The trumpist barrage of immigration-related executive orders has come to resemble a wall of its own accord. Between the Muslim ban, halting refugee resettlement, expanding deportation criteria and ICE ranks and threats to cities that seek to protect their own residents, who needs border walls?
But border walls, at least, are porous, unlike the dense xenophobia emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The Israeli “Separation Barrier” or “Apartheid Wall” pictured above and below, which Trump loves, to be sure, is, as you can see, porous. I also crossed the line between East and West Jerusalem many times in the back of a work truck.
We know the border below, but does Trump have any idea how many people cross this border every hour? Does he have any notion of the interchange that happens between Juarez and El Paso — the culture and ideas and commerce and research that sustains the border region?
Does he know that walls are death sentences, that send migrants deeper into the desert? Or that walls are mere inconveniences, to be surmounted.
What is missing in Trump’s life that he wants to build more walls?
The people making these new policies for the U.S. — the band of white nationalists surrounding Trump and heading up his bureaucracies — choose walls, which is to say, they choose fear and isolation.
Walls, fences, barriers are symbols of failure. When we fail, we put up walls. Or land mines. Or drop cluster bombs. Is that the future we want for the southern U.S. Border?
We are about bridges. Building bridges between languages, cultures, nations and people. Because the whole world is just one narrow bridge. At least it was two weeks ago. But don’t be afraid.
“All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.” — Rev Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)
The big day finally arrived, almost two weeks ago. September 18, 2016. Marking ten years since we drove across the border in Nogales, AZ. It now feels like ancient history.
I think I sort of imagined back then that on September 18, 2016, we would be hovering over a sheaf of papers, ready and waiting to urgently send in the famous waiver application that would pave the way for Margo (and our family) to return to the U.S., soon after to be whisked back to the U.S. to reestablish our interrupted lives there. In reality, the scene at present is much more complicated, and just plain different than what I had first pictured.
The actual September 18th, 2016 went more like this for us:
Back in the spring of this year, we finally submitted Margo’s I-130 application, which I wrote about in my first “the tenth year” post. Rather unceremoniously, our lawyer submitted the files to USCIS, USCIS acknowledged their receipt of the application, and we haven’t heard anything back since.
Rather than sitting around biting our nails, basically, life just went on. I still work at Peace Corps Mexico, and Margo still builds thing for local folks who have requests for custom furniture. Our daughter is still attending a little Montessori school that lets us bring cupcakes in to celebrate her birthday with her classmates, complete with a lovely circle around the sun ritual that marks every year since her birth.
In fact, the only reason why September 18 is normally celebrated in this house is not because it marks the day we crossed into Mexico, nor the anniversary of my Mexican naturalization (it really does share that date) – but rather that it’s our daughter’s birthday. Why fate would have chose to combine 3 such event all into one date is beyond my comprehension, but it did make for a rather pleasant celebration opportunity this year, especially given that we have more reasons to be grateful for our life here than we have complaints – leading to a profound lack of urgency to return to the States.
Being a plant person, I’ll use a botanical metaphor. After 10 years, favorable conditions have led to our growth as a family, and we’ve put down deep roots. In the plant world, transplanting can be risky business. If the plant and its roots have been neatly contained in a smooth, enclosed container, it’s fairly straightforward to move it to a larger container or plant it out into the ground. In fact, it’ll probably be happy for you to do so, especially if it was cramped before. But if a plant has been growing freely in the ground, its roots spreading deep and wide into the rich soil, intertwining with rocks and other plants’ roots, drawing up plenty of fresh water and nutrients and leafing broadly into the bright sunshine, it’s not going to take so kindly to your digging under it, pulling it up, and severing its roots. Often, the plant dies back considerably before taking off again in another place. Sometimes it never quite survives the transplant, and just withers. In other words, if the plant is flourishing, there’s got to be a really good reason for you to go for the transplant.
I’ve pulled up roots a few times now in my life, first when I left NY to go to CA, where I met Margo; and again when Margo and I left CA. Each time the pulling up roots itself was not so traumatic – perhaps the previous conditions left my roots feeling cramped or limited somehow, and so they were ready for an upgrade. But the transplant to Mexico was complex. At first, it felt like I’d gone from fertile to rocky soil, and I wilted a bit – for a couple years. But like the mesquite trees here who slowly, but surely send their roots deep down to the subsoil to find water after which they pull it up for others nearby to share, I dug deep down inside and found inner reserves that I wasn’t previously aware of – in the form of resolve, patience, and commitment. I also discovered nourishment all around me in México, in the form of a home of our own, friends, culture, a growing family, future colleagues, and the vast beauty of the natural environment.
Considering what’s been invested into my flourishing again, I probably shouldn’t be surprised at my own hesitation at visualizing such a big move again, especially when there are no guarantees as to the outcome.
So when everyone asks, “are you going back up to the States?” (now that the 10 year waiting period has passed), the first thought in my mind is honestly “why?” and then, “flojera” (Spanish for an almost self-indulgent laziness). I have to confess, there are a few other external factors that don’t help us chomp at the bit for a return bid; namely the cost (>$5,000 USD), this year’s Presidential race ( I definitely won’t make ANY moves until after we see the outcome on Nov. 8), and the police brutality situation (my family members are brown-skinned).
Still, the main pull to return has always been, and will continue to be, the distance from family. We make it work through visits, and when they happen they are truly enjoyable. My daughter seeing her grandparents (my parents) only twice a year and me seeing my brother on average only once a year is getting old fast. But a few conditions for a move that I’ve conjured up haven’t presented themselves yet, namely, forward movement on the visa application (it’s a matter of time and then money), getting the title to our home so we can sell before a move (it’s taking forever), and me finding a really amazing job that would make a move worthwhile (I haven’t been looking, since the visa piece takes longer).
If this is painting a convoluted, circular picture as to what logic I may or may not be applying to a move northward, it’s not accidental. An unseen force seems to be holding those roots fast in place for now.
I am acutely aware that a factor in my being able to stay ten years in Mexico was an initial Herculean effort to find contentment within the confines of a limited situation. Therefore, I want to inject a heathy dose of suspicion into my complacency (I’ve noticed it in myself in other areas of my life besides my thoughts on moving north), and keep it present to make sure I am not selling myself or my family short – but I haven’t quite figured out how to make sure that I’m not letting the difficult years here or the U.S. media cloud what hasn’t yet but might emerge as a dream of a life in the north.
Writing and reflecting on this question definitely helps a bit, but then when one who is prone to plant metaphors tries to type out a coherent explanation as to why she just might not know what she wants yet (in terms of where she sees herself in 5 years), and then her husband of 12 years sends her 6 year old into the house holding the first mature avocado that’s fruited from the 12″ sapling from the Sierra Gorda that she planted her yard 8 years ago, where in the background orange butterflies flit among dozens of wild sunflowers under the bright blue sky, well, answers to elusive questions seem just as hard to find as they’ve been for the last 10 years.
Ever since the 2016 U.S. presidential campaigns began, I have been diligently trying to ignore Donald Trump. Not wanting to give his campaign any free media time or attention, I have been treating it like a hemorrhoid or an ingrown toenail — something that annoys you, that you wish would go away, that you might briefly notice for the discomfort it’s causing you, but that you don’t or won’t invest chunks of time paying attention to for more than briefly due to the fact that it’s a — usually — inescapable human condition not worth worrying or doing anything about.
But there’s always a chance that that inoffensive mole you’ve been ignoring can morph into something more sinister and threatening, and that’s why we can never fully ignore some of these more banal little problems.
One of the things I like most about working for Peace Corps is the high percentage of open-minded people it attracts to its volunteer corps and workforce. As a member of PC/Mexico staff since 2013, I regularly receive emails regarding worldwide campaigns marking important events in the type of work Peace Corps volunteers do. The three main goals of Peace Corps, for anyone who hasn’t been a volunteer or staff before, are, loosely, 1) to provide technical assistance to host country nationals — colleagues of volunteers where they’re assigned, 2) spread awareness of American (U.S.) culture in their host country, and 3) to spread awareness of their host country culture back in the U.S. They call 3) the “Third Goal.” This week happens to be Third Goal week for Peace Corps globally.
Although I’ve never been a Peace Corps volunteer, in the past 10 years I’ve become intimately aware of the inherent challenges and opportunities involved with Third-Goal like awareness back home in the U.S. As a resident of Mexico for the last 10 years, as a dual citizen for five, and as the wife of 12 years of a formerly undocumented immigrant to the United States — a Queretaro native — I’ve inadvertently become an ambassador of Third Goal-like causes, specific to Mexico. Conversations with people back home, on planes, on Facebook, on our blog, regarding the book, our life here, everything counts toward the fact that Mexico — and my fellow Americans’ perceptions of it — have taken a prominent role in my life — if not center stage, then a grudging left central, every single day.
As the largest — and only, really — Peace Corps recipient country with whom the U.S. shares a border, Peace Corps Mexico volunteers have a unique situation in terms of Second and Third Goals, given the enormous historical and current relationship our two countries have culturally, geographically, economically, environmentally — the list of how our two nations are intertwined is gigantic. To volunteers’ good fortune, a good number of Americans are fairly aware of Mexico’s positive attributes — that’s probably a big reason why many apply to be volunteers in Mexico in the first place — but we can probably all agree that Third Goal awareness rarely extends deeply beyond Mexican food, tourism, or Spanish-language learning. Further awareness might include matters of history — territory lost by Mexico and gained by the Southwest — imports/exports, or immigration/emigration by both sides. Add some Mexican or Latino ancestry to the mix and an American might really be able to explain a thing or two about Mexico, its environment, and its people.
But on the whole, let’s not kid ourselves, to a great extent we are a product of what we read and know, and the majority of us get our information from the major media outlets. And because of this, and the fact that “gore sells,” the majority media message about Mexico, for those who are actively working to scrape beneath the surface, is about the security situation. Cartels, crime, and the drug trade. Sure, Mexico has got its fair share of problems. Hell, I am concerned about many of them, especially the economy. But the messages about Mexico in the U.S. media are often terribly biased, and most of the amazing things — some even better than the U.S., such as universal health care (Seguro Popular) — are simply not communicated. So at the end of the day, a lot of American people develop a disappointingly skewed view of Mexican society, one that’s at best uninformed, at worst sorely incorrect and/or prejudicial. This creates a real obstacle for anyone like myself, or a PC/Mexico volunteer, to propagating a more truthful and well-rounded view of Mexico and its society.
I’m fortunate to know a lot of folks who make it a point to be informed about issues that matter to them. Part of this is intentional, and part of this is due to the nature of my professional and social circles. Even when we did our book tour, I was expecting more heckling and trolls, but was overwhelmed by the amount of goodwill afforded by people in my audiences, people who are really consternated by the legal situation our family and millions are in. But what this means is that I don’t get into debates on a regular basis with folks who’ve fallen victim to xenophobia — although I know the potential exists.
Which brings me back to Donald Trump. He, on the other hand, has been very skillful at rallying the troops, pooling the masses of individuals who are attracted by his messages riddled with misinformation and oftentimes straight-out lies. One specific instance of this was brought to my attention when I received the following messages from my dear friend and fellow Cornellian, my former freshman-year roommate. Her otherwise rational coworker had told her that he thought that Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories about Mexico might be plausible.
When I read this, I thought, oh dear. What about this specifically concerns me? Is it the fact that a schoolteacher, someone who is tasked with educating children, is having this cognitive dissonance? Or is it that they can’t see why yes, he is racist (although the term white supremacist would probably fit better)? Am I disturbed that Donald Trump’s multiple allegations about diverse groups of people and nations — patently false and aggrandized — are pointed enough to stir genuine suspicion in the minds of otherwise rational people? Or that people would think that this is the approach that’s best suited for someone to hold the presidential office of the United States? I’m not really sure where to start.
But the short answer is yes, it is racist. But I’ll let some other passionate informed voices explain that one. And, no, the Mexican government does NOT ship its overflow prison population to cross the U.S. border. So please don’t lose anymore sleep about that. But if you need more information on that matter, here are some facts, as opposed to opinion:
The longer answer, however, I believe lies in the voices of folks who are familiar with the countries and peoples being hated on, and are appalled by such demeaning characterization. Folks such as Carmen, who, as a Mexican American, was pretty upset by Trump’s speech — watch Carmen’s video on BuzzFeed.
That also goes for expats living and working in Mexico, such as Peace Corps volunteers who are promoting Third-Goal awareness, or my dozens of other expat friends living and raising their families here. We cringe to think of what ramifications a Trump presidency could have on our two nations’ diplomacy, and in the wider world.
I could post dozens of links about how important Mexican foods, resources, culture, and immigrants have been to the U.S., its culture and its economy. I could post links about how infinitely bad of a diplomatic decision it would be to alienate Mexico and hundreds of other countries in the way that this inflammatory candidate has been having fun doing. But at the end of the day, am I reaching the people who really need to hear it? Can my words undo decades of misinformation and attrition for people who, collectively, will decide our country’s political fate this November? I don’t think I can do that by myself—I’m asking others who know better to raise their voices, use the powers of message framing, counter the abundant negative messages and misinformation, and share their alternative — and likely more truthful — views widely.
I posted this to one of the online immigration/exile wives support groups I’m a part of today:
“In our tenth year here, I’ve finally decided to start moving forward with Margo’s I-130 [Step 1 of a long and expensive legal immigration process for my husband]. I’m really busy with work so I’m having it done through Attorney Laura Fernandez. I’ve paid a little over a third of what it’ll cost in total (just made a deposit today). I should be able to pay the rest when I get my tax return. I’m not ready to do the waiver, I’m not in any hurry to move north (especially not if Trump gets elected), and we’re pretty settled and happy. But I don’t want to get in a rut, and I am feeling a pull to broaden our options. I want Margo to get his GED eventually, and he won’t do it here. I’m craving good better public education for my daughter, and she’ll need to live in the U.S. for some years to be able to transfer her U.S. citizenship to any future children. I miss crisp forests, rivers, and lakes. And I can afford it little by little now, so it can’t hurt.
I miss my family. They come to visit every year but that could get harder in the future. I wish my Grandma could see Margo again. I want to expand my own horizons. It’s going to have to be gradual, this turning this notion into a reality, because we’ve re-rooted here. I have a circle now. I have a home. But I’ve been meditating a lot on the idea that you don’t necessarily have to be unhappy to want to make a change.”
In our ninth year here, although I didn’t write much about it, I did a lot of thinking about my feelings of readiness to go forward with a visa waiver application. Even in the last few months, a lot of vacillation has occurred. So now, the act of taking one step, albeit small, feels like a watershed moment. This moment has been a long time coming, and even though I’m not as actively involved in immigration advocacy as I once was, it would feel odd to reach this stage and not share it. So here I am. I have a day job now, so I might finally learn the art of the short and sweet blog post after all.
Everyone is waiting with baited breath for the much-anticipated executive action to be announced by President Obama this evening at 8 pm. Everyone who sees immigration as an important issue, that is. My coauthor Nathaniel Hoffman described how most of immigration is a waiting game in Chapter 3 of Amor and Exile, The Binational Labryinth:
“Immigration to the United States, whether legal or illegal, is a waiting game. You wait to be eligible for a visa and then for your visa to be approved. Sometimes you wait five years or sixteen or twenty-three years for that visa. You wait three days to get deported or you wait a year for the immigration courts to clear their backlog before you get your hearing. You wait for your brother or your father to fill out the paperwork for you, for a letter back from the National Visa Center. You press two for Spanish and wait, on hold. You wait for a pardon. You wait and watch as Congress takes up immigration reform and drops it and takes it up again. You wait up at night for your loved ones to return home from work. You wait for dark to fall, for the floodlights to pass and then you run across the line and wait for transport. You wait for another mule with trunk space.”
Even if I were waiting, I wouldn’t even be able to listen in to the announcement, because I’ll be teaching English (I currently work nights) while it happens.
Part of me it not really waiting at all though. I was, for a few months. I wrote and circulated an open letter to President Obama in August when it became clear the plan for executive action was in the works. I spoke with Center for Public Integrity reporter Susan Ferriss about my thin hopes for inclusion earlier this week for her piece, “U.S. spouses of ousted immigrants await Obama plan.” However, when recent reports began to point to a probable emphasis on relief for parents of U.S. citizen children, I knew we’d probably be waiting this one out. There will likely also be the perfunctory nod to “highly-skilled” workers. There *might* be a bone thrown in for spouses of U.S. citizens via extended “Parole in Place,” but whether that will happen or not is yet to be seen, and even if it were, it probably would not extend to any of those undocumented spouses of those U.S. citizens who happen to be outside of the country.
No matter what happens, we will have to be clear about what this executive action is and what it’s not. The run-up to this executive action is being billed by some as “fixing the broken immigration system,” but please. You can’t possibly argue that giving tenuous relief to a small fraction of the individuals who need reform is a fix of a broken system. As immigration lawyer and advocate Prerna Lal puts it, she’s “still concerned about the millions left out by the plan specifics.” So this executive action is a Band-Aid, at best. Of course, human rights advocates like Ellin Jimmerson, Director of The Second Cooler, a documentary about the wide human rights offenses committed by the immigration system, narrated by Martin Sheen, have been saying it all along: if widespread human rights aren’t advanced by immigration reform, in the end, it’s not net progress. Sure, it’s a step, albeit small one. Even Obama knows that. Advocates and legislators alike believe that no matter the reach of this executive action, it’s no substitute for Congressional reform.
So no, this executive announcement probably won’t make a lick of difference for my family, especially because we are currently in Mexico. If we had decided to stay in the U.S. and wait it out under the radar as millions of others have done, there might be a slight chance we’d get relief from this. That remains to be seen, as it’s uncertain whether the action will extend to all individuals with 9(c) inadmissibilities. So yes, if it were that 9(c) cases could get relief from this, then yes, we would be left behind for having left the country to try and “get in line.”
‘Course, I won’t be alone in this, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of us will get left out. But this seems to be a recurring pattern, one that I’m not sure will ever be entirely rectified, even by a bill as large as HR15, for reasons which activists like Jimmerson expand on amply.
Which is why, for the moment, I am boycotting the waiting game. In my final chapters in Amor and Exile, I describe how I’ve toyed with the idea of pulling out of the waiting game entirely, not willing anymore to pin my life hopes on an act of Congress or an executive action such as the one on November 20th, 2014.
Ironically, November 20th is the Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. I wonder if that was just coincidental? Most everyone down here is working today because we already celebrated the occasion on Monday (they do long weekends early), but instead of going to the downtown parade or to a party, I spent it with the editorial team for Amor y Exilio—the Spanish translation of Amor and Exile that is currently underway.
Even with the question of “did we miss out?” potentially shadowing over me during the aftermath of executive action, I would rather take the bull by the horns when it comes to the possibility of arrepentimiento. Rather than regret or question any of my past decisions to move to Mexico, to make this leap of faith, pasa lo que pasa, I would say no, I have no regrets. I prefer to embrace the fact that my husband was duly safe, at no risk of detention in these last 8 years. I am grateful for the freedom to have built our own home, in a lovely climate, and to have made lovely friends and to be making a life for ourselves.
Sure, it’s nice to think of what the future could hold when and if my husband is permitted to travel and/or reside alongside my daughter and I to my home country. Yes, I will be frustrated if the system once again fails to reward people who are trying to do the right thing. And there will still be that glaring recollection that Congress’s failure to move forward on a real fix is what’s brought us to this point.
But our time has not yet arrived. And so in the meantime, I see no reason to wait—just every reason to keep trying to move forward.
P.S. Today’s featured image was chosen for no other reason than it’s throwback Thursday, and it’s our 10-year wedding anniversary in just under one month.
Charles Bowden, a prolific writer and critical observer of the U.S.-Mexico border, died at home in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Saturday. I was introduced to Bowden’s work on my first night in Ciudad Júarez, when I visited in January 2011. The passage below, an excerpt from Amor and Exile, attempts to capture the experience of reading Bowden in Júarez.
An earlier version of the story on Bowden’s death in The Arizona Republic closed with a fitting tribute, a line Bowden once dedicated to another writing hero, Edward Abbeey: “R.I.P., but I doubt it.”
Excerpt from Chapter 7 of Amor and Exile: The Waiver Scene
Betty Campbell has a mischievous, sardonic grin for a 77-year-old nun. My first night in Ciudad Juárez, she offered me her cluttered bedroom, insisting that she preferred sleeping on a mat on the living room floor so she could hear sounds from the street—the sounds of gun shots, peeling tires, and screams, maybe not every night, but frequently enough.
I threw my bag down in the quiet, cold back bedroom at Casa Tabor, Sister Betty’s house in one of Juárez’s northwestern colonias—the unpoliced and forgotten dirt and cobble street neighborhoods that house tens of thousands of underpaid factory workers and urban poor and now drug dealers and gangsters as well. It’s a neighborhood of concrete block houses of mixed quality—some with iron gates and red roof tiles, others run down and abandoned with tin roofs, boarded up windows and holes in the walls. The modest Casa Tabor stood out with its neat yard and pink hued adobe façade.
Later that first evening, with a warm smile and slightly manic glint in her eye, Betty handed me the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine folded back to Charles Bowden’s “The Sicario,” an intense interview with a Juárez hit man that Bowden later turned into a book. At first I thought that Betty was trying to haze me into the fraternity of fear that has gripped this town since about 2008, when murders began to skyrocket. But the gleam in her eyes also served to inoculate me from that fear with her absolute faith in the resiliency and creativity of poor people in Latin America.
I wrote “sicario” in my little notebook, knowing it would come in handy over the next couple of days. Mexican sicarios have gotten the upper hand on reporters in recent years, enforcing a regime of censorship through fear at Mexico’s still spunky and highly competitive newspapers. Ten journalists were killed in Mexico in 2010, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked Mexico among the top ten deadliest countries for reporters every year between 2004 and 2011.
At least 29 people were murdered in Juárez during my five days there in January 2011. That statistic comes from the “Frontera List,” an archive that New Mexico State University librarian Molly Molloy maintains, dutifully recording Mexican media crime reports and relevant commentary on the drug wars, mainly from Juárez. I read Molloy’s dispatches every day for a few months, but then had to stop reading every single report because they were becoming too easy to dismiss, as in: There were only three murders in Juárez today.
For the Harper’s story, Bowden, an American writer who has followed drugs and crime along the border for decades, tracked down a former Mexican police officer who had worked for years as a hit man for narcos, kidnapping and executing and burying people across the country. The man was in the U.S., hiding from the drug cartels. Bowden sat with him at an anonymous motel, recording his life story in gruesome detail: the stranglings—his expertise—the chemicals he used to literally disappear bodies, the anonymous holes in the ground where mass graves still lie, undiscovered by authorities. The cocaine and whiskey and paranoia and the eventual salvation that came with being hunted himself.
Betty warned me before I read the piece that it’s a searing account, essentially damning to the Mexican authorities in passages like this one:
They hardly ever do police work; they are working full-time for narcos. This is his real home for almost twenty years, a second Mexico that does not exist officially and that coexists seamlessly with the government. In his many transports of human beings for bondage, torture, and death, he is never interfered with by the authorities. He is part of the government, the state policeman with eight men under his command. But his key employer is the organization, which he assumes is the Juárez cartel, but he never asks since questions can be fatal.
Note: If you want to show your support, please leave your name, state, and # of your congressional voting district in the comments.
Querétaro, Mexico | August 7, 2014
Dear President Obama,
I’m aware that you are contemplating taking action on immigration and that White House staff is hard at work researching your options. Before anything happens, I wanted to make sure you heard my story, because I’m one of millions of Americans who stand to be affected by any decision you take—but our story is not often heard.
It’s been another hard year for us to be away from the United States. Not any harder than the last eight years that I have been away from my home country. But hard for different reasons.
When my father in New York was ill last December, I was unable to go visit and help him.
In California, where I lived and worked for seven years as a science teacher, two good friends had baby sons. I have not been able to meet them. One of my former students got married but I could only attend the wedding ceremony virtually.
From my home in Central Mexico, I watched one friend after another travel freely between the United States, Canada and Mexico, accompanied by their family members. I found out that a long-time dream I’ve had, to be a research associate of my alma mater, Cornell University, would not be possible. Even though the director of a lab was interested in collaborating, the University does not allow off-campus appointments.
Every time I experience these disappointments, I handle them the way I have in these past eight years of exile in Mexico—I focus on the other positive things happening in my life.
Exile? Yes, I have been living in exile in Mexico since 2006. I don’t like the sound of it, and I can’t say my plight is equal to that of other famous exilees, such as the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousefi. But the reasons are ultimately the same—because of a political reality in my home country, I am forced to live away from my birthplace, and have been obligated to call another country home.
Sadly, I am not alone. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Americans are either forced abroad, torn apart from their family members, or forced underground in their own country, for the same reason that I am in Mexico: our broken immigration system. Thousands of us live abroad in isolation, subject to abject poverty and violence. Thousands of Americans’ family members—spouses and parents alike, are waiting indefinitely in their home countries to be reunited with their families. Thousands of Americans are living in the shadows in the U.S., as I once did with my husband, from 2001 to 2006.
What could possibly be causing this epidemic of Americans in exile? Why have I been unable to return to the U.S. all these years? The answer lies deep within the technicalities in current immigration law, statutes that were introduced with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. This law led to the plight I am in—that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Americans are in—today.
I’ve probably talked with thousands of people about this issue. The vast majority of Americans I speak with are truly confounded by this state of affairs. They ask me, “But why can’t your husband immigrate legally? You’re married!?” So I coauthored the book Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders (Cordillera West 2013) with journalist Nathaniel Hoffman, to try and answer that question. But even as we explored many different reasons behind the plights of families like mine, I am still no closer to accepting the status quo. I actually sent you a copy of the book last summer. After publishing, we raised enough money to deliver over 600 copies of our book to legislators and officials on Capitol Hill. And we’ve continued to share our stories with thousands of Americans since then. I hope you or someone in your staff had an opportunity to read it.
Because my husband was subject to a 9c immigration bar before we began dating in 2001, even when we were finally married in 2004, I was unable to confer legal status on him. He had come to the U.S. to work without papers, and had been stopped and sent back. Prior to the 1996 law, my husband would not have received a 10-year immigration “ban” for that. But in the true spirit of the marriage vow for better or for worse, I chose to stay with my partner, and that meant I took on the burden of his immigration status, even when we were told by lawyers that the only way we could obtain legal status for him was to leave the country for 10 years, in the hopes of being able to someday apply for a pardon and then maybe a visa.
This December is our tenth wedding anniversary. We have been in Mexico together for eight years. My husband has not seen my only living grandmother since then. He has not seen my only sister-in-law since we left California in 2006. I have not had income above the U.S. poverty level since then. I am afraid that even though we may make it ten years in Mexico, we will not be able to afford the legal process to try and return to the U.S. someday.
So much furious debate on immigration has yielded so few actual solutions in our Congress since I married my husband. Amor and Exile gives a thorough account of efforts like these and the history leading up to them, as well as other ideas for future relief. Some bills were more openly anti-immigrant than others. But finally, in 2013, we had hope with the comprehensive immigration bills, SB 744 and HR 15, which would grant relief to millions of hard-working undocumented immigrants. The American Families United Act, HR 3431 (now with several bipartisan co-sponsors), would help families like mine. Both bills would provide an opportunity for my husband to apply for a waiver immediately rather than continuing to wait.
But the frequent rise and fall of these bids leaves our families hanging on for dear life on this roller coaster ride on which our very futures depend. We hope and pray for legislative relief every day. Now, the long-term failure of Congress to act may finally compel you, Mr. President, to do something of your own accord. You tried for many years to prove you were “tough on immigration,” and you have received criticism for record-high deportation levels.
I knew you were doing this to try and provide the right conditions for Congress to move a comprehensive reform bill forward. But in the end, all that hard bipartisan work to pass a bill has been taken hostage by the radical Right. So I applaud you, Mr. President, for wanting to do something about the immigration impasse. It’s the right thing to do, especially in a nation of immigrants.
But here’s my fear: when that executive action is revealed, the one you have been deliberating for quite some time now, it will leave families like mine—like hundreds of thousands of others—out in the cold. I’m also afraid that after executive action goes into effect, backlash in Congress could make it even harder to pass bills that would provide relief to families like mine. If we can’t get relief from either executive action or these bills, our hard-working American families, who exemplify cherished American family values so much that we’re willing to risk life and liberty for our kin, will be left to languish in limbo, and left out of the opportunity to “get right” with the laws and live under one roof together today, in America, without fear.
I support the multitude of rationales to include millions of de facto Americans who contribute to our society on a daily basis with humane executive action. My family must be included in this reform as well. My spouse should be able to seek citizenship alongside me, as our daughter has, with all the attendant privileges citizenship confers, without the cruel and unusual punishment of a ten-year waiting period abroad with no guaranteed outcome. I should have the autonomy to decide where I will live with my family. As an American citizen, I should not have to choose between my husband and living in the U.S. My great-grandparents did not have to make that choice. Nor should hundreds of thousands of my counterparts have to choose between their family and their country.
President Obama, restore my faith that you kindled in your inaugural address last year, when you said, “Our journey is not complete, until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.” Be as creative as possible and use the full extent of your powers to take the lead in finding a way to include my my family—my husband—hundreds of thousands of our American families—in that vision, and in any executive action you take on immigration, so we do not have to make the decision between family and country anymore.
Nicole R. Salgado
California Voting District 18
and the Undersigned
Amber Henderson, Georgia, District 4
Rebecca Amirah Barragan, Texas, District 15
Jane McGroarty Sampaio, Massachusets, District 9
Meggan Macchado, Massachusets, District 9
Charlcie Cubas, Wisconsin, District 7
Krystal Loverin, Oregon, District 2
Linda Cedillos, Virginia, District 4
Shayna Elizabeth Diaz, California, District 4
Emily Bonderer Cruz, Texas, District 16
Rob Woodall, Georgia, District 7
Amy Koenig Da Silva, Massachusets, District 9
Shannon Ledezma, Texas, District 23
Israel Sanchez, California, District 53
Susan A. Davis, California, District 53
Elizabeth Sommo, Texas, District 15
Hannah Hoover, Texas, District 14
Kimberly Griffith, North Carolina, District 15
Angela Hernandez, Minnesota, District 4
Kamie Timms, North Carolina, District 10
Elizabeth Huerta, Texas, District 16
Laurie Hernandez, South Carolina, District 1
Madina Salaty, Kansas, District 2
Sylvia Malagon, North Carolina, District 4
Amelia da Silva, New York, District 23
Lucindia Dawn Torres, Oklahoma, District 1
Amanda Cameron, Colorado, District 1
Valeriano Serradilha, Georgia, District 6
Crystal Costella Mendez, Pennsylvania, District 8
Peggy Soto, Indiana, District 9
Sany Figueiredo, Georgia, District 7
Laura Lopez, Wisconsin, District 8
Maria Ferreira, Pennsylvania, District 13
Edgar Falcon, Texas, District 16
Allyson Batista, Pennsylvania, District 1
Kim Repp, Virginia, District 3
Raquel Warsing, Pennsylvania, District 3
Lana Janelle Heath Martinez, Virginia, District 7
Curt Clawson, Florida, District 19
Dawn Naveja, Illinois, District 5
Pamela Deligiannis Monroy, Virginia, District 7
Shirah Cahill, New York, District 22
Diana Cahill, New York, District 25
Moshe Cahill, New York, District 25
Ilana Stevenson, New York, District 25
Sonia Estrada, Oregon, District 5
Heather Ruark, Georgia, District 5
Joanna Eros, Pennsylvania, District 16 William Ruark, Virginia, District 7
Dana Cawthorn Bautista, Florida, District 19
Two major global news events — apprehensions of child migrants on the Texas-Mexico border and the latest flare up of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — converged for me this week in a prescient piece by by journalist/activist Jose Antonio Vargas in Politico. Vargas is the undocumented reporter whom we’ve written about here (and who, full disclosure, blurbed Amor and Exile).
He wrote an essay about being “Trapped on the Border,” presaging his detention at the McAllen, Texas airport four days later. In the piece, Vargas quotes an immigration attorney friend who messaged him, asking, “I am so glad you are visiting the kids near the border. But how will you get through the checkpoint on your way back?”
Meanwhile, half a world away, Israel, another land of checkpoints, was preparing a ground invasion against the people of Gaza.
These two stories, and their portrayal in the media, share a number of critical themes. Vargas’ rude introduction to immigration checkpoints in the American South, reminded me of the long-standing Israeli use of checkpoints to control, humiliate and persecute Arabs. The checkpoint is a blatant symbol of Israeli occupation, just as it was of South African apartheid. And as it’s become along our southern border.
The checkpoint presupposes the ID card, which allows governments to place people into winner and loser categories: Israeli/Palestinian, black/Indian/coloured, documented/undocumented, immigrant/native.
The checkpoint puts law enforcement, or soldiers, or national guard into the position of suspecting everyone; their job, by definition, is to impede human progress, not to promote progress.
The checkpoint is a militaristic metaphor that has no place in a participatory democracy like Texas.
The checkpoint breeds fear, as Nicole dramatically describes in her passage in Amor and Exile on crossing into Mexico.
The checkpoint dissolves essential freedoms, like the freedom of movement, the right to presumed innocence, protections against search and seizure.
A line from the Jasiri X video below sums up the ethic of the checkpoint: “criminalized without a cause at the checkpoint.” (Note the apparent handcuffs on Vargas in the photo above.)
This gets close to the issue here, and the larger notion of our broken immigration system. We are so far from the ideals of the 1965 revisions to the Immigration and Nationality Act that we no longer have any moral bearings on the meaning of immigration in the United States.
Vargas continues to ask us to Define American. In lobbying for abolishing the discriminatory quota system that the 1952 INA had cemented into law, then-President John F. Kennedy told members of the Italian-American community in 1963 that immigration to the U.S. was both a family affair and a way of building a nation:
We hope the Congress of the United States will accept these recommendations and that before this year is over we will have what we have needed for a good many years, which is the recognition that all people can make equally good citizens, and that what this country needs and wants are those who wish to come here to build their families here and contribute to the life of our country. — via The American Presidency Project
Vargas visited with child migrants at the border, kids who had come to the U.S. alone, like he did, in search of family and better fortunes. “I don’t think you can look in the eyes of these children and not know the kind of hell they’ve been through,” Vargas told The Guardian. “I don’t think you can look at them in the eye and tell them they have to go back to where they came from.”
The volunteer in the short video below, posted by Vargas’ organization, Define American, defines American:
The Border Patrol held Vargas for most of the day on Tuesday and released him, as a low-priority detainee, according to the New York Times, with a notice to appear before an immigration judge.
Amor and Exile argues that at least, at least, the American public (and elected officials) should see the plight of U.S. citizens like Nicole, who are forced into exile because of the arbitrary immigration status of their spouses, as a starting point for reforming the system. But apparently, we can’t even see the plight of children — small children fleeing gang violence and poverty as a starting point for compassion. Instead, our model policy for these children, for leaders like Vargas, for our historically fluid international border is the command and control model of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, barriers and walls, militarization, suspicion and ethnocentrism and classism.
This is not the America (nor the Israel, for that matter) that I know. Our best hope is to take Vargas up on his call and really do the hard work of defining American, because I’m not sure I recognize her anymore.