Jende Jonga enters the United States in the summer of 2004 on a three-month visitor’s visa with the hope that, within his allotted time, he can get a green card or an American passport. He’s determined to escape from the “future of poverty and despondency” that characterizes his life in Cameroon in favor of “[claiming] his share of the milk, honey, and liberty flowing in the paradise-for-strivers called America.” Jende’s dream of making it in America is reflective of that of many immigrants who arrive in the United States with no intention other than to work hard and make better lives for themselves. However, this dream is often foiled when newcomers become trapped in a confusing immigration system that takes advantage of people’s hopes without offering them any real chance of fulfilling them. Mbue uses Jende’s story to illustrate how a nation that was partly built by immigrants now seems set up to work against them.
Jende relies on the help of a Nigerian lawyer named Bubakar who works with undocumented African immigrants throughout the United States. Bubakar specializes in concocting stories that will result in his clients gaining asylum or that, at the very least, will keep the immigration authorities at bay for years until his clients find other ways, usually through marriage, to remain in the country more permanently. Meanwhile, Bubakar profits financially from his clients remaining in this state of limbo. His relationship with Jende exposes how the condition of undocumented immigrants results in an industry in which Americans profit from a hopeful immigrant’s exploitation. What’s interesting is that Bubakar, a naturalized citizen, is also willing to profit from Jende’s hopes, despite being aware of the Jonga family’s very limited financial resources. Bubakar’s greed and his forgetting of what it was like to be in Jende’s situation makes him a less sympathetic character, and also suggests that the pressure to succeed in American pits immigrants against each other instead of forming a promised melting pot of camaraderie.
Jende’s cousin, Winston, who’s also an attorney, is skeptical of Bubakar’s competence. Though a diploma on Bubakar’s wall proves that he attended “some law school in Nebraska,” Winston is more concerned with Bubakar’s crude mannerisms, which suggest that “he’d gotten his real education via online immigration forums.” Winston’s perception of Bubakar facilitates the reader’s sense that he’s more of a schemer than a sound legal counselor. Winston’s dismissal of Bubakar’s law degree suggests that it doesn’t come from a prestigious school, and that, in Winston’s view, Bubakar only obtained the minimal requirement for appearing professional. Yet, with limited means and rights, Jende has few other options for representation.
When Bubakar suggests that Jende apply for asylum by telling a judge that Neni’s father is trying to kill him for impregnating Neni back in 1990, Bubakar now doesn’t even appear to be a competent schemer. His suggestion comes from a presumption that an American judge will have prejudices about Africa—that it is a war-torn place in which women are routinely regarded as property—and that these prejudices will work in Jende’s favor. An asylum application takes time to process, given the need for new appeals. The story offers an arrangement that will financially benefit Bubakar indefinitely while Jende remains in a state of uncertainty about his future.
After Jende’s dreams of making it in America are dashed, he agrees to what Bubakar calls “voluntary departure,” meaning that Jende will “leave quietly” within ninety days and pay his own airfare back home. While Jende is finally relieved from the stress of worrying over his immigration status, he remains concerned about how it will impact his future chances of returning to the United States, as well his family’s possible goals in the country.
Bubakar alerts Jende to the possibility that it may not be as easy for him to acquire another visa from the American embassy in Cameroon. He assures Jende that he’ll not be “banned,” but that any future chance of returning to the U.S. will be dubious. Thus, even after voluntarily giving up on his asylum application, Jende may still face the prospect of being unwelcome as a visitor. Jende, thus, learns that entry to the U.S. is often decided arbitrarily and that his record as a valuable worker will make little difference in changing his prospects.
Aside from concerns about himself, Jende worries about the impact of voluntary departure on his family. Though Timba needn’t ever worry, as she is the only member of the family who is a natural-born U.S. citizen, and Neni will likely have the chance to apply for another student visa in the future, Liomi is in the same “hot soup” as his father. Bubakar explains how the U.S. government is indifferent to children who have arrived illegally with their parents. Though Jende insists that Liomi isn’t at fault for the decision that Jende made for his family, Bubakar enlightens him to the callousness of the U.S. immigration system, which never would have offered Liomi citizenship, even if his parents had remained in the country, undocumented, for decades.
Yet another dream evaporates when Jende learns how difficult it is to become an American citizen. In the end, he sees that it isn’t as simple as telling a couple of lies to gain entry to the country and then working hard to earn one’s place in society. Instead, the system seems designed to profit from his presence while offering him little in return. Bubakar builds his coffers as a result of Jende paying attorney’s fees for a case that may be hopeless; and Jende and Neni toil away at menial jobs that profit off of their labor without having to offer the couple the same benefits as documented workers. Jende’s journey through the American system of immigration helps him realize that there seems to be no viable pathway to citizenship for someone with his background, despite America’s promise to welcome everyone to its shores.
The Modern Immigrant Experience ThemeTracker
The Modern Immigrant Experience Quotes in Behold the Dreamers
“Listen to me,” Bubakar said, somewhat impatiently. “As far as Immigration is concerned, there are many things that are illegal and many that are gray, and by ‘gray’ I mean the things that are illegal but which the government doesn’t want to spend time worrying about. You understand me, abi? My advice to someone like you is to always stay close to the gray area and keep yourself and your family safe. Stay away from any place where you can run into police—that’s the advice I give to you and to all young black men in this country. The police is for the protection of white people, my brother. Maybe black women and black children sometimes, but not black men. Never black men. Black men and police are palm oil and water. You understand me, eh?”
Winston had friends of all races, she knew, but she had no idea he had so many white friends […] It was one thing to be in the same class with them, work for them, smile at them on the bus; it was a whole other thing to laugh and chat with them for hours, making sure she enunciated every word so they wouldn't say her accent was too difficult to understand. No way could she spend time with a white woman and be herself the way she was with Betty or Fatou […] And the people in the bar […] they were mostly associates at the firm where Winston worked, so she had to be careful not to embarrass him. Nothing shamed her more than black people embarrassing themselves in front of white people by behaving the way white people expect them to behave.
She was noticing something for the first time […] On both sides of the street […] she saw people walking with their kind: a white man holding hands with a white woman; a black teenager giggling with other black (or Latino) teenagers; a white mother pushing a stroller alongside another white mother; a black woman chatting with a black woman […] Even in New York City […] men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest. And why shouldn't they? It was far easier to do so than to spend one’s limited energy trying to blend into a world one was never meant to be a part of […] She had her world in Harlem and never again would she try to wriggle her way into a world in midtown, not even for just an hour.
In his first days in America, it was here he came every night to take in the city. It was here he often sat to call her when he got so lonely and homesick that the only balm that worked was the sound of her voice. During those calls, he would ask her how Liomi was doing, what she was wearing, what her plans for the weekend were, and she would tell him everything, leaving him even more wistful for the beauty of her smile, the hearth in his mother’s kitchen, the light breeze at Down Beach, the tightness of Liomi's hug, the coarse jokes and laughter of his friends as they drank Guinness at a drinking spot; leaving him craving everything he wished he hadn’t left behind. During those times, he told her, he often wondered if leaving home in search of something as fleeting as fortune was ever worthwhile.
“Everything’s going to be all right, Cindy […] Sean has to constantly remind me, too. He says I have to stop checking our portfolios twenty times a day, but I can't help it. I woke up every morning in Florence panicking about losing everything [....]”
Cindy did not immediately respond; she seemed lost in a maze of a hundred thoughts. “I wish I had Sean's calmness,” she finally said. “Nothing ever seems to unravel him.”
“Yeah, but you won’t believe what he suggested to me yesterday,” Cheri said […]
“He thinks maybe we should get rid of Rosa for a few months, to save” […]
“Yeah, that's exactly what we need now, right?” Cindy said. “To be cooking and cleaning and doing laundry while we're losing money and sleep […]”
“But it’s scary how bad this could get,” Cheri said, her tone turning serious as their laughter ebbed. “When people start talking about flying coach and selling vacation homes…”
“In America today, having documents is not enough. Look at how many people with papers are struggling. Look at how even some Americans are suffering. They were born in this country. They have American passports, and yet they are sleeping on the street, going to bed hungry, losing their jobs and houses every day in this…this economic crisis.”
“You should have been with me last week when I saw this man who used to drive another executive at Lehman Brothers. We used to sit together outside the building sometimes; he was a fresh round man. I saw him downtown: The man looked like he had his last good meal a year ago. He has not been able to find another job. He says too many people want to be chauffeurs now […] Everyone is losing jobs everywhere and looking for new jobs, anything to pay bills. So you tell me—if he, an American, a white man with papers, cannot get a new chauffeur job then what about me? They say the country will get better, but you know what? I don’t know if I can stay here until that happens. I don’t know if I can continue suffering like this just because I want to live in America.”
By her late twenties, all she could think about was America […] The African-Americans she saw on TV in Cameroon were happy and successful, well-educated and respectable, and she'd come to believe that if they could flourish in America, surely she could, too […] Even after she'd seen the movies Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing, she couldn’t be swayed or convinced that the kind of black life depicted represented anything but a very small percentage of black life, just like Americans probably understood that the images they saw of war and starvation in Africa were but a very small percentage of African life […] Every picture she'd seen of Cameroonians in America was a portrait of bliss: children laughing in snow; couples smiling at a mall; families posing in front of a nice house with a nice car nearby. America, to her, was synonymous with happiness.
Later, as she stood in front of the mirror staring at her face before applying her exfoliating mask, she promised herself she would fight Jende till the end. She had to. It wasn’t only that she loved New York City […] It wasn’t just because she was hopeful that she would one day become a pharmacist […] It was hardly only about […] things she could never find in her hometown, things like horse-drawn carriages on city streets, and gigantic lighted Christmas trees in squares and plazas, and pretty parks where musicians played for free beside polychromatic foliage […] It was mostly for what her children would be deprived of […] It was for the boundless opportunities they would be denied […] She was going to fight for her children, and for herself, because no one journeyed far away from home to return without a fortune amassed or dream achieved.
When he had told her of his plan to return home, she had wondered why he was coming back when others were running out of Limbe, when many in his age group were fleeing to Bahrain and Qatar, or trekking and taking a succession of crowded buses to get from Cameroon to Libya so they could cross to Italy on leaky boats and arrive there with dreams of a happier life if the Mediterranean didn’t swallow them alive.