I am an immigration attorney for the poor. Which is to say I encounter a lot of intense, heart-wrenching stuff. To prevent burnout, I watch cartoons and listen to silly podcasts. But sometimes, my little mental detours bring me right back to the troubles I was trying to escape, albeit momentarily.
For instance, the other day I was listening to Jenna Fischer – a.k.a. Pam Beesly from NBC’s “The Office” – recount on her Office Ladies podcast a shopping trip in France that proved traumatic for the actress, who last studied French years ago in high school.
“I guess in France you don’t touch the fruit,” she began. “You point to it or trust the person selling the produce to select the best pieces for you. I DIDN’T KNOW THIS, OK?”
Oh god, where is this story going, I thought to myself as I brushed my teeth after lunch.
“I have done the faux pas… of touching the fruit,” Fischer continued. “And this woman turns to her co-worker and GOES OFF ON ME. In French … she is calling me, like, ‘you dumb American … these Americans come here and TOUCH OUR FRUIT.’”
Oh god, this is not relaxing, I said through a mouthful of floss.
“I was this mixture of just, like, embarrassed but also felt like, ‘I’M SORRY, HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT?! I’M A NICE PERSON.’”
Yikes, I thought, gargling and spitting before heading back to work, where every day my clients suffer through permutations of Jenna Fischer’s French fruit story.
But their versions are almost always worse.
Just switch out the famous actress bumbling through quaint street markets with new Americans – brown, paint-splattered, and young – finding their way through the microcosmopolises that Scottsbluff, Lexington, and other Nebraska towns have become.
And instead of a faux pas involving melons on account of I DIDN’T KNOW THIS OK, the faux pas here is a broken taillight or a dog without a leash because, back in the other country, the police either didn’t care or looked the other way.
And whereas Jenna Fischer’s only punishment for touching fruit was some snarky condescension, the consequences here often snowball.
A citation for no seatbelt can lead to a missed court date because, well, courts are scary and how is this even a thing, and that failure to appear can turn into a bench warrant for arrest.
In the end, there can be a lot of HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT?! I’M A NICE PERSON. You know, just like Jenna Fischer.
Part of what I do as an immigration attorney is to help educate our state’s institutions on the lapses in understanding that can lead to needlessly detrimental consequences for individuals new to the United States. I explain that, at times, immigrants may struggle to appreciate that, yes, we have a lot of rules here to ensure our safety and yes, everyone is expected to follow them.
I also explain that, conversely, dominant society often struggles to appreciate how fearful immigrants can be of our state institutions. And how insanely corrupt and illegitimate the governments beyond our borders can be. To many immigrants, the governments of their home countries seem like a joke, making it that much harder to trust the governments here.
“Help them meet you halfway by explaining who you are and how you are not affiliated with immigration enforcement,” I advise. “Meanwhile, meet them halfway by finding out where they are from; how things operated in their home country.”
Through intentional conversations like that, we can sooner overcome the melon-thumps of our society and discover how, yes, there are a lot of nice persons here.
Astrid Munn is the Child and Family Managing Attorney at Immigrant Legal Center in Omaha. A native of Scottsbluff, Astrid began her career as a journalist before earning her law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. She previously practiced immigration law in the D.C./Baltimore area and personal injury law in Western Nebraska. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.