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

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.