Waiting it out[side]

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.

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We’ll also try to keep smiling, because if we don’t laugh about this, we’ll cry. Photo of the author and her husband from 2009 in San Mateo, California.

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.


House Reps: Who’s Responsible for Immigration Reform?

In a transcript of an appearance on Univision’s “Al Punto con Jorge Ramos,” House Representative Steve King claimed that, “it isn’t [his] responsibility to solve that problem,” in reference to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. This is the same Rep. King (R-IA) who has compared undocumented immigrants to dogs and asserted that he’s picked up immigrants with calves the size of cantaloupes, a remark that’s earning him the distancing of fellow House Republicans John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Raul Labrador.

But on the subject of responsibility, it raises a good point as to whose role it is to deal with the issue of immigration reform. King asserts that the full responsibility for their illegal status lies with the immigrant him or herself, because they step into the situation willingly. One could assume that the next logical assumption is that undocumented immigrants want to alleviate themselves of that responsibility, i.e. through amnesty. However, I’d be hard pressed to think of an undocumented immigrant that I know who is asking someone else to take responsibility for them. Far from it, actually, especially given how hard workers most of the undocumented immigrants I have ever known are. They are usually the ones who are taking responsibility for many others—their American citizen children, their American citizen spouses, their family and extended family members back home. Without even wanting to, millions of undocumented immigrants shoulder economic responsibility for American citizens. They pay taxes into the IRS coffers and into a Social Security system that they will never see a dime from—to the tune of $11.2 billion dollars in 2010—which, when compared to giant American corporations who pay little to nothing, makes you wonder, why the misdirected vilification?

Beyond those who have citizen or permanent resident spouses or children, it’d be difficult to name an undocumented immigrant who hasn’t contributed in some responsible way to American society by contributing to the economy, producing crops, building homes, caring for young children, preparing food, working in virtually all aspects of American industry, in some way adding their daily bread to the fabric of American society, whether seen or unseen. Denying their contributions does not make them or their contributions disappear.

The undocumented immigrant whose level of responsibility I knew best was the one who I lived with in the U.S. until 2006—my husband. We moved to his home country of Mexico in 2006 because, despite being legally married and seeking avenues for legalization for several years, I could not assume the legal responsibility of adjusting his status, although we were legally married.  Ironically, in the end, it was my husband the undocumented immigrant, who was the one who took primary financial responsibility for our family, in that he was making better income despite our disparate educational backgrounds, and allowed me to pay off my car loan, as well as my college loan, five years early.

But the panorama never looked better than bleak for obtaining legal status for my husband, despite several trips to lawyers. In 2006, I was working as a science teacher and finishing up my Masters. That same year, House Rep. James Sensenbrenner proposed laws that would have made it a felony for me to even drive in the same vehicle as my husband. One state after another passed laws that treated undocumented immigrants more and more harshly. I doubted the political will of Congress to finally live up to its country’s immigrant legacy and make good on its debt to the millions of individuals who have contributed for decades to American society, regardless of the piece of paper they did not hold.

Almost a decade after we’d married in California, I ended up in Mexico with my husband, we had a daughter, and I’d almost given up hope that I’d ever get back to the United States with him. I’d made my peace that maybe we might never go back because the political climate in Washington is as fickle as the wind that blows. But then that spark of political will stirred this past January, as we were finishing the manuscript of Amor and Exile. Those who’d been hopeless for so long suddenly were taken with optimism once again. We organized, we rallied, we lobbied, our messages were well received.

Many people didn’t want to engage in the rollercoaster ride of hope, fear, optimism, and pessimism. They’d been let down too many times before. They didn’t want to be let down again. But many felt it was different this time, that we were reaching a critical mass of support for immigration reform, and that we really had a chance at progress. Now many of us are questioning again.

It’s partially because there are some politicians who are bound and determined to make sure our hopes are ignored, that our demands go unanswered, that societal justice continues to go unserved. Another part is that we who are living this struggle on a daily basis are tired. We have lives, we can not go on fighting indefinitely. We also wonder when our fellow citizens will care enough to go to bat for us with their elected officials and help drive the support for this effort home—essentially, to bring our families home.

I may have found the way to survive, I’ve got my Plan B’s, and I might still thrive in the long run. But I have counterparts whose lifelines are much thinner. So much work has been put in by thousands of activists, lobbyists and legislators toward immigration reform.

So whereas some legislators may not see 11 million undocumented people’s fate as their responsibility, let me take a stab at a response to King’s assertion. They don’t want to be your responsibility, Rep. King. They want to be officially recognized for the responsibilities they’ve already taken on and met in a way that often exceeds the level of responsibility that many Americans will ever know.

And to go a step further, I’d assert that yes, it is the role of legislators to deal with immigration law—which is, in fact, the reason why undocumented immigrants have the illegal status that they do. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) changed the rules of the game in a drastic way in 1996, criminalizing undocumented immigration to an unprecedented extent that has had far-reaching effects not just on the lives of 11 million undocumented immigrants, but also in the fates of hundreds of thousands of their U.S. citizen family members, and members of their communities. An extent that some might say, changed the face of immigration in a country founded by immigrants.

Thankfully, many legislators still see it as their role to assume responsibility for fixing a broken immigration system that is currently causing more harm than it should. Even Speaker of the House John Boehner, who appeared wholly unsupportive of SB 744 just last month, has conceded the “need to educate members about the hundreds of issues involved in fixing our legal immigration system and the problem of those who are here in an undocumented fashion.”

I have an important reminder for House representatives. Even if you don’t see undocumented immigrants’ fate as your responsibility, surely you would agree it is your responsibility to answer to American citizen constituents. And in the very least, you should read your mail. So I very respectfully ask you to please read the piece of mail that arrived in your Washington offices last month. That was when you received a copy of my book Amor and Exile, which I coauthored with journalist Nathaniel Hoffman. It describes the stories of more than 12 different Americans like myself who have had their families split up or who’ve had to move abroad because of the fall out from laws like IIRIRA—which, being a set of laws passed by Congress, are indeed the purview of Congress. Kill a few responsibilities with one stone: read Amor and Exile.

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Constituent letters from supporters who sent Amor and Exile to Washington, D.C.