Every year, during tax season, I'm tempted to state in my return form that I have close to 10 dependents. But I don't, because most of my dependents live in Kenya, my country of birth, making them ineligible to be claimed.
The list of my dependents started in 1995 with eight people - two parents and six siblings. My father, who was a primary school teacher in rural western Kenya, had fallen seriously ill, rendering him unable to work. That laid the burden of paying his hefty medical bills, and supporting the family, on my 20-year-old shoulders. This was no easy feat, considering that I was a new, unskilled immigrant, working at a fast-food restaurant for $4.40 an hour in the California coast - one of the most expensive places in the world to live. But my struggle was only beginning.
In 1998, my father passed away. As the wife of a teacher, my mother was entitled to a lump sum payment of my father's pension, about 100,000 Kenyan shillings (a little over $1,000). My mother made numerous unsuccessful trips to government offices to try and get that money. Government officials explained the delay by claiming that they were investigating to make sure my father didn't have another family, which would have been entitled to half the money.
After a while, my mother figured out that the officials wanted bribes. She paid the bribes by having them deducted from the sporadic installments of the money. By 2006, there was about 10,000 shillings still owed to her. She went to the government office only to learn that the man who handled her case no longer worked there. The one who had taken his place said he couldn't help her.
Over the years, I have solely supported the family. (My mother received only 5 years of primary school education, so she was in no position to make any significant living). I have paid for the schooling of my siblings, and I have built my mother a house. I have paid for medical fees for the family, and I have helped my siblings get by as they look for work in a country where the unemployment rate is over 40 percent.
The list of my dependents recently expanded to include a wife and a daughter. But my income hasn't increased, despite having earned a Masters degree five years ago from one of the top universities in the world. (Recently, while looking at that notice the Social Security Administration sends annually to tell taxpayers how much income they can expect at retirement, I got so depressed to learn that the year of my record earnings was in a period when I didn't even have a college degree. But let's leave that discussion for another day).
My story is not unique. There are millions of immigrants who, in addition to trying to make ends meet, have to help relatives in their countries of origin. We do so because we understand that as difficult as our lives abroad are, they are much easier when compared to those of most people in our home countries. That's why we are willing to skip lunch, to live in conjested quarters, to take long bus rides to work, and to forgo luxury in order to improve the lives of those we left behind.
Immigrants fill the void left by the corrupt governments of our homelands. In 2012, for example, Kenyans in the Diaspora sent home about $1.2 billion, nearly half of which came from North America. That money is used to support the daily expenses of families and to pay for health and education. (I'm proud to say that three of my siblings are college graduates). Some immigrants also start small businesses like rental housing, transportation, and farming, which end up creating jobs and helping local economies.
Immigrants are more efficient than any organization - foreign or domestic - doing charitable work in the countries we come from. Nearly 100 percent of the money we send home goes directly to benefiting those it's intended. Our overhead costs are usually limited to the fees we pay to send money. Yet, unlike charitable organizations, we can't deduct that money from our tax burden.
I propose that the United States start thinking about giving us tax breaks for stepping in where our governments have failed. The questions I'm expecting you to ask is, "Who will pay for those tax breaks?" That is an easy one to answer.
Many of the countries whose immigrants would be eligible for my proposed tax break receive millions of dollars in aid from the United States, a lot of which ends up in the pockets of corrupt government officials. The U.S. government should divert a percentage of that aid money to pay for the tax relief of immigrants who can prove that they have spent money to improve the lives of people in their homelands through education, healthcare, and business.
After all, isn't that what we say we want to see happen in places like Africa?