Brave New Vargas

The suffering economy. Crime levels. Apathy about our country’s seemingly unending involvement in foreign wars. All this bad news only serves to further polarize the political environment in which we can discuss an issue that’s at the heart of our nation: immigration. But immigration is getting hot. Yeah, yeah, you say, it’s like this every few years. But since the 1986 amnesty, no comprehensive immigration reform has been enacted by the U.S. government. However, we have seen the absorption of the Immigration and Naturalization Service into Homeland Security/ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the passing of rather anti-immigrant laws in southern states such as AZ, AL, GA and now SC. An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live in hiding in the U.S., not to mention their citizen family members. It seems that despite the attempts to pass meaningful reform that addresses an increasingly complex immigration situation in the U.S., reactionary xenophobia threatens to overshadow our country’s diverse and worldwide roots.

It’s easy to get cynical in this atmosphere, especially when you’re someone like me whose life has been so profoundly impacted by this simple situation, as described by Jeff Hawkins, in America’s Shameful Moments on June 24th, at DefineAmerican.com:

“At times in the past, the U.S. did not restrict the number of immigrants. If you got here and were in good health you were let in. Currently we restrict the number of immigrants each year. We expect people desiring to come to the U.S. will respect these restrictions and wait in line. That hasn’t been the case and we find ourselves with about 10 million adult immigrants living and working in the U.S. who came here illegally.”

And yet, those inspiring moments do come now and then. Hope re-surges in me that Americans are capable of recognizing immigrants’ humanity, be they documented or undocumented. Or of having a rational discussion about our economic dependence on them. The moments come when I see individuals speaking out for their loved ones who are undocumented, as in Tony and Janina’s Wedding. Optimism fills me when I see authorities such as Paul Bridges, Mayor of Uvalda, GA, suing his own state over a new immigration law, challenging what he feels to be ill-fated policy not just for his town but the entire nation. Or when I post to this or my other blog, Succulent Seer, and get responses from equally inspired individuals.

Perhaps the person who inspired me the most recently was Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who came out as an undocumented immigrant in My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant in the New York Times magazine on June 22nd. Although I won’t summarize the article here, and his situation is different than my husband’s (he was sent to the U.S. as a child, and then chose to continue the life for about 14 years once he found out he was here illegally), there is a certain kinship in that there finally came a time when Vargas realized he couldn’t maintain a secret life anymore. For us, this moment came when we decided that all legal options were impossible, and we would have to move to Mexico to stay together. Knowing the risks which Vargas is putting himself at by outing himself, is inspiring in itself. Seeing that a publication likes the Times was willing to run his article, and that Rachel Maddow brought him on her show in a sympathetic manner is similarly heartening.

However, observing the knee-jerk reactions by some of his “fellow” journalists was offensive. One even went to so far as to say Vargas has disqualified himself as a journalist by being straightforward about his status, as quoted in The Media Deportation of Jose Antonio Vargas, by Daniel Denvir. So is that to say that any individual who’s ever formerly engaged in any illegal activity, such as adultery, drug abuse, traffic violations (pick your poison) disqualifies themselves from their profession? The argument about Vargas being a habitual liar just doesn’t hold up. Most everyone has some dirty laundry in their closet they’re not quite ready to hang out. Come on guys, I’d expect more objectivity when you’re bashing subjectivity.

This is when I can feel the heat of the debate all the way down here in sunny Mexico. Comments like these, although I try hard to ignore the chaff, are strong enough to pull me out of my writing of our book to talk about what’s going on. It concerns me that people are willing to get so high up on their holier than thou horses that they can’t see the forests for the trees. It affects how I write my story. I get nervous about how people are going to react to me telling a story, how it could be construed that I was harboring my husband, no matter how much the immigration lawyer we’re working with assures me that that’s unlikely. Ultimately, I worry that we have strayed so far from our own humanity that we don’t recognize that of others.

But then I think of the brave ones. Like my husband himself, who said, “I never hid who I was.” It’s true, he didn’t, and he also had a lot to lose by voluntarily deporting (as did I, by accompanying him). However, he didn’t have the same exposure as Jose Vargas, who’s essentially making himself a high-profile guinea pig of the new ICE mandate that “law enforcement resources should be aimed at those who would do the country harm, people who threaten national security, violent offenders, and drug dealers,” as described on the American Immigration Lawyer Association (AILA) blog. Vargas said, “We have not had a credible conversation about immigration in this country.” How can we, when everyone is too afraid to see the truth, much less speak it? It’s a big risk he’s taking to speak the truth of his own life, a risk that people with pre-conceived notions about undocumented immigrants won’t sufficiently appreciate, but one that *will* inspire a lot of people, including me. I think I speak for millions when I say thanks, Jose, for sticking your neck out.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – 13th century

Considerations for writing a love exile memoir, Part 1

One of the objectives of this blog is to “document the lengthy, emotional and complex process of writing a book about immigration.” With the exception of my undying urge to get our story out, the day-to-day landscape of actually writing it is in a constant state of evolution (at least on my end—Nathaniel can tell you himself how it’s going for him). The first chapter (my arrival/situation in Mexico) was surprisingly straightforward to write compared to the one I’m on now—about when Margarito and I first met. The collaborative editing of my first chapter was demanding, but it was the part I liked best about the developing co-author relationship with Nathaniel. This chapter is much harder to get started, although I’d thought it’d be the easiest—I mean, how complicated can a “how we met” story be to tell?

Fairly complicated, it appears. On the practical side of things, it is farther back in time and I must rely more on memory and journal entries (10 years ago vs. these last few years). Thus it requires a great deal of effort to transport myself sufficiently to deliver an authentic rendition of that time and place, although it’s a task I’m starting to get the hang of. Photos, music, meditation, and just plain dedicated time are helping with that.

When Margo and I first became pals, Cinco de Mayo 2001

Then there’s the emotional side of things. Revisiting what we “used to have” up in the States vs. “what we’re limited to now” in Mexico creates a nostalgic perception of the past that threatens an objective view of the past and the tenuous equilibrium I’ve forged in the present. It’s also a challenge to separate how I analyze current happenings from how I consider the past and its influence on the present. In light of this, I’m experimenting with alternative ways to manage my current “stuff.” I normally journal to process my thoughts, which you don’t really need to be an exile or a parent to relate to. Unfortunately, on top of the book writing, it’s turning out to be an inundation of verbiage that’s becoming overwhelming to organize, especially since in my case almost anything in my life can become material for this book. Since I’ve got to stay on top of the stuff that’s constantly cropping up in the present (I’ve long since learned the perils of repression), and thanks to the advice of a support person I’m working with, art will be the new medium for present-day processing while working on past-tense chapters.

Which brings me to another creative technique I’m a little more apprehensive about, although my gut tells me it’s OK to just go with the flow for now: finding my place in the current literature of my genre (I’m not even sure what to call it—The love exile memoir?—as it mostly exists on the blogosphere or third-person in the media). Although Nate and I are not newbies to the written word, this is our first book, and so we are both experimenting with what works for us. On that note, I’ve decided that instead of irrigating my years-long drought of contact with other immigration love exiles like me (I describe this circumstantial isolation more in the book), I’m going to keep mostly to myself and not inundate myself with the stories of other people who have had to live through the experience of having a spouse deported or forced to make the choice to self-deport.

When I shared this tactic with Nate, he responded that keeping abreast of all the stories and political landscape is important to him. In my opinion, as a journalist covering a large subject matter like immigration, it makes absolute sense for him to approach his subject with a great deal of familiarity. My own subject, on the other hand, is the journey my husband and I have made from getting together in the States, self-deporting, and resettling in his country of birth. Now that I’m involved with this project and Nate’s tipped me off to the abundance of fellow love exiles’ websites, I crave spending time reading up on them, or meeting the people he’s writing about, or getting to know the faces behind the cases that keep popping up to the public light who are living a similar hell as I. However, not only are there ethical concerns with us keeping our sides of the storytelling separate, but there are only 24 hours in the day and as Nate and I have both agreed, we need to keep the distractions to a minimum. So I’ve made a difficult decision to prioritize my precious (new parent) energies and just keep my nose to the writing grindstone. I am, however, making a local exception—a mutual friend is introducing me to another love exile couple recently arrived here to Queretaro. Ironically, the woman’s father found me through Amor and Exile’s Facebook page before I even met his daughter. I’m looking forward to meeting our new neighbors.

Once the manuscript’s done, however, I am eager to get more active in the wider activist community, more than just posting a few links and making a few alliances here and there. After all, the immigrant rights movement is really taking off and God knows many families really stand to be affected by what pans out in this next expected reform period.

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.