Uncomfortable contexts

Now that all the hype has died down from the proposed changes to immigration rules by the Obama administration, immigration has returned to its normal back burner location in the media. And those of us in exile, whose lives aren’t yet affected (or won’t ever be) by these small, potential policy alterations, simply go on with the daily reality of being detached from our home countries for an indeterminate amount of time. Not that I got too excited about the announcement in the first place. Sure, I think it would be great for the immigration process to be easier for families, but with the exception of the latest Keystone announcement, and especially demonstrated by the indefinite detention bill, Obama hasn’t had the greatest track-record at promise-keeping. The fact that this announcement was made in an election year, when he’s had the last four years to do it (or more, like not be the top deportation president) also makes me wonder if this is a popularity ploy.

But my point here is not to single out Obama as the cause of our immigration woes. The origin of that problem goes back way beyond him and also isn’t the point of this post. The dialogue that the rule-changes generated was good news to me, but I must confess I wasn’t inspired by the announcement, so I wasn’t compelled to comment on it. That was a good thing because I didn’t have the chance to do so. In fact it was probably a really good thing I was so busy training at my new job, because that way I didn’t have time to get too bummed out that the new rules would have zero effect on my husband’s and my case.

At the end of 2012, some personal situations developed, including a medical problem, that forced my hand economically and led me to take on part-time work that unfortunately means a temporary break from writing my piece for Amor and Exile. Since the beginning of this month, I’ve just been assisting Nathaniel with editing his chapters, hoping for moments like today to get back on our blog, but with sustained optimism that it won’t be too long before I can get back to finishing my chapters.

One of the only things that’s good about being so busy that you don’t have much time to think (much less write) is that disturbing thoughts, well, disturb you less. The prospect of a regular income also does enough for your panorama that it helps distract you from negativity that might otherwise cloud your focus. But that doesn’t mean that the disappointing fact that the proposed rule changes won’t help us didn’t get discussed. In fact, last night it came up in the kitchen, in the context of an edit I did of Nathaniel’s chapter on waivers. I’d mentioned to Margo that not one, not two, but three of the individuals profiled in the book are from the state we live in, Queretaro, and what a small world it is. He mulled this over and wondered aloud about another couple we know who’s in exile, spefically how their prospects for legalization compare to our own. I acknowledged that they had a long road ahead of them, and we chatted a bit about the arbitrary nature of immigration agents’ decisions on individual cases, and how when it comes down to it, your future fate in the U.S. has a lot to do with luck. Then we had dinner and put the topic out of our heads.

But some things are too disturbing to ignore, elbowing their way into your consciousness without even saying “excuse me.” That same night, perhaps inspired by chapter editing, I made time to pen a short post on my own blog as an update to my evolving personal situation. I mentioned the same friend whose fate we’d been contemplating while cooking dinner, and how we’d recently learned she was expecting and how I felt lucky to be able to provide her with some guidance and advice about impending motherhood in a foreign country. Right as I finished my post, though, that same friend messaged me: they’d just received some damning feedback about their immigration case, that they’d just gotten their FOIA back, that their attorney hadn’t represented them in the way they would have liked, that they’d have to stay here longer than they’d hoped, etc. She was completely distraught.

I tried to console her in the best way I knew how, drawing on the years that I’d lived in my own personal hell of being mentally consumed by not being able to live where I wanted to due to my husband’s legal immigration situation. But she was just so down that she was practically inconsolable, and I knew she just had to go through it herself. In the end it’s a deeply personal journey to the other side of accepting that, if you want to stay with your partner, you might have to live the rest of your life in a country that you never chose to live in. Going to bed, I thought about how much our situation has strained our relationship, how much I wish I had had someone in my shoes to talk to when I went through those worst moments of losing hope and my way. How people who observe our situation might think I am especially strong to be able to withstand the last 5 years of my life in a less than ideal professional and social situation, but how vulnerable I still feel.

I can sit back and watch the hype rise and fall when it comes to politically motivated legislative proposals. But when individual tragedies plague my mind, like those of our friend, who ultimately reminded me of the aspects of our own situation that I prefer not to think of daily, I feel driven to speak out. Knowing that the handful of compelling stories I’m personally acquainted with are so few, but so emblematic of a continent-wide problem (I might go so far as to even say tragedy—my friend graduated at the top of her class in her graduate school), it outrages me. So little of this comes out in the national dialogue on immigration. It deepens my commitment to share our story, to not let it get swept under the rug as yet another piece of collateral damage (read: deportations) in the war on culture, drugs, bilateral trade agreements, or whatever we deem as the root cause(s) of our broken immigration system. I don’t disagree that Mexico has a lot of its own responsibility, or that some deportation cases involve unsavory individuals that don’t deserve to stay in the U.S. But the vast majority of individuals seeking adjustment of status are just hard-working people who, like all immigrants who’ve built America, want a chance to continue contributing to society, legitimately. Further, how can we ignore that yes, immigrants, both undocumented and legal, do make a positive impact on our economy, especially at a time when that push is so needed?

Halfway into my period of de facto exile before we can apply to re-enter the U.S. as a family, I can’t say I am much clearer on how or why this system works the way it does. Or what it means for my life, like where I’ll be in five years. Like my friend, I’ve felt this uncomfortable context one too many times in the past, one in which our emotions, our lives, are at the mercy of politically-rooted government proposals and decisions, that appear and fade as arbitrarily as the wind blows. Also, like my friend, I want nothing more than to have a shred of control over our destiny. Ironically, this leads me closer to a point where I cease to allow my expectations about our case’s final outcome to have the power to determine my quality of life. I wish it could be the same for everyone in my situation, but I’m afraid we can’t depend on the politicians to take care of that problem for us.

Can we really fight deportations one at a time?

In the last month we’ve seen a lot of exciting news on the political front regarding support for undocumented immigrants. Undocumented Dream Activists Jonathan Perez and Isaac Barrera turned themselves in at a Border Patrol office on November 10th in an effort to draw attention to conflicting policies in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency—ICE is not following internal policy to prioritize resources by only detaining and deporting serious criminals.

A little over a week later, on November 21, actions by the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ, One Family One Alabama Rally) brought together a number of elected officials from the states of California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Arizona to hear from Alabaman elected officials, law enforcement and community members about how the draconian HB56 is undermining the economy, security, and collective spirit of goodwill and justice in their state.

Countless journalists and media outlets are cropping up increasing the amount of in-depth, well-balanced coverage that the subject deserves (see our blogroll) This is positive press, and a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. More and more people are questioning the increasingly intolerant environment that hardworking undocumented immigrants encounter in the U.S.  It’s more heartening than President Obama’s relative silence on the matter of being the one President who’s deported the most individuals (and his term isn’t even up). A perception of outrage and action is far better than the depressing panorama revealed by the competing Republican candidates for the 2012 elections with regard to immigration policy.

But there is one immigration and the media-related phenomenon that I feel like I ought to view as positive but that in reality I view as somewhat concerning. It is the amount of petition signing requests I’ve received regarding individuals on the brink of deportation in the last several months. Don’t get me wrong—ever since I became an environmental activist at 15, I learned the power of petitions for enacting change. And ever since I got Internet at my house where I live in exile with my husband (a former undocumented immigrant in Mexico), I dutifully sign on to these sites and sign the petitions. I don’t normally “state a reason” for signing the petition, but if I were to, I’d say something like, “Read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty” or “because this student wants to contribute to American society, and we need more people like him/her.” Then I think to myself, I hope they have better luck than we did, and go on with my day’s business. Some of them do, happily, end in victory.

It’s not that I’m not against getting signatures on petitions per se—the problem I see is that the cases aren’t letting up, much less ever ending. Today I read a tweet that we need to get someone home with their fiancee by Christmas. I think to myself, yes, we do, but how many other thousands of individuals besides this one person would also like to be home for the holidays with their loved ones? Last week I read an article by Valeria Fernandez about a woman from Michoacan whose husband is American and whose run of luck in the U.S. may be about to come to an end. She has all the same potential tragedy if she had to go back to Mexico as any of the petition requests I’ve received; she would be separated from her family, her business would be ruined, etc. But a quick search on change.org revealed no hits for Maria Teresa Fuentes. As I read the article, her story sounded more and more eerily like my husband’s previous situation, and the sense of helplessness we had when facing our final decision to take destiny into our own hands and move to Mexico. Her husband’s comment: “I just want to go to Washington D.C. (to) meet with someone there and see what we can do to help my wife,” he said. “This gives me so much grief. Someone has to listen.”

But every time I receive a petition benefiting a single person’s case, I can’t help but wonder if trying to win immigration reform case by case is the most strategic direction for the movement to go in. Even though I’m experiencing the direct effects of displacement by deportation, I have yet to feel fully entitled to make my strategy criticisms public, since I’m “only a spouse” and “not an expert” (hopefully I’ll get over that issue). But I ask anyways: what would happen if we combined all the energy spent on individual cases and petitions and used it to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill that we can rely on, that’s truly fair and just, and/or, in the case of ICE, agency-wide policy follow-through?

More than most people I know, I want to see undocumented students be able to complete their educations and go on to be successful professionals as legal U.S. residents. I want immigrant spouses to be able to stay with their American families on U.S. soil (or wherever they choose) without having to go through stressful forced relocations the way we’ve had to (or worse). But I am concerned about the current nature of the discourse and political action regarding immigration reform.

My most idealistic expectation is that we shouldn’t need to start a petition, or find a representative in Washington for every single case. More than just victorious immigration cases that boil down to luck or influence, opportunities are needed for people who don’t have access to sites like change.org but who still deserve a shot at legalization. I worry that today’s “good feeling” of one victorious petition campaign, despite making a positive but tiny dent, distracts us from the overall panorama—that millions of individuals are living in an undeserved underground due to a long detour in how our country values its immigrants of all skill levels and skin colors. We need to acknowledge the importance of all immigrants to American society, not just the wealthy, well-educated, or papered ones, and work to eliminate the knee-jerk biases that come with incomplete understandings of the system.

There is a lot of history to this movement that I’m not privy to, despite the fact that I’ve read and experienced much more about it than most of my friends and family. There have been all sorts of failed attempts at reform and even worse laws passed that have made things worse for immigrants and polarized the situation further. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, the U.S. immigration scene, the kind that pits descendants of undocumented immigrants against their brethren who don’t have the benefit of laxer laws or amnesty. It’s the kind of situation  that leaves activists with no choice but to split into factions and seek their best chances in Congress. Dream Activists may be uniquely suited for organizing around this issue, as students in a closer-knit collegiate setting. And it’s harder to argue with the idea that young children and students who arrived in the U.S. undocumented by no choice of their own ought to be extended the same rights as legal residents, vs. getting behind adults who, despite not having had “a line to wait in,” made an adult decision to seek economic refuge via illegal entry.

Perhaps that’s where the problem arises: the inherent lack of unity among the individuals affected by these policies (I’d argue, all of us).  It’s a difficult matter to speak frankly about, even in families with affected individuals. But it’s a matter we must address if we are to make any substantial headway in terms of comprehensive immigration reform.

And when it comes to activism that targets positive change in the lives of immigrants, I would hope that in addition to campaigns won by the individuals who manage to pull off major online mobilization or gain personal favor in Washington, public backlash will grow and coalesce against policies that unfairly target ALL individuals, students and adults alike, who frankly, the U.S. economy and many American families depend on.

Writing in real time

One of the most difficult things about writing my part of Amor and Exile is that I live it every day.

Before I joined this project with Nathaniel, I primarily wrote in my journal about my experience of living with my husband in the U.S. when he was an undocumented immigrant there, or the aftermath of moving with him here to Mexico. For ten years, I wrote in my black covered notebooks, profusely but randomly—when events led me to need to record what was happening. Now that we’re collaborating, even though we don’t have a strict schedule, we have an endpoint in sight. As far as the book is concerned, that requires staying on top of regular writing, toward the eventual finish line of completing our manuscript. As far as my life is concerned, that is a more open-ended proposition.

Currently, I have only two days—Tuesdays and Thursdays—to get in the right frame of mind for writing my chapters. Those are the days that my husband has agreed to stay home with our daughter while I think and type. The precious hours available to me are whittled down by everything else that I do in order to get ready to write. Scan the news online, write in my journal, meditate. Then there’s responsibilities like nursing my daughter, eating, using the bathroom. Or the dreaded procrastination, a.k.a. social media networks. All of this is no big news to anyone who writes. It’s part of the game, and you either figure out a way to deal with it or get a different job. In reality, none of this is really that big of a deal to me either. Modern professionals learn to multi-task and juggle activities.

But one of the things that most gets in the way of my writing for this book is the very relationship I am writing about. Ha, ha. Yes, my relationship with my husband. Hey—I’m not ashamed to say things aren’t always perfectly harmonious. On any given day we are prone to bicker about something, but if that happens on the day I am supposed to  write about my life for this book, it poses somewhat of a challenge of objectivity to me.

I know damn well that even though my husband and I have our differences that it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other, or that I shouldn’t write this book. We’re new parents, we’re a bicultural and binational partnership (read: culture gap to bridge), and we’re both severely underemployed. Which is to say we have strains on our moods. Just that sometimes it can be a little distracting to argue right before I’m supposed to perfect, for example, a section of a chapter about how we met. If I were writing a book about the Berries of North America (perhaps my next book topic), I really doubt that whether or not Margo interrupted me 7 times in the preceeding 7 hours would affect my portrayal of the geographic distribution of the cloudberry. So I have to try really hard to almost dissociate myself from my own relationship while writing about my relationship. That can be an exercise in absurdity.

Last month I read a few of the posts by fellow exile bloggers that Nate put up on our blogroll. In reading The Real Housewife of Ciudad Juárez blog by Emily Cruz, I became aware of some nasty comments that had been made about American women who marry foreigners, in response to an article entitled “American-born wives married to U.S. deported or banned spouses band together via online networks,” in which Cruz was quoted. One of the commenters stooped low enough to say that women could love anything, including a ham sandwich. As a response, Cruz responded with a post entitled, “25 Things I Love About My Ham Sandwich,” a sweet homage to her partner.

If I had been personally targeted, I probably would have been fuming. In fact, I might have even cried. But I am not sure if I would have responded in the same way. Don’t get me wrong: in the book I do talk about all the reasons why I fell in love with my husband—if I didn’t, our story wouldn’t be complete. But I feel very uncomfortable about the idea that I need to  somehow prove the value of my relationship with my husband, just because he was at one time undocumented. No one, under any circumstances, should be forced to explain why they love their partner. That’s a dehumanizing situation. I’m concerned that if I respond in that way to attackers, I’ll validate their claims.

I’m writing this post because writing as candidly as possible about our story is something I’ve struggled with since deciding to go public with it. I had second thoughts about what some might consider “airing my dirty laundry.” I’ve done battle with the illusion that, in order to qualify as a worthy subject, our relationship ought to be flawless. But I’m realizing the folly in that viewpoint. I want to be as clear as possible about the pressures our relationship has endured over the years as a result of the legal situation he found himself in, and I found myself in by association. It’s not that we had a perfect relationship and illegal immigration destroyed it. It’s that we have a loving marriage with perfectly normal ups and downs, and immigration law as it’s currently written has strained it to a point that is liable to break up any family. Relationships are hard enough to keep together without having to stretch them indefinitely across international borders and pelt them with the callous comments of haters who have no idea what it’s like.

Us at home in Queretaro

 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my husband just made lunch, and the tortillas might get cold. And then I’ve got a chapter to get back to.