The lure of American green card and elderly parents


How much is an American green card and ultimately a naturalized citizenship worth to elderly sub-continental parents? A lot! How many more do you think would be willing to give up their independence and the comfort of their own cocoon to immigrate to America? Many parents would happily give up living their retired lives in the sub-continent in exchange for a supposed ‘luxury life’ in the good old USA. Over the years, I have seen a huge surge in immigrant parents in the Washington DC metropolitan area. They are all around me, in the families of my friends, acquaintances and relatives. I know elderly parents in many families who have traded their individuality and independence to become unpaid babysitters/nannies/cooks/gardeners and housekeepers in the homes of their adult married children who are US citizens. Why would elderly parents sacrifice their dignity and self-worth and live with their adult married children in America, just to enjoy some extra bonuses?For the elderly parents, the reason for enduring such humiliation is to hold onto their green cards, and its terms and conditions that ultimately lead to a much desired US Citizenship. The perk is once those parents become US citizens, they become eligible for Medicare and government’s financial assistance every month for just being senior citizens.

Last night, I was appalled to hear that one of my cousins, who got a green card through her daughter, has suddenly gone back to Dhaka. It was after she fell ill from exhaustion and overwork in her married daughter’s family as a granny nanny. Lacking proper medical insurance, she decided to go back home to get treatment and proper rest. For the last two years, in her mid-sixties, she has been working tirelessly in her daughter’s home while her daughter pursued her career as an engineer. I have also seen how adult children’s family based immigration ploys play out all too well. It has gotten a bit out of hand these days. Too often I hear about parental neglect. I have witnessed with shudder and sadness how the unsuspecting and naive parents financially supported by their grown children fall into a trap that their overly clever children set for them.

The latest fad in expatriate communities across Washington metropolitan area among the young working couples with small children is something that was unheard of twenty years ago. The new trend is — since it is costly to keep young children in Day Care Centers, the parents of those children show ingenuity by offering immigration to their own parents back home. Maryland is ranked seventh as one of the most expensive childcare states in the United States. A July 2019 report found that an average Day Care costs for an infant per month is $1,278. Childcare for a 4-year-old costs $855 per month. Childcare in Maryland is more expensive than in-state tuition of a 4-year-old state college. Therefore, many working first generation adult children even in a two-income family prefer to sponsor their own parents for the much desired green card. I call it parents for hire without pay. Well, as payments they only are provided room and board.

Mind you,a lot of these elderly parents are usually in their mid-sixties and seventies. Some have just retired from long years of services and are trying to figure out how to best spend their retired years. At that point in time when the lucrative once-in- a-life time opportunity of immigrating to the USA comes, it seems like divine intervention, a dream come true. Before getting sponsored for immigration, they usually are not aware of the rude realities of life in America. The images of America that they gather from the video stories sent by their children living in the US about their day to day life do seem awesome! They pose in front of their humongous houses that have a well-paved driveway, which leads to two garages that remain half-open only to show the gold Lexus logo above the personalized license plate.Next to it, another Acura minivan keeps it company.

The immaculately manicured forest-green lawns with exotic flowers and the vacation pictures they email home to the elderly parents from the Disneyland, the Bahamas or the Caribbean cruises paint a picture-perfect image of life in the distant magical land, which is called America. Ah, what an oasis it might be to live in that enchanted land!However, those stories and pictures do hide the simple fact that life in America is not as hunky-dory as the pictures suggest. The pictures do not reveal the simple fact that life here in the US is not always infallible. Life can be very harsh if you were not born and raised here and even harder if someone arrives here at a mature age. In their unaccustomed ears, the American accent sounds so peculiar that it takes years to make out the simple exchanges without cringing. The antipodean isolation and overwhelming sense of displacement that some of the newly arrived parents undergo when the reality of being in a foreign land hits is simply shocking.

Sometimes the freshly arrived sets of parents are shoved in the dark underground windowless basement rooms (a room that is below ground level, underneath the first floor with little to no natural light) in the houses of their children who sponsor their green cards. I have seen a fewcases like this and have heard numerous stories from friends and family who live in other parts of the country. Aside from that,there are many diaspora writers who are hinting on such happenings in immigrant households in the US.

While I was studying at the University of Rhode Island, I knew one South Asian family, and they had kept the elderly parents of the husband in the basement. I once stumbled into that basement, and to my horror,I saw two shadowy ageing figures sitting there like twin ghosts. Terrified, I ran upstairs and charged the lady of the house why she keeps her in-laws in the basement where she has a nicely decorated guestroom upstairs. She gave me a mocking smile and said, “Once you are faced with in-laws who are nothing but embarrassment, you would have done the same. Before they had arrived in my house,they were a bag of bones and now look at them — all fattened up from the rich food they are eating every day.”

After going through the permanent residency application, those parents who come to live with their married expat children do not realize that once they arrive in America, their dream of living a work-free, retired life might turn nightmarish. Arming themselves with gullibility — on the expected day, after two days of air travel in economy class, the weary parents step out of the immigration by clutching the hand bags where they have jars of pickles, barfi,sondesh, laddo, gajarkahalwa and other delicacies that they meticulously had prepared so that their “deprived”married children can munch on such homemade goodies. They had often complained that they do not get such items in Asian grocery stores in the US. Even if they do find some, they simply don’t taste like the homemade ones.

To get such special treats to pass through immigration takes a lot of negotiations and it is very hard to convince the officials who don’t know the difference between mango chutney to Aladdin’s sweets. In cases where the parents are not fluent in English, it becomes a daunting task to explain in broken English as to why they must not toss the items that were made with a lot of love. Sometimes an immigration officer takes pity on a teary-eyed mother, and just lets her have it instead of throwing it away.

By putting the blinders over their eyes, the elderly parents after clearing customs and immigration step into this dreamlike land. In the beginning, upon arrival in this country,they are dazed and dazzled by all the tales, accessibilities and conveniences. The first few weeks go by very quickly in getting acquainted with the new surroundings. They admire and adore their angel like grand children until the initial shock wears off and reality sets in.

In about three weeks’ time,come Monday morning the hard truth of being a permanent resident (green card holder) hits a newly arrived elderly parent like a thunderbolt.The reality hits hard,when she sees in the morning, her daughter or daughter in-law leaving the 3-year-old granddaughter behind instead of dropping her off at the Day Care Center on way to work. She had heard numerous stories before about how convenient it is for the kid to go to the Day Care for it is right next to her daughter in-law’s work place. Before she was given the impression that it is important for young children to interact with others in the same age group to develop social and other interactive skills.

Then the elderly parent thinks, “Oh, to put it plainly,I am here to be my granddaughter’s nanny? I thought I came here so that I can have some unperturbed time at my age and enjoy life a little.”After feeling the shock wave, the confused grandmother ventures into the kitchen and sees on the granite counter top a list of things to do scribbled in half Bengali/Urdu/Hindi and half English. Bewildered, she takes it to her equally baffled elderly husband to make sense of all this gibberish. She finds him in the family room staring at the digital large screen TV, and clearly not enjoying the morning talk show, because the incomprehensible American accent sounds severe and high-pitched in his foreign ears.

Together, the senior couple figures out that their daughter in-law has left instructions for them to do housework — from watering her plants, dusting furniture and other chores to do in the kitchen. And,yes, the three-year-old was also left in their care. Now the couple is in tears and start impugning one another as to whose bright idea was it to immigrate to America. They realize that they are expected to be the cook, baby-sitter and gardener at their son’s house. Wasn’t it better back home where they had others doing all these menial jobs for them? Now it’s too late to do anything and will have to bite the bullet and suck it up.

Once the parents are here, many adult sons and daughters frequently rob their elderly parents from making decisions for themselves. They usually map out their days — from where they can go, what they can eat, who they can to talk to on the phone while they are out, what they should say or should not say in front of company on Saturday evenings. With each day, they slowly and very methodically strip their parents of their dignity. Over time, these parents become solely dependent on these grown children. The parent/child role becomes reversed where the parents become the children. Some grown-up children make the American experience a living hell for the elderly parents. Others make their senior parents take part-time work in a pizza place, MacDonald’s or at the convenient store where they have to stay on their feet. Their simple rationalization is –staying home will make their parents depressed and sad, so it’s the lesser of two evils. These elderly folks sometimes are subjected to pure neglect and often become demented and garrulous.

In order to avoid the feeling of isolation and loneliness and financial hardship, many parents of expat community decide to immigrate to America. The lure of a green card is so enticing that they forgo a thorough discussion about how not to become a full time granny nanny. Without giving much thought whether they will be comfortable living in someone else’s household, they agree to immigrate. Before migrating, it is very important to think about a day to day life in suburban America, living with the grandchildren and maybe pets – are all things that need to be considered before applying for the green card. I say to the parents of expatriate children: if you do not want to live like non-elite Americans do stay put if you have the economic freedom.And if you want to foster a healthy and meaningful relationship with your adult children, do stay in your own homeswhere you can be joyful and won’t be subjected to neglect in the household of your adult daughter or son in the USA. Please remember while contemplating a permanent move to America – life on this side of the Atlantic isn’t that gorgeous that you seem to think it is.

Zeenat Khan writes  from Maryland, USA




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