Caught UP: Girls, Surveillance and Wraparound Incarceration. I bought a house, and we had our first child before I was 30. I had arrived.
My happiness, however, proved short-lived.
On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced he would run to become president of the United States and launched a campaign filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and divisive policies. Pledges to build a wall along the southern border to prevent Mexicans from “illegally” crossing into the U.S. dominated the news cycle. He vowed to deport millions of undocumented people and ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
Civil rights groups reported higher incidents of hate crimes, including against Latinos in southern California. Alt-right rallies took place across the nation. White supremacist fliers, swastikas and other propaganda littered my campus.
On election night, Nov. 9, 2016, I watched anxiously with my wife, as results rolled in. When Wisconsin went red for Republicans, we knew Trump would win. We sat in shock reading our Facebook feeds and lamenting for the futures of our two-year-old and our new-born twins.
Though I had been offered two academic positions at prestigious research universities in the U.S., I knew I would take the third offer: the University of Toronto. Part of me desperately wanted to stay in L.A., surrounded by my family, history and culture.
But I couldn’t bear the idea of having to listen to the President denigrate my parents’ homeland for four long years.
I knew it was time to say good bye to the American dream.
At the University of Toronto I encountered an institution that embraced diversity and research. Compared to L.A.’s residential segregation, Torontonians blended together to create a multicultural cityscape. With half of Torontonians non-white, I blended right in. When my three children fell ill, I took them to the doctor and didn’t have to pay a cent.
Life as a transplanted American made me realize the impact the Trump presidency was having globally. The U of T, similar to other Canadian universities, is benefitting from the so-called “Trump bump,” with a spike in the numbers of international students applying and accepting offers here.
South of the border, U.S. universities have suffered a 7 per cent decline in enrolment of international students, according to a study by the Institute of International Education. With the crackdown on H1B visas, some technology and IT companies have also begun moving their foreign workers to Canada. And so, it’s not just me.
I am surprised how little I miss my homeland, its bigoted discourse and mass shootings. I know I should have stayed to fight. But I left. I believe that if Canada opened its doors for 100,000 American immigrants, the quota would be filled in a day.