She never thought she’d get married. In her own Park Slope living room. On a Friday night. Or that her mother, many miles away, would lecture her about her choice of groom: one of “them,” an American. She never thought she’d have to keep so many secrets–from her family, from potential employers, from the U.S. government.
But in February, a 26-year-old woman–whose name The Observer agreed not to print–joined the ranks of illegal immigrants in New York City. She tried to look for new work, but as soon as employers saw her foreign résumé, the questions started. Last spring, marrying her American boyfriend seemed like the only way to secure legal status in the United States. Without proper documentation, she risked getting deported. Back home. To Canada.
With her blond hair and perfect English, she doesn’t look like the poster child for illegal immigration. She didn’t get here by scaling a wall or paying off Coyotes. But her blue eyes and slender cheek bones represent a new face in the city’s immigrant population: Canadians.
Since 2000, the number of Canadians living in New York City has more than doubled to over 21,000, myself included. In Manhattan alone, we make up the eighth-largest population of foreign-born residents. And there are between 70,000 and 99,000 unauthorized Canadians nationwide, according to the Urban Institute, a research firm that estimates figures based on population surveys. Although no one tracks the number living illegally in New York, the city continues to be a draw for my northern brethren.
For the most part, Canucks “pass” as Americans. We speak the same language–just about. We watch the same television programs. We eat the same food and read the same magazines. As one young Canadian New Yorker put it, “We’ve already been stirred in the melting pot.”
At the same time, Canadians are increasingly thinking of New York as a city that is, if not exactly hostile, definitely not home.
LAST NOVEMBER, the 26-year-old Park Sloper moved to New York to be with her boyfriend of over three years, whom she met in Montreal while the two were at college. She found a job, secured a temporary visa, and moved into his one-bedroom Park Slope apartment. The only catch? “I hated [the job] the whole time I was there,” she said, “but the only reason I stayed was because I was worried about the visa situation.” Four months later, she quit.
She looked for other work, but recruiters wouldn’t talk to her after they learned of her situation (her visa was only valid for her former position). After a couple of weeks, she felt “like those doctors or engineers that come over from India or Pakistan or Africa, and they have to be cab drivers. Almost.”
Every day she told her boyfriend that she wanted to go home, but he had just been promoted in his Wall Street job. He refused to pick up his life and move north. It seemed the only solution was marriage.
Their wedding was a small affair: the bride and groom, the Canadian maid of honor, the American best man, and a wedding officiant who had lived in both countries. Someone had moved the living room coffee table to create an open space between the leather couches, and a giant bouquet of flowers sat atop it, a gift from the bride’s mother. She must have sent them express: Her daughter had only confessed to the impending marriage the day before.
“When I told her she was like, ‘Oh my God,'” she explained. “And she said, ‘When?’ and I said, ‘Tomorrow,’ and she was like ‘What!'” The conversation was one she had been dreading: Her mother’s biggest fear is that one of her children would move to the United States. Her mother fears for her future grandchildren. One time, she cropped an American flag out of a family portrait.
“She doesn’t want her grandkids being brainwashed into the American way of life,” said the newlywed. She reassured her mother that her grandchildren would have dual citizenship, but her mother responded, “Well, then their kids will be American!”
MOST CANADIANS DON’T move to New York for love. We come to steal your jobs, mostly in the fields of finance, law and, to a lesser extent, the arts and media. (We call this migration “brain drain.”)
Canadian New Yorkers are generally in their 20s to 40s. They are more highly skilled and wealthier than the general population in the U.S. — and in Canada. As Mahmood Iqbal noted in a report for the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, these emigrants “are the best and brightest of the Canadian human resource pool.”
It’s hard for me to disagree. I was born and raised in Toronto, and I cite my northern origins with obnoxious pride, railing against the American health care system, or inquiring politely where I might find the “washroom.” Sometimes I wish I had a more pronounced accent, like an Australian, if only so Americans wouldn’t judge my slightly spotty cultural knowledge. (Although I have dual citizenship, I’m not familiar with the Appalachia region; I’ve hardly ever watched Fox News; I had no idea what servers meant by the phrase, “American cheese” — we call it Kraft Singles.)
Part of the reason for this influx of Canadians is a class of visa that was created in 1994, when NAFTA went into effect. The Trade NAFTA (TN) visa authorizes workers from Mexico and Canada to live in the U.S. for up to one year, provided they work in one of 60 scheduled occupations. A Canadian need only prove that she has a job as a graphic designer or an accountant, show up at the border, and pay $50. She can obtain a visa on the spot.
No wonder this town’s crawling with frostbacks.
The Canadian Association of New York, which organizes the ultra-glitzy Maple Leaf Ball, has 500 members. The “Canadians in NYC” Facebook group has almost 1,000. This year’s Canada Day celebration, which was held at Mama’s Bar in the East Village on July 1, drew twice as many people as last year. Canadians lined up around the block.
In March 2007, New York’s first Canadian-themed restaurant opened. In the meatpacking district. The Inn LW12 is a self-styled “elegant British pub meets Canadian country inn.” The bar menu features two kinds of poutine (that Quebecois delicacy of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds). The restaurant’s décor, which includes a book shelf fashioned out of a canoe, was inspired by the cottages of the restaurant’s three founders. “It’s nice, though, eh?” asked Phil Jalbert, one of the co-founders.