Four Non-Americans’ Views of America

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Bascom Hall. You can study here and get smart, but you can’t stay. (Credit: Richard Hurd/Flickr)

Listening to non-American friends living overseas, the United States seems like a lumbering giant with little idea of how it impacts the world. Its democracy and merit culture remains a draw for people in developing nations who desire to do better, but President Donald Trump’s immigration policies are confusing everyone.

Two weeks ago I told you about my conversations with four American friends living overseas and how they view the United States as expatriots. This week I spoke with four more friends, all non-Americans that once lived in the United States at some point, live in other countries now, and occasionally travel here on business or on vacation.

Everyone I spoke to is highly educated: We all went to business school together at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sebastien Rexhausen is an energy sector business consultant living in Bonn, Germany. Faisal Siddiqui, whom I wrote about last week, has been a hospital CEO in numerous Indian cities. Leonel Preza is an El Salvadoran now working as a factory manager in Vancouver, British Columbia. Qasim Munir is a chemical engineer working for a fertilizer manufacturer in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Geography it seemed, was everything, as I spoke to my old friends. My German buddy, Sebastien, who flies into Houston for work on a regular basis, finds America to be pretty much the same as he’s always experienced it. He applied for and obtained a five-year work visa with no problem. But as a European, he’s acutely aware of America’s sharp divide between rich and poor.

“The big divide between the affluent and poor is a topic that’s big in the news back home – coupled with drugs,” particularly the United States opioid epidemic, says Sebastien.

My El Salvadoran friend living in Canada, Leonel, now views everything through a Canadian lens (more on that later). Looking over the U.S. border just a few minutes away from his home in Vancouver, he sees the U.S. as divisive and centered on capitalism, that forgets to provide residents with the basics.

“[Canada is] like the U.S. thirty years ago. They are not as competitive, aggressive as in the States. In general people are nice, everything is organized, orderly. Here in Canada, you get health care and schooling for free. The university is less expensive than in the States. For me, experiencing the States is the sheer volume of the economy,” Leonel says.

Leonel and his family drives to visit Seattle every few weeks, and he has family he visits in Las Vegas and Boise, Idaho. So he manages to check in regularly on the U.S.

“The States have changed. You see more immigrants, but you see more poverty. Divisions from the rich to the poor, you see those big gaps. But you don’t see that as much in Canada.”

But my friend in Islamabad, Qasim, sees less of the rich-poor divide and more of the opportunity.

“[America] is an ideal place to immigrate, because the systems and processes are fair, there’s very little corruption, and you can excel and go fairly. My time there I found it to be the same. It’s a dream place for lots of people.”

Qasim expressed a bit of concern about prejudice against immigrants, but not too much. “It’s a country which 95% of the time makes you feel welcome. Every now and then you run into a person who makes a remark and it ruins your next hour or so, but that happens very little.”

But when discussion turns to American foreign policy, everyone had big criticisms for the U.S.

“Who would think people in Wisconsin would vote for Donald Trump?” asked my friend from India, Faisal. “What we hear about America is that it is not what it used to be. As a free country, as a place accepting of people of different backgrounds. From our perspective the bubble has burst.”

Qasim, whose country, Pakistan, just finished a series of deadly border battles with India, says many Pakistanis blamed the United States for the fighting since India’s fighter jets, bombs and artillery mostly comes from American arms manufacturers.

“We all know who was backing it up. There was someone that supporting it – the U.S. That’s who was pushing it,” he said.

Pakistanis, wedged between Afghanistan where the U.S. is fighting a hot war, and India, which the U.S. is warming up to in an effort to hem in China, are predictably sensitive to American actions.

“People here are almost convinced that whatever India was doing was with the backing of the U.S. That does not leave a good feeling at all. The more literate people say it’s more about business, there’s no such thing as ethics. It is all about give and take so the United States can leverage China. The U.S. needs a check on them.”

Pakistan is still a largely illiterate country, Qasim laments, and because of that, few people are able to read newspapers and form their own opinions about the world. So if the government says the United States is to blame, they’ll go along with that idea.

“The bottom line for a commoner, is they lack the capacity of interest to go into the depth and details. They just want a one liner from the government. Whatever they hear becomes their belief,” Qasim says.

Leonel, the El Salvadoran in Canada, thinks the U.S. is often totally unaware of its impact, and just bigfoots its way through the world. For instance, he thinks the twelve-year long El Salvadoran civil war from 1979 to 1992 was probably unintentionally lengthened by American largesse.

“The civil war in El Salvador lasted for 10 years, but the U.S. gave [the government] intelligence on where the guerilla commanders were. If they wanted, they could have ended the war in a year. But the U.S. kept sending money to maintain the war. That money [went to] the government, ‘Hey, we’re receiving free money for a war, why stop it?’ That’s why the war lasted 10 years,” Leonel claims.

I think Leonel’s analysis is oversimplified, but it does illustrate something very real, which is that America, the largest economy in the world, can quickly swamp a tiny country of 6.5 million people, and not even notice. What is certainly true, is that the United States was sending around $500 million in aid a year to El Salvador during the 1980’s, and American military officers were helping run the war for the government. We were in deep, with big consequences for El Salvadorans, and barely any for Americans back home.

This is felt by Sebastien, from Germany too. It’s big news in Germany that the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords, that Trump is pressuring Germany to stop building natural gas pipelines to Russia, and that the U.S. is demanding Germany not use Chinese telecommunications technology in favor of American tech. Most of those things aren’t really talked about in the United States.

“[Trump is] trying to go away from being the institution of the world to ensuring everything benefits the U.S. [He is trying] to take a different stance of the United States’ role in the world, which in the past was balancing. But now it’s U.S. first,” Sebastien said. “The U.S. was an institution for global policy making. I’m not sure if that is not lost to a certain degree. He is enabling other bloks or parties to win in that global race for positioning.”

Finally, because that seems to be the biggest concern between the United States and the rest of the world, Leonel’s immigration story is another great illustration of how the rest of the world works.

Born in San Salvador, Leonel came to earn an M.B.A. at the University of Wisconsin after he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. Graduating in 2003, he headed back to El Salvador to manage a massive Maidenform factory with 10,000 workers. He gradually climbed up the ladder, and by 2008 he was managing nine factories for Hanes Brands across Central America.

By then gang violence was getting worse in San Salvador, and concerned for their two young children Leonel and his wife decided they needed to emigrate. But he told me, “To get the States, it’s very hard. You need a family sponsorship or a company visa,” neither of which this Fulbright Scholar who managed nine factories for a major global company could conjure up.

But Canada offered an opportunity, he said. “In Canada they have a point system based on education, level of English and your skills.” The system is straightforward – meet certain requirements, you get points. Get 67 points or more, and you can become a permanent resident. (Try an example test for yourself here.)

Leonel had enough points, and he and his family obtained residency in Canada in 2014. Then, just four years later, they applied for Canadian citizenship in October 2018 and became Canucks. Just like that. You only need to be a Canadian resident for one year.

“Now we have Canadian passports!” Leonel said.

These are the El Salvadorans we’re keeping out of the U.S.