The political-personal border

Long-standing “problems” with immigration and the border. The recently unveiled immigration reform proposal by President Obama. Our book. My own life. Never before has the political felt so urgent and personal to me, and yet never before have I felt so reticent about diving into political matters.

That’s kind of weird, so I’ve got to explore this. Although I’ve never held public office, I’ve also never shied away from politics. That’s probably because I never made much of a distinction between the personal and the political per se—at least as defined by Google dictionary (see below*) If you accept those definitions, you could say I got political pretty young, when I began organizing on behalf of the environment. I guess ever since my family exposed me to nature and I attended those camps as a kid, I decided the environment was something important to me, and it seemed like a no-brainer that whatever we did as individuals or a society had an impact on our greater world. Although I was long drawn to leadership positions, I was always far from feeling uniquely empowered—to the contrary, I was convinced (and still am) that anyone and everyone could make a difference in their community with a minimum of effort, and with good reason—my friends and colleagues and I managed to do some pretty incredible things.

Artwork from National Museum of Independence in Dolores Hidalgo, Gto. MX

It was with this sense of confidence that I first approached the issue of adjusting my husband’s immigration status. But as we recount in Amor and Exile, almost everyone who becomes involved with an undocumented immigrant eventually runs into a wall of legal complexity that seems impossible to overcome. Everyone deals with their disempowerment in different ways, and the reasons for their decisions are as intricate as the laws and societal pressures that influence them. Some couples fight tooth and nail to achieve official status for the undocumented partner, and win (or lose). Some couples prefer self-preservation and live under the radar for a short time, or forever. Some stay together. Some are separated. The living situations can be voluntary or forced. Our situation is a combination of several of the above.

Despite circulating a few articles or petitions regarding immigration, I’ve actually spent relatively little energy specifically on immigration action. It might seem odd in light of my inclination to activism, but I think there are several reasons for it. One was circumstantial, and had to do with the fact that around the time I began dating my husband, I was starting to become aware of how exhausting community organizing can be—they call it burnout—and I was at a point in my life where I began to prioritize my energies. I chose to focus on education vs. political activism. I’ve also unfortunately developed some sense of powerlessness over the last 10 years when faced with our limited number of choices, and the extent of people’s knee-jerk reactions about immigration issues is painful to behold. However, I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about our situation and how it relates to the larger political panorama, and always wished I could do more.

Now that one of the decisions I’ve made with regard to Margo’s former undocumented status in the U.S. is to write about it, our story has come into the public light. According to the first definition below, that automatically makes contributing to this book a political act, although that’s not my original intention—I simply had a vision to tell a story. It’s exciting because, as scary as it is, it’s my hope that telling our story could have some positive impact on others in our situation. Despite this, I feel reticent to make any sort of general political statement about my feelings about immigration reform—especially in response to President Obama’s recently unveiled proposal, which Nathaniel recently posted about. That could change, though.

In chatting up my ambivalence with a trusted supporter, she raised the idea of “self-activism,” and that instead of faulting myself for being politically inactive, maybe that’s what I’ve been doing a lot of in these past 10 years. It’s something I’m continuing to explore. After all, leaving one’s home country, adapting to life in another and possibly obtaining binational status (I’m waiting on a Mexican citizenship application) are no small tasks, as I allude to in a 2008 blog post, back when I first saw the artwork above. In any case, the work of writing a book is absorbing enough that I’ll need to seriously prioritize my time until my chapters are done—and for once that feels like a good enough reason to limit my exposure to the fray, at least in the short-term.

*po·lit·i·cal, adjective
1. Of or relating to the government or the public affairs of a country
2. Of or relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group in politics.
3. Interested in or active in politics
4. Motivated or caused by a person’s beliefs or actions concerning politics

per·son·al, adjective
4. Of or concerning one’s private life, relationships, and emotions rather than matters connected with one’s public or professional career

Hedging like Obama

For three days, I’ve anguished over my personal take on President Barack Obama’s recent immigration speech. I wanted to say that the ubiquitous . media . interpretation . that it was merely a campaign event aimed at Latino voters was a lazy, short-sighted and offensive trope. I still think that: reporters should write about issues first and guess at politicians’ intentions second.

If you’ll allow me to quote my own unpublished blog post, it contained things like this:

But at the same time, he humanized the immigrant struggle, acknowledging that many of the record number of deportations under his watch have broken up families and denied futures to undocumented youth brought to the United States by their parents. We think we know which side of the fence Obama is on—he has written of his father’s immigrant past and speaks passionately about the central role of the immigrant in U.S. history.

Then I saw this campaign ad, which uses the Dream Act as a fund raising vehicle (via United We Dream):

Obama 2012 campaign ad

Good thing I didn’t hit publish too quickly. I still think that hanging an article about a presidential speech on the presumed politics of the speech is lame—when is coverage of anti-abortion legislation or pro-gun legislation ever framed/dismissed as campaigning? And I think the media (speaking in broad generalities here) takes shortcuts with immigration stories because it is a controversial issue to cover and because many reporters don’t think that Latinos are watching. But I think that Obama is also playing a very dangerous game here, though I don’t think he’s doing it haphazardly.

It is significant that Obama took a strong stand on immigration reform (again) and that he’s making it his first major 2012 campaign issue, and I think it shows that he believes in the Dream Act, reuniting families, visa reform and a legalization program. It also shows that he trusts that the American public supports all of those things and even that he thinks he can move people who are not quite there yet into the pro-immigration camp. Hell, he even thinks he can bring the likes of John McCain along, as evidenced by this photo below, which comes straight out of Obama’s new Blueprint for Building a 21st Century Immigration System:

Obama at unidentified immigration reform meeting / Courtesy of White House

But Obama’s actions thus far in his presidency do not demonstrate the increasing urgency of the immigration stalemate for people caught up in the system, as Rep. Luis Gutierrez, among many others, have been saying.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/DreamAct/status/68035698061615104″]

Obama is highly strategic in his own right—though more so campaigning than governing—and the El Paso speech revealed the depth of his strategy. I believe that Obama waited patiently for about two years to be able to use this line:

“We have gone above and beyond what was requested by the very Republicans who said they supported broader reform as long as we got serious about enforcement. All the stuff they asked for, we’ve done. But even though we’ve answered these concerns, I’ve got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time.”

For the past two years, leading up to that speech, he was busy hiring Janet Napolitano, quietly ramping up deportations, wasting money on a border fence, putting more “boots on the ground” and changing tactics on workplace enforcement. That’s meant two more years of delays for immigrants and their families, for college students who don’t have papers and would be eligible for the Dream Act (reintroduced this week), for most of the couples in Amor and Exile. For people directly affected by “the broken immigration system” it’s the long, long, long view.

I hope that his two year old strategy includes a way to strong arm 25 House GOP votes for the Dream Act in the next few months. If not, it would seem the media reports are true and that Obama is tooting an empty horn.

Here is the speech, in case you missed it:

New article to be published in time for Cinco de Mayo

My first “peer reviewed” article is being published this week in Idaho Landscapes, a journal published by Boise State University’s Division of Research and College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, along with the Idaho State Historical Society and Idaho State University. I wrote a history of Mexican music in the State of Idaho for this issue, an expansion on a story I did for the Boise Weekly in 2009. I put “peer reviewed” in quotes here, because in some ways newspaper articles are peer reviewed as well. But I was honored to be read by university historians and social scientists and to pass their academic smell test on this piece. And the story was very fun to revisit.

In fact, it starts far from Idaho, in rural Michoacán State in January, where I was visiting a man from Idaho who will be part of Amor and Exile. The band Banda Cuisillos was playing the weekend I was there, at the Santa Gertrudis rodeo grounds. We didn’t go to the concert, but we stood outside the rodeo grounds and watched the scene for a long time and I was struck by the connections to the U.S. in general and to Idaho in particular that I found. I write about those deep connections in the Idaho Landscapes story.

Here’s just one of those connections (note the venue in this video):

The magazine will be released on Thursday, May 5 at Boise State’s Center on the Main, 1020 Main St. (The Alaska Building). Doors open at 6 pm, program at 7 pm including Mariachi Tleyotltzin. I’ll sign your copy …

Click to view the poster for Cinco de Mayo and the release of Idaho Landscapes in Boise.

And here’s some really rad music I came across while reporting the story. This is music made in Idaho, mind you:

Cross-posted at paleomedia.org.

Summer Family Reunion: Mission (Im)possible

Margo's Visa Denial Form Letter

They say money is of no import when it comes to love, as was evident with the recent royal wedding. Despite coming from more humble origins, that was my motto when it came to this summer’s vacation plans: family reunion or bust, no matter the cost. Even if I’ve got to withdraw funds from my retirement to pay for our plane tickets (that is what four years of un/under-employment abroad will do to you…horrors!) and tackle the equally nightmarish logistics. So many people to reunite. Get my daughter to meet her uncle (my brother), his fiance, her great-grandmother (my dear Grandma), her great-aunt & uncle who helped put on her baby shower when she was still in my belly, her doting grandparents (my folks) whom she Skypes with every week.  Get my husband to see all his in-laws for the first time in- 7 years for my Grandma, 5 years for my brother, I don’t even remember how many years for my aunt & uncle. Orchestrate all of this from my laptop in Mexico. Most challenging, achieve a luxury my kind rarely obtains—air travel with my husband for the first time EVER in ten years.

Since I got together with my husband in 2001, I’ve always flown alone in the U.S.— Margo simply never could accompany me. It’s become this tacitly accepted but stressful white elephant every time I go home. But now, faced with the need to return home with a baby, because of the level to which my husband and I co-parent our daughter, because of the extent to which I loathe the idea of international travel alone with an infant, I was willing to pull out all the stops to reunite my family this summer—this time not in my hometown, but in CANADA of all places, where my husband has no outstanding immigration record. Ever since my parents and I visited friends in Ottawa in 2009, it sounded like the perfect plan since Margo can’t legally travel to the U.S., but nothing was stopping him from traveling to Canada, why not just find a cabin, round up our Northeastern family & pop them a few hours over the northern border, and hang out on a gorgeous lake for a week or two?

Ironically enough, the month after I went home to Mexico to share this plan with Margo, the Canadian government announced their new policy of requiring Mexicans to apply for temporary resident visas in order to cross their borders. Eww. I know they “have their reasons,” but that sure took the wind out of our sails. Applying for a passport is one thing, but a visa is a lot more labor-intensive. We tabled it for a year.  Then, when I was pregnant in 2010, the idea seemed more attractive for traveling as a family with the baby, but we weren’t so motivated to submit a high-stress app at the time either.

But 2 years later, with a 4 month-old, a new year in 2011, and seeing how hard it was on everyone to go without seeing the baby in person, I decided to start the painstaking process of putting together a tourist visa application to Canada for  Margo.  Even though he never had any illusions that he’d get accepted—Margo is way beyond me in terms of pessimism.  I spent 3 months compiling nearly one-hundred sheaves of paper documenting all our assets, background, and reasons why he wouldn’t stay in Canada (including tracking down the middle names, D.O.B.s, addresses, and occupations of each of his TWELVE brothers and sisters), booked a $500 deposit on a 10-person cabin for the entire immediate & a few extended family & friends of mine on Georgian Bay in Ontario (convinced the owner to give us a refund if we didn’t get the visa within one month), and paid the nearly $100 non-refundable application fee, ~$20 processing center fee, and $30 in certified mail fees.

And then we waited 3 weeks to find out, in the middle of a video chat with the family, that NO, Margo could NOT travel to Canada, not now, nor should he apply again the near future unless something really major changes. Although Margo interpreted it as “not having enough money in the bank,” many reasons were cited on the form letter, most notably his “family ties,” which I read as the fact that he has so many brothers & sisters. What can one do about that? Or, that our bank accounts were too low to guarantee we could fund our trip. Wha? Several thou between us is not enough for a 10 day trip? What I really suspect, however, was his lack of international travel, and namely, the big scarlet R on his record of having been removed from the U.S. over 10 years ago. Although I (and an experienced member of the Canadavisa.com Immigration Forum) hoped that old removal wouldn’t have ruled out a visa nod, the denial felt reminiscent of mandatory minimums—a punishment beyond the actual infraction—and a slap in the face.

I had to break it to the fam.  I think everyone was in shell-shock. Luckily we hadn’t told Grandma so she wasn’t let down. My mom’s response was the best. I won’t paraphrase it here since she might not want me to, but suffice it to say it included an expletive and a promise to be selective about where she spends her tourist dollars in the future. Which is a legitimate concern even some Canadians have expressed about requiring visas of Mexicans. She also very kindly contributed toward the lost application fee. My poor Dad was still holding out hope that there was someone he could call in the Canadian government to get Margo his visa. No, Dad, there isn’t, I had to say cynically, and besides, I was too destroyed by the news myself to even deal with the situation for a few weeks.

By that time, the rest of the family either started to gel their own summer plans, and/or wonder what my Plan B was going to be. So I needed to go back to the drawing board. Luckily, the cabin owner accepted my cancellation and returned my $500 deposit; although, the Canadian govt. wasn’t as gracious to return our ~$150. When I started to go through the motions this time around, I felt somehow less motivated, knowing that Margo couldn’t accompany us…then little roadblocks like who was available when and where and whatnot would crop up. But I kept reminding myself that the bottom line is my daughter—she needs to stay connected with her U.S. family.

It looks like something is going to work out in terms of getting me and my daughter some northern exposure this summer—a lot of us are thinking out of the box in order to make something happen.  But whether or not the whole family will be together in the same place at the same time is yet to be determined. Worse, barring a medical or political miracle (almost 90, my grandma hasn’t air traveled since 2004, and has physical conditions which wouldn’t go over well at our home’s high elevation of 7,000′), my grandmother may never see her grandson-in-law again—and in essence, that makes this chica’s vision of a full family reunion Mission Truly Impossible.

Public journalism

Thursday night I hosted the first of a monthly series of events in Boise, Idaho tied to the topic of Amor and Exile. I am currently serving as one of the 8th Street Artists in Residence (AiR) in downtown Boise; I get free office space in a very cool building, in exchange for monthly programming in the building. See Boise Weekly’s original story on the program for more on the idea of the residency.

For the first event of the Exploring Amor and Exile series, I piped in Ben and Deyanira, from Playa del Carmen in Mexico, via Skype. I’ve known Ben for several years as a fellow personality in the Idaho media landscape. He hosts a two hour talk and news segment on La Fantastica 970 AM, a Spanish language station in Idaho’s Magic Valley. In 2007, his fiancee, Deyanira, was detained at LAX on her way to Idaho Falls for their wedding. She was then deported back to Mexico, bouquet in hand, because she tried to enter on a valid tourist visa, rather than a marriage visa. Ben has been living in Mexico for about three years now, waiting out her three-year ban and trying to figure out what to do next.

Here is their story, in their own words, as told to a group of about 15 people in Boise Thursday night.

Exploring Amor and Exile #1 | A short video from the first in the Exploring Amor and Exile series at Boise’s 8th Street Marketplace. (Call Recorder to be purchased ex post facto).

I have interviewed Ben a half a dozen times in the last six months and have already written up much of their story. But this public interview was extremely valuable for several reasons. First of all—and this is hard to admit—I screwed up Deyanira’s last name in my notes. Ben corrected me right away in the comments under the Facebook invite for the event.

I also thought to ask them, for the first time, how they would compare U.S. Homeland Security to the Instituto Nacional de Migración, Mexico’s immigration system; Ben will soon be eligible to become a Mexican citizen. Ben replied (after giving props to the immigration office in San Miguel de Allende, where he used to live): “It’s the same old, same old, I mean, there’s no difference, you go from one country to the next, same thing. I’ve seen how the migra treats the Central American people who come over the [Mexican] border …”

The audience—I should say, the people we journalists formerly considered the audience—sat next to me on comfy couches, during the interview, and jumped in at several points with questions. People wanted to know about the deportation experience, about life and work in Mexico, and most interestingly, about efforts to unite mixed-status couples like Ben and Deyanira to throw more weight at Washington, D.C. So I learned more about what the public wants to know about their story and I think everyone who attended learned something new as well.

My attempts to organize and formalize this public interview process were less successful. I created a public Google Doc that participants could edit during the event. This was inspired by a post I read a few months back on ProfHacker, a blog I read when I pretend at being a teacher. Unfortunately none of the attendees had laptops and I did not have time to coach people on editing Google Docs on their mobiles. I emailed the link out to a dozen attendees after the event, but no one has taken the initiative to provide feedback, followup questions, etc. I find it difficult to interview, moderate, monitor Skype and also mark up a Google Doc, so maybe it’s a multitasking problem.

I’m going to try again next month with crowdsourcing the interview experience, maybe with a little more advance prep for the audience participants. I think that Google Docs has the potential to do this, but if any readers have ideas for other tools to use, please comment below.

Exploring Amor and Exile #2 is at 7 pm, May 26 at Cole/Marr in Boise … the topic will be announced soon. You can subscribe to our event calendar (ical), or just check it out on the site.

 

A conversation on immigration and exile

Last Thursdays Series: Exploring Amor and Exile

April 28, 7-8:30 pm
Cole/Marr Coffee House in the Lower Level of the 8th Street Marketplace (next to Café Olé – 404 S. 8th Street)

Exploring Amor and Exile #1

Question: What would you do if your fiancée was detained at LAX and deported?

Ben "El Chupacabras" Reed and Deyanira Escalona

Come meet Idahoan Benjamin Reed and his wife, Deyanira Escalona, one of the couples featured in the upcoming book Amor and Exile, by 8th Street Artist in Residence Nathaniel Hoffman. The book is co-authored by Nicole Salgado, an American citizen living in Mexico.

Participate in a live Skype video interview with Ben and Deyanira from their new home on the Yucatán Peninsula. Bring a mobile device so that you can help Hoffman crowdsource the interview and share your reactions live, providing valuable input as the book is drafted.

Hear all about American love exiles, experience participatory journalism, have a hot beverage and overcome the national immigration stalemate all in one evening.

Find Amor and Exile @amorandexile on Twitter or,soon, on Facebook.

Welcome to Amor and Exile

Hoffman and Salgado
Hoffman and Salgado
Hoffman and Salgado outside Salgado's home in Querétaro, Mexico Photo by Nancy Gonzalez

Welcome to the new Amor and Exile blog!

This website will document the lengthy, emotional and complex process of writing a book about immigration—specifically about the deep, growing relationships between American citizens and immigrants who may not have all their papers in order. For nearly a year now, I (Nathaniel) have been documenting the trials and tribulations and also the joys and celebrations of half a dozen Americans who are involved with Mexican partners: husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. I am excited today to announce that one of the people whom I’ve been interviewing—a good friend from college—is contributing to the book as a co-author. Nicole Salgado will provide first-person accounts of her life “in exile” in Mexico as well as flashbacks to her life in the Bay Area, where she and Margo lived before they self-deported. She will also co-author this blog with me, providing another glimpse into her life in Mexico and the collaborative process we’ve devised for the book.

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The seed for this book was planted almost a decade ago when I (Nicole) first met, then married, and finally moved to Mexico with my husband Margarito. Nathaniel’s journalistic interest in the subject, and my personal interest in documenting our situation as a memoir became concrete ideas as early as 2007. So I was excited when Nathaniel got serious about authoring a book early last year, when he began interviewing other couples as well as us. At the time I was pregnant with our daughter. When Nathaniel pitched me the idea of becoming a coauthor, soon after our daughter was born, the timing for our story to emerge in my own words felt right. As you will see both here on our blog as well as in the book, life “in exile,” both in the U.S. and in Mexico, presents a unique set of challenges—as does writing about it. But I am more enthusiastic than ever to be bringing my perspective to the table.

[twitter style=”vertical” url=”http://amorandexile.com” source=”amorandexile” text=”Welcome to Amor and Exile” float=”right”]

So bookmark this page, subscribe to our RSS feed or email newsletter and tell your friends and colleagues about us on Facebook and Twitter. We look forward to a healthy dialogue and hope that this site helps to set a new tone for the discussion over immigration in the United States.