The list: for a former sister-in-exile

In the going on 13 years I’ve been in Mexico, we’ve had to say “goodbye” to several good friends who have moved “back north” or elsewhere. In Amor and Exile, I wrote about a variety of different reasons that other expats end up down here in Querétaro and the solidarity we have being foreigners who’ve chosen to relocate here.

We hosted a reunion gathering of sorts last month when one of our dear friends who moved back to the States a few years ago finally was able to come back and visit. Kind of a big sister figure to a few of us, it was great to have her and her family here, reminisce about when our kids were toddlers and besties together, and that feeling of sisterhood while raising a family in a foreign country.

Around the same time we were hosting our good friends who were in town for the weekend, we were saying a different kind of goodbye to some other dear friends who had an immigration exile situation very similar to ours, but who finally got their break to return as a family this past summer.

Heather and Horacio (H2) met over a decade ago in Georgia, fell in love and decided to get married and start a family. As fate would have it, Horacio, also from Central Mexico (San Luis Potosí) experienced legal challenges to an adjustment of status due to having overstayed and working while on a tourist visa to the U.S. Heather ended up accompanying Horacio down to México as I had Margo. We both actually lived in Querétaro for several years without knowing it, but didn’t meet each other until we published Amor and Exile, Heather found the blog, and reached out to try and make contact.

To make a long story short, H2 didn’t have to apply for one but two waivers. Their first was an I-212, similar to ours that we applied for last June and got approved last September; and their second (an I-601) was precipitated by a torturous sort of double jeopardy penalty handed out late in his application process, at the end of his 2nd visa interview last year.

We had been waiting right alongside H2 , first for the visa interview, then for the results, for one, because that’s what friends are for, and secondly, because our paths have mirrored each other’s so closely over the last 12+ years. In fact, the things we two exiled ladies had in common in our journey are so downright uncanny we decided to keep a list of things we both have or have done:

  • Both are from the East Coast of the U.S.
  • Both are educators
  • Both have younger brothers
  • Both left the U.S. with our “inadmissible” husbands on a voluntary departure
  • Both stopped at the Grand Canyon on our last trips out of the U.S. with husbands
  • Both moved to Mexico in 2006 (3 weeks apart)
  • Both had a Nissan Platina car
  • Both lived in Querétaro (for 5 yrs w/o even knowing each other)
  • Both taught English in Mexico
  • Both had their first borns in Hospital Santa Cruz
  • Both first babies were born in the same room!
  • Same immigration lawyer (I referred them to ours)
  • Both had to apply for I-212 waivers for their husbands
  • Both had I-212 waivers approved

This running list of things in common became like a joke for us, with all of our uncanny similarities. It was one of many go-to sources of humor that our two families needed during so many months and years of darkness and despair, trying to hold out hope that we might be able to choose our destinies as a family and return to our homelands together with our families. H2 and their family did end up briefly separated for a short while while Heather worked as a schoolteacher close to family in Pennsylvania and took their two boys with her, a natural reaction to needing and wanting to command a better income to raise a family than one can in Central Mexico, and also based on the assumption that her husband would sail through his 2nd visa interview and have his green card that same calendar year. Unfortunately that plan got derailed when a consular agent decided that one waiver was not enough to clear Horacio’s name and that the family would need to prove dire hardship and greater deserving of returning together to the States than normal circumstances would dictate, and that Horacio’s overstay of his visa would jeopardize more than twelve years later.

The first and only time Heather and I finally decided to write down all our things in common was when our paths were finally about to diverge. It wasn’t when Horacio got the rejection at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, which was earth shattering for their family, and which also shook us to the core. At their dinner table in their home a while later, Horacio related the depth of his sadness to me about when, after a series of unforgiving questioning at the bank-teller style booths in the consulate, he was shown a blue slip that invariably meant his visa application was being denied. Since we had the same lawyer (they got started on their process faster than we did), the first thought that went through my mind was “what did they do wrong?” The truth is more complex than can be described here. But beyond the facts of their case, which differ slightly from ours, on an emotional level we grieved that rejection with H2, and tears rolled right alongside them as Horacio recounted the interview and the hours that followed in the lonely hotel room in CDJ. We didn’t just know – we felt, we saw, we understood the letdown that it represented for them, and how easily that experience could be ours in a few short months.

Our two families’ shared trauma, a emotional and legal roller coaster that our children and extended families also ride, in all its grandparent-depriving, borderline bipolar parental mood highs and lows, results in a keen, unique bond uncommon to any other family friendships we’ve had. We actually led quite normal, ordinary lives here in Querétaro, both as teacher/trainers, bridging intercultural communities both at work and in our personal lives. Our WhatsApp conversations were filled with affirmative, humorous messages. Our families share a love for nature and we often had the privilege of enjoying outdoor adventures together. Then, when immigration woes invaded our consciences, there was only total, immediate, and unconditional support and understanding for each other. That is a rare privilege to share with a like-minded friend, much less in the same county two thousand miles south of home.

I write about these varying family “immigration autonomy” statuses, for lack of a better word, in Amor and Exile. Though most foreigners must apply for a U.S. visa (except those with visa waiver programs), most friends are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and decades-long processes that H2 and my family have had to endure – they also have the freedom to relocate where they so choose, whereas our family’s only real choice is to stay put if we want to stay together. H2 shared not only that same restriction with us, but also the singular drive to rail against it, and to keep trying, against all odds, to achieve familial autonomy in the eyes of the immigration system, and at its essence, an ability to relocate wherever they so choose.

The author at her first A&E reading in Querétaro, México. Heather is against the wall at far left.
The author at her first A&E reading in Querétaro, México, and Heather, at far left.

And so we weren’t surprised at all, in fact, we were impressed and delighted, to hear when H2 went ahead and applied for that second waiver (an I-601), right away, with our same lawyer. I do have to confess that I was surprised when their waiver was approved relatively rapidly, and they got their 3rd visa interview appointment in a matter of a few months the approval, while we are still waiting 10 months after our waiver was approved. But of course each case is subject to its own intricacies and order of events. We were unbelievably overjoyed when we heard that Horacio’s visa was finally approved, in the month of June this year. I was particularly happy for Heather because I knew a June approval meant she would be able to return to the school where she taught in Pennsylvania and also enroll her sons for next school year as well. The aftermath of a visa approval, when one has been out of the country for over a decade, can be complicated, as it could be for us, if Margo is granted one, due to the simultaneous timing of leaving current jobs, all the logistics associated with relocating a family, job hunting for the primary breadwinner(s), etc. But since H2 was banking on a visa relatively soon after the I-212 approval over a year ago, they were a few steps ahead in the game. I knew the relocation was to going to happen fast.

It did in fact snowball rapidly, as they had a vacation to Guatemala already planned, and that gave them a week to pack up their belongings from Horacio’s brother’s home where they had spent the last 10+ years, a week with family in the southern U.S. before school started for Heather and the boys. When we got the good news, I quickly realized that it might be my last chance to spend time with our friends before they’d be flying north, like migratory birds in springtime.

Our two families decided to go see Spiderman in a theater at a new mall that just opened not far from our home. The new fangled movie theater felt almost VIP for general admission prices, so we had a nice time. As we were leaving, I pitched stopping for drinks, milking the last private hours we would likely get with them. To my delight, they obliged, and while we sipped margaritas and the kids played, we got the skinny on Horacio’s most recent experience in CDJ, this time accompanied by both Heather and the boys. As probably only immigration/exile geeks like us would do, we replayed Horacio’s interview over chips and guacamole down to the questions and responses and what he wore. I found myself asking if my husband who has never worn a tie would have to don one – to my relief the suggestion was no. We got plenty of advice and tips from both of them, and my feelings teetered between elation and admiration for, and solidarity with them and their persistence, to fear of our own experience not working out, and selfish sadness at how much I would be missing them very soon. The night ended too soon, and was very airy and bubbly with promise and selfies, but I resolved to say goodbye with more pathos before they departed northward.

I think H2 knew how fast things were going to go with departure, but having been in similar situations myself, and knowing how the gravity of all the details and feelings associated with major events aren’t fully appreciated until you’re in the thick of them, or perhaps afterwards, I knew they would be “riding the wave” so to say and if I wanted to see them one more time I’d have to pay close attention. There was a tiny window where my impossibly packed work schedule and their own crazy schedule of getting back from their vacation and flying to Pennsylvania would cede a space of 2 hours, literally the night before they flew out. I debated whether I should add to their stress and try to see them one last time. But since I’m big on ritual in terms of life experiences, and considering how special H2 and their family have been to us in the last 5+ years, I wanted to try.

Sitting on Horacio’s brother’s couch, as she served salmon to his brother, sister, and their niece, I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding on a solemn family goodbye dinner. They insisted it was no trouble, served us party mix, and Horacio sat on the couch with us, but I did feel like I was imposing. It was also after 7 pm and a school night for our daughter, so I resolved to be quick. I have gotten so good with not letting immigration matters get me down any more, so I didn’t expect tears. More likely, I am just internalizing and getting numbed by all the emotional horror carried by the stories from the border and the Interior under this current administration. But as Horacio began to talk about how Margo would certainly get his own visa, and as the four of us began to reminisce about the last several years, while the kids strayed in different directions, probably shell-shocked by the weirdness of the moment, my stoic facade quickly crumbled.

To present I’m still not quite sure what obsessive behavior compelled me to pull out my Notes app and ask Heather to help me write down the list of ours things in common that we’ve been compiling over the last six years since we published Amor and Exile and she found me through our book networks and showed up at our first public book talk in Querétaro. The list certainly wasn’t a priority thing she needed to do in that moment. I can’t come up with any better explanation than it was a coping mechanism, me playing journalist to my own life, knowing that the list has been important as many times to Heather as it was to me, that it helped keep her sane through all these years in exile in Mexico to know that someone else like her was surviving, even sometimes thriving; and that for both of us no matter what happened in our husbands’ immigration fates, there was someone else in the same boat, and that maybe, just maybe, if they were doing it, we could keep doing it too.

The more years you spend in exile, the more desensitized you become to the inhumane pressures of your life amounting to a ticker tape of immigration case readouts. The only thing that is keeping us whole, human, and alive with love is knowing the other faces, hearts, and hands that are swimming upstream against the waves, waterfalls, and hurricanes of hate, and persisting in the face of them all. Thank you Heather and Horacio for touching our lives, for sharing your humanity, your friendship, your generosity, your indefatigability with us. And congratulations on this huge win in the struggle to keep our families together. We will see you soon “al otro lado,” whichever “side” it may be.

The author and her friend Heather with their families over the holidays in Central Mexico.
The author and her friend Heather with their families over the holidays in Central Mexico.

Provisions

provision

Definition (From Merriam-Webster online):

1a :the act or process of providing
b :the fact or state of being prepared beforehand
c :a measure taken beforehand to deal with a need or contingency :preparation made provision for replacements
2:a stock of needed materials or supplies; 
especially :a stock of food — usually used in plural
 
 
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Not much has changed since my last post, on the 4th of July, at least from my point of view. I’m still disappointed with the abundant xenophobia emanating from a nation of immigrants. As for the U.S. vs. Mexico, with the spate of mass shootings, the continual dumbing down of the executive branch, and even environmental disasters, the U.S. keeps giving us reasons to question whether the living standard it offers is superior to Mexico’s… except for the opportunity to be closer to family and (maybe) giving Margo & I both new professional opportunities.
 
Much of the above is circumstantial, but I also have a sinking feeling that it’s the result of a slow decline of things in the States compared to when this all started for us 16 years ago. And I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising, either, that declining living standards and growing anti-immigrant sentiment goes hand in hand. One of the first lessons I remember from basic biology was about density-dependent factors influencing populations – how with increased numbers comes stress, competition, disease, and other ills. It seems to me that our lives wouldn’t be as negatively affected, were space and resource deficiencies not impacted by the rapidly increasing gap between the mega-wealthy and the rest of us. To rewrite a saying, “if others were to live more simply, the rest of us could simply live.” But I digress.
 
 As befuddling and frustrating as the socioeconomic declines in the U.S. and worldwide are in the midst of such abundance, I am oddly pleased that I still get disappointed about it all. But I guess my sentiments are precious proof I am not so jaded from our period of exile that my ideals have been completely destroyed… my remnant disappointment in regressive politics is proof that I still have hope and faith that all the wonderful things I grew up to love about the United States could actually be true, and could become the norm, rather than the exception.
 
 
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The author’s late grandmother Thelma

Even though my mindset hasn’t changed much in the last few months, my family’s situation has. We had a death in the family recently. My dear, closest, and longest-lived grandparent, Thelma, a.k.a. Grandma Cookie, or GG by my daughter, passed this past September, a month after her 95th birthday. My parents were visiting for my daughter’s birthday when she fell ill.

GG & Bee in New York

Perhaps it was the goldenrod and aster pollen swirling in the unseasonably warm Upstate New York late summer air, perhaps it was the unseasonably warm air itself, or maybe it was the prospect of one more forbidding Syracuse winter, we’ll never know exactly what happened. But GG’s COPD took a turn for the worse, graver than she’d ever experienced. A whirlwind of upheaval ensued: hospital admission, her refusal of medical intervention and acceptance only of palliative care, siblings flocking in from across the country, and we were all faced with the sudden reality that GG’s long run on Earth, her wide window of life was closing, and that our family matriarch’s reign was finally coming to an end.
The following weeks were sort of a blur. I returned with my parents to Nueva York to see Grandma, but of course, I had to go alone. I arrived just in time to say goodbye to GG. In giving her all our Mexico family’s regards, I was painfully reminded of how earlier this year I knew, I just knew, that I had to reunite them all in Canada or we might never again. Justin Trudeau must have known last December too, when he waived the visa for visiting Mexicans. I said everything I needed to. I cherished as much of her as I could in those final moments. And then I, and she, and we all, let go.

Margo & GG in Canada

The degree of grieving I experienced with the loss of my grandmother was new for me. She was the first close family member I have lost. The resentment I’ve felt over the years of my limited ability to be with her and the rest of my family come into particular focus in the days immediately following her death.
 
I also relived my cosmic disorientation about having broken with a long line of female predecessors, 5 generations deep, who’d been born, raised, or settled in Central New York, since my German great-great-grandmother Theresa gave birth to my great-grandmother Florence on Bear Road. With my grandmother gone, in a metaphysical pole vault, my mother landed first place in the familial matriarchal line and I am next. With my father’s Southern Californian roots, and my husband’s Central Mexican roots now in the mix, my line’s roots are spread across the continent. I have never felt more confused about where to call home, nor felt more pressure to know how or where to lead my family to.
 

The author, her daughter, mother, and grandmother, in NY

That sensation of suddenly becoming “next in line” was indescribable. It was almost akin to physical movement, of a rush of forward movement or elevation. I’ve never had nor heard of that feeling before. With it came a more urgent sense of responsibility. For my whole family. For myself. And like any self-respecting mother, I automatically and subconsciously began preparing for winter.

 

My family, on both sides, has always known well what to do with the turn of the seasons. Both my mother’s and my husband’s family were or are farmers, and thus know in their flesh of the rise and fall of abundance, the leafing of the branch, the bursting of the bud, the ripening of the fruit, the saving of the seed, and the storing of the plenty for a time of less.

GG and her sister-in-law Eleanor with the old plow, in NY

As someone who has been a practitioner and a teacher of these cycles, these understandings are innate and instinctual for me every day, but as I grew up, went out into the world, and learned of the compartmentalization of knowledge in the modern age, I realized that not everyone is privy to this awareness or appreciative of these realities. There are even those who once were, but are no longer subject to the limitations of natural cycles, at least in their minds, by virtue of economic advancement or geographical displacement. And yet we are all subject to these laws and cycles of natural life.
 
One of the saddest things about saying goodbye to my grandmother was descending the basement stairs and finding myself in the recesses of the basement, staring at, and then lightly touching the metal rings of the tops of Mason jars, that held conserves my grandmother had made – who knows how long ago – probably of some local bumper crop, as she hadn’t been physically able to grow any fruits or vegetables to an amount of needing to can them for longer than I can remember.

 

The author’s great-grandmother Florence, with her canning collection, in NY

It immediately took me back to a story my grandmother once shared with me about her growing up, perceiving her family to be living in poverty, until one day she and her family brought the Christmas turkey, bread, and vegetables to a dinner with family living downtown. Her mother, Florence, had been a victory gardener during the War, and because she had so much difficulty having her own children, she had adopted many to be a part of their family. My grandmother realized that, far from being poor, the riches they experienced growing up among wheat fields, berry bushes, and animal corrals far surpassed the riches her “wealthier” aunts possessed in terms of fur stoles and the like. My grandmother and her daughter, my mother, transmitted all of this to me in my childhood, and although it took a couple decades for the soil to be cultivated in me and to flower with that wisdom, the deep appreciation I have for the natural world, and the existential obligation to be co-participants in nature’s creativity, for our own good and that of our families, is deeply rooted in me.

The author and her daughter at home in Querétaro

I haven’t become a master of conserves, but I am a seed saver, and sower. I don’t make tortillas from scratch, but I do make a mean tamale. And I do recognize and value my creativity. Reconciling my exile was in itself a grieving process, it ebbs and flows.  So perhaps I did have something to compare my loss of my grandmother to… I had to say goodbye to my nation. I continue to grieve her. Both losses were out of my control. The difference with exile is that the loss might be temporary, were we to be able to return. In both cases, I am forever changed by the event.
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Being uprooted, twice, from a home, with a prospect, albeit long and challenging, of being able to return, of having choice restored, after having grown up 20 years in a 5-generation long tradition as a Syracusan, then seven years a Californian, and now six years a Mexican, eleven years south of the border, but still (always) considered a gringa, continues to be disorienting. Thus, I seek whatever certainty I can from the compass inside. And looking to the women who came before me; Theresa, Florence, Thelma, Debbie, Jenny, and Olga; though the diverse list reaches back before the turn of the last century, the apparent constants are these: Generosity. Selflessness. Concern for others. Putting others first. Working hard for their families. Intense love for children. Aware of a woman’s strength. A love of flowers, romance, and beauty. At many times, refusing to accept injustice, and refusing to cede their power to the undeserving. Just some of my family’s values.

 

GG and family, in NY

I can still taste Grandma’s fresh raspberries and currants that grew in her backyard, that was steps from my childhood home. I can still taste the jelly she made and shared with us all. I can still see the homemade cookies that she had waiting for her visitors on her counter by her pantry. Like her, I am drawn to cultivating, harvesting, partaking. To participating in the cycle of life, abundance, and sharing. For those around me, for the future. I am not totally sure what this will entail, beyond the occasional banana bread muffins, or socking away whatever savings we can to try and make a northern bid once more. For myself, for my family, for what the unknown holds. Many things are still unclear. But one thing is for sure, the wheel is turning, and the grain will be stored. For the time when provisions are needed.

The tenth year – II

The big day finally arrived, almost two weeks ago. September 18, 2016. Marking ten years since we drove across the border in Nogales, AZ. It now feels like ancient history.

Jalisco, Mexico, September 2006
Highway in Jalisco, Mexico, 2006

I think I sort of imagined back then that on September 18, 2016, we would be hovering over a sheaf of papers, ready and waiting  to urgently send in the famous waiver application that would pave the way for Margo (and our family) to return to the U.S., soon after to be whisked back to the U.S. to reestablish our interrupted lives there. In reality, the scene at present is much more complicated, and just plain different than what I had first pictured.

The actual September 18th, 2016 went more like this for us:

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The piñata

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The cupcakes

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The mezcal

Back in the spring of this year, we finally submitted Margo’s I-130 application, which I wrote about in my first “the tenth year” post. Rather unceremoniously, our lawyer submitted the files to USCIS, USCIS acknowledged their receipt of the application, and we haven’t heard anything back since.

Rather than sitting around biting our nails, basically, life just went on. I still work at Peace Corps Mexico, and Margo still builds thing for local folks who have requests for custom furniture. Our daughter is still attending a little Montessori school that lets us bring cupcakes in to celebrate her birthday with her classmates, complete with a lovely circle around the sun ritual that marks  every year since her birth.

In fact, the only reason why September 18 is normally celebrated in this house is not because it marks the day we crossed into Mexico, nor the anniversary of my Mexican naturalization (it really does share that date) – but rather that it’s our daughter’s birthday. Why fate would have chose to combine 3 such event all into one date is beyond my comprehension, but it did make for a rather pleasant celebration opportunity this year, especially given that we have more reasons to be grateful for our life here than we have complaints – leading to a profound lack of urgency to return to the States.

Being a plant person, I’ll use a botanical metaphor. After 10 years, favorable conditions have led to our growth as a family, and we’ve put down deep roots. In the plant world, transplanting can be risky business. If the plant and its roots have been neatly contained in a smooth, enclosed container, it’s fairly straightforward to move it to a larger container or plant it out into the ground. In fact, it’ll probably be happy for you to do so, especially if it was cramped before. But if a plant has been growing freely in the ground, its roots spreading deep and wide into the rich soil, intertwining with rocks and other plants’ roots, drawing up plenty of fresh water and nutrients and leafing broadly into the bright sunshine, it’s not going to take so kindly to your digging under it, pulling it up, and severing its roots. Often, the plant dies back considerably before taking off again in another place. Sometimes it never quite survives the transplant, and just withers. In other words, if the plant is flourishing, there’s got to be a really good reason for you to go for the transplant.

I’ve pulled up roots a few times now in my life, first when I left NY to go to CA, where I met Margo; and again when Margo and I left CA. Each time the pulling up roots itself was not so traumatic – perhaps the previous conditions left my roots feeling cramped or limited somehow, and so they were ready for an upgrade. But the transplant to Mexico was complex. At first, it felt like I’d gone from fertile to rocky soil, and I wilted a bit – for a couple years. But like the mesquite trees here who slowly, but surely send their roots deep down to the subsoil to find water after which they pull it up for others nearby to share, I dug deep down inside and found inner reserves that I wasn’t previously aware of – in the form of resolve, patience, and commitment. I also discovered nourishment all around me in México, in the form of a home of our own, friends, culture, a growing family, future colleagues, and the vast beauty of the natural environment.

Considering what’s been invested into my flourishing again, I probably shouldn’t be surprised at my own hesitation at visualizing such a big move again, especially when there are no guarantees as to the outcome.

So when everyone asks, “are you going back up to the States?” (now that the 10 year waiting period has passed), the first thought in my mind is honestly “why?” and then, “flojera” (Spanish for an almost self-indulgent laziness). I have to confess, there are a few other external factors that don’t help us chomp at the bit for a return bid; namely the cost (>$5,000 USD), this year’s Presidential race ( I definitely won’t make ANY moves until after we see the outcome on Nov. 8), and the police brutality situation (my family members are brown-skinned).

Still, the main pull to return has always been, and will continue to be, the distance from family. We make it work through visits, and when they happen they are truly enjoyable. My daughter seeing her grandparents (my parents) only twice a year and me seeing my brother on average only once a year is getting old fast. But a few conditions for a move that I’ve conjured up haven’t presented themselves yet, namely, forward movement on the visa application (it’s a matter of time and then money), getting the title to our home so we can sell before a move (it’s taking forever), and me finding a really amazing job that would make a move worthwhile (I haven’t been looking, since the visa piece takes longer).

If this is painting a convoluted, circular picture as to what logic I may or may not be applying to a move northward, it’s not accidental. An unseen force seems to be holding those roots fast in place for now.

10yrparty-pinata1
Piñata top and garambullo

I am acutely aware that a factor in my being able to stay ten years in Mexico was an initial Herculean effort to find contentment within the confines of a limited situation. Therefore, I want to inject a heathy dose of suspicion into my complacency (I’ve noticed it in myself in other areas of my life besides my thoughts on moving north), and keep it present to make sure I am not selling myself or my family short – but I haven’t quite figured out how to make sure that I’m not letting the difficult years here or the U.S. media cloud what hasn’t yet but might emerge as a dream of a life in the north.

Writing and reflecting on this question definitely helps a bit, but then when one who is prone to plant metaphors tries to type out a coherent explanation as to why she just might not know what she wants yet (in terms of where she sees herself in 5 years), and then her husband of 12 years sends her 6 year old into the house holding the first mature avocado that’s fruited from the 12″ sapling from the Sierra Gorda that she planted her yard 8 years ago, where in the background orange butterflies flit among dozens of wild sunflowers under the bright blue sky, well, answers to elusive questions seem just as hard to find as they’ve been for the last 10 years.

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Xotol and pollinators

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First fruit

President Obama: Before You Act on Immigration

Note: If you want to show your support, please leave your name, state, and # of your congressional voting district in the comments. 

Querétaro, Mexico | August 7, 2014

Dear President Obama,

I’m aware that you are contemplating taking action on immigration and that White House staff is hard at work researching your options. Before anything happens, I wanted to make sure you heard my story, because I’m one of millions of Americans who stand to be affected by any decision you take—but our story is not often heard.

It’s been another hard year for us to be away from the United States. Not any harder than the last eight years that I have been away from my home country. But hard for different reasons.

When my father in New York was ill last December, I was unable to go visit and help him.

In California, where I lived and worked for seven years as a science teacher, two good friends had baby sons. I have not been able to meet them. One of my former students got married but I could only attend the wedding ceremony virtually.

From my home in Central Mexico, I watched one friend after another travel freely between the United States, Canada and Mexico, accompanied by their family members. I found out that a long-time dream I’ve had, to be a research associate of my alma mater, Cornell University, would not be possible. Even though the director of a lab was interested in collaborating, the University does not allow off-campus appointments.

Every time I experience these disappointments, I handle them the way I have in these past eight years of exile in Mexico—I focus on the other positive things happening in my life.

Exile? Yes, I have been living in exile in Mexico since 2006. I don’t like the sound of it, and I can’t say my plight is equal to that of other famous exilees, such as the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousefi. But the reasons are ultimately the same—because of a political reality in my home country, I am forced to live away from my birthplace, and have been obligated to call another country home.

Sadly, I am not alone. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Americans are either forced abroad, torn apart from their family members, or forced underground in their own country, for the same reason that I am in Mexico: our broken immigration system. Thousands of us live abroad in isolation, subject to abject poverty and violence. Thousands of Americans’ family members—spouses and parents alike, are waiting indefinitely in their home countries to be reunited with their families. Thousands of Americans are living in the shadows in the U.S., as I once did with my husband, from 2001 to 2006.

What could possibly be causing this epidemic of Americans in exile? Why have I been unable to return to the U.S. all these years? The answer lies deep within the technicalities in current immigration law, statutes that were introduced with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed into law by former President Bill Clinton in 1996. This law led to the plight I am in—that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Americans are in—today.

I’ve probably talked with thousands of people about this issue. The vast majority of Americans I speak with are truly confounded by this state of affairs. They ask me, “But why can’t your husband immigrate legally? You’re married!?”  So I coauthored the book Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders (Cordillera West 2013) with journalist Nathaniel Hoffman, to try and answer that question. But even as we explored many different reasons behind the plights of families like mine, I am still no closer to accepting the status quo. I actually sent you a copy of the book last summer. After publishing, we raised enough money to deliver over 600 copies of our book to legislators and officials on Capitol Hill. And we’ve continued to share our stories with thousands of Americans since then. I hope you or someone in your staff had an opportunity to read it.

Because my husband was subject to a 9c immigration bar before we began dating in 2001, even when we were finally married in 2004, I was unable to confer legal status on him. He had come to the U.S. to work without papers, and had been stopped and sent back. Prior to the 1996 law, my husband would not have received a 10-year immigration “ban” for that. But in the true spirit of the marriage vow for better or for worse, I chose to stay with my partner, and that meant I took on the burden of his immigration status, even when we were told by lawyers that the only way we could obtain legal status for him was to leave the country for 10 years, in the hopes of being able to someday apply for a pardon and then maybe a visa.

This December is our tenth wedding anniversary.  We have been in Mexico together for eight years. My husband has not seen my only living grandmother since then. He has not seen my only sister-in-law since we left California in 2006. I have not had income above the U.S. poverty level since then. I am afraid that even though we may make it ten years in Mexico, we will not be able to afford the legal process to try and return to the U.S. someday.

So much furious debate on immigration has yielded so few actual solutions in our Congress since I married my husband. Amor and Exile gives a thorough account of efforts like these and the history leading up to them, as well as other ideas for future relief. Some bills were more openly anti-immigrant than others. But finally, in 2013, we had hope with the comprehensive immigration bills, SB 744 and HR 15, which would grant relief to millions of hard-working undocumented immigrants. The American Families United Act, HR 3431 (now with several bipartisan co-sponsors), would help families like mine. Both bills would provide an opportunity for my husband to apply for a waiver immediately rather than continuing to wait.

But the frequent rise and fall of these bids leaves our families hanging on for dear life on this roller coaster ride on which our very futures depend. We hope and pray for legislative relief every day. Now, the long-term failure of Congress to act may finally compel you, Mr. President, to do something of your own accord. You tried for many years to prove you were “tough on immigration,” and you have received criticism for record-high deportation levels.

President Barack Obama Delivering 2013 Inaugural Address Photo: White House/Lawrence Jackson
President Barack Obama Delivering 2013 Inaugural Address Photo: White House/Lawrence Jackson

I knew you were doing this to try and provide the right conditions for Congress to move a comprehensive reform bill forward. But in the end, all that hard bipartisan work to pass a bill has been taken hostage by the radical Right. So I applaud you, Mr. President, for wanting to do something about the immigration impasse. It’s the right thing to do, especially in a nation of immigrants.

But here’s my fear: when that executive action is revealed, the one you have been deliberating for quite some time now, it will leave families like mine—like hundreds of thousands of others—out in the cold. I’m also afraid that after executive action goes into effect, backlash in Congress could make it even harder to pass bills that would provide relief to families like mine. If we can’t get relief from either executive action or these bills, our hard-working American families, who exemplify cherished American family values so much that we’re willing to risk life and liberty for our kin, will be left to languish in limbo, and left out of the opportunity to “get right” with the laws and live under one roof together today, in America, without fear.

I support the multitude of rationales to include millions of de facto Americans who contribute to our society on a daily basis with humane executive action. My family must be included in this reform as well. My spouse should be able to seek citizenship alongside me, as our daughter has, with all the attendant privileges citizenship confers, without the cruel and unusual punishment of a ten-year waiting period abroad with no guaranteed outcome. I should have the autonomy to decide where I will live with my family. As an American citizen, I should not have to choose between my husband and living in the U.S. My great-grandparents did not have to make that choice. Nor should hundreds of thousands of my counterparts have to choose between their family and their country.

President Obama, restore my faith that you kindled in your inaugural address last year, when you said, “Our journey is not complete, until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”  Be as creative as possible and use the full extent of your powers to take the lead in finding a way to include my my family—my husband—hundreds of thousands of our American familiesin that vision, and in any executive action you take on immigration, so we do not have to make the decision between family and country anymore.

Sincerely,

Nicole R. Salgado

California Voting District 18

and the Undersigned

Amber Henderson, Georgia, District 4
Rebecca Amirah Barragan, Texas, District 15
Jane McGroarty Sampaio, Massachusets, District 9
Meggan Macchado, Massachusets, District 9
Charlcie Cubas, Wisconsin, District 7
Krystal Loverin, Oregon, District 2
Linda Cedillos, Virginia, District 4
Shayna Elizabeth Diaz, California, District 4
Emily Bonderer Cruz, Texas, District 16
Rob Woodall, Georgia, District 7
Amy Koenig Da Silva, Massachusets, District 9
Shannon Ledezma, Texas, District 23
Israel Sanchez, California, District 53
Susan A. Davis, California, District 53
Elizabeth Sommo, Texas, District 15
Hannah Hoover, Texas, District 14
Kimberly Griffith, North Carolina, District 15
Angela Hernandez, Minnesota, District 4
Kamie Timms, North Carolina, District 10
Elizabeth Huerta, Texas, District 16
Laurie Hernandez, South Carolina, District 1
Madina Salaty, Kansas, District 2
Sylvia Malagon, North Carolina, District 4
Amelia da Silva, New York, District 23
Lucindia Dawn Torres, Oklahoma, District 1
Amanda Cameron, Colorado, District 1
Valeriano Serradilha, Georgia, District 6
Crystal Costella Mendez, Pennsylvania, District 8
Peggy Soto, Indiana, District 9
Sany Figueiredo, Georgia, District 7
Laura Lopez, Wisconsin, District 8
Maria Ferreira, Pennsylvania, District 13
Edgar Falcon, Texas, District 16
Allyson Batista, Pennsylvania, District 1
Kim Repp, Virginia, District 3
Raquel Warsing, Pennsylvania, District 3
Lana Janelle Heath Martinez, Virginia, District 7
Curt Clawson, Florida, District 19
Dawn Naveja, Illinois, District 5
Pamela Deligiannis Monroy, Virginia, District 7
Shirah Cahill, New York, District 22
Diana Cahill, New York, District 25
Moshe Cahill, New York, District 25
Ilana Stevenson, New York, District 25
Sonia Estrada, Oregon, District 5
Heather Ruark, Georgia, District 5
Joanna Eros, Pennsylvania, District 16
William Ruark, Virginia, District 7
Dana Cawthorn Bautista, Florida, District 19

Amor and exile in the eyes of a fourth-grader

As a follow-up to my post about our visit to ITJ Campus Queretaro to talk about Amor and Exile, I thought I would post a couple of lovely reports from fourth-graders at ITJ from the closing ceremonies of their unit on migration. I had to work this morning but a friend who has a child at ITJ sent me the photos of the reports via Facebook message.

ITJ_kids_writeup_blog_amorandexile2
Report on Amor and Exile from fourth-graders at ITJ Queretaro. c. 2014 by the report authors

It was interesting for me to see how our story is viewed from the eyes of 10 or 11 year olds. It’s cool how they picked up on things that we didn’t even say. And even cooler how they were able to inspire me back with their reflections on our story.

ITJ_kids_writeup_blog_amorandexile
Another report on Amor and Exile from fourth-graders at ITJ Queretaro. c. 2014 by the report authors

Thanks again to the teachers at ITJ Queretaro for including us in your great, reality-based education model. And thanks to the students for your great reviews. Now if only you could export your learnings up north…

**Errata noted since publication: the students are fourth-graders, not third-graders as originally posted. My apologies!

Migration Talk at ITJ Campus, Querétaro

Margo and I visited the Instituto Thomas Jefferson, an American school in Querétaro, on Monday, January 27th. We went to discuss our experiences migrating between the United States and Mexico and the Amor and Exile project. Our talk was part of a bigger cross-curricular unit for the fourth graders at ITJ, headed up by my friend and colleague Heather Ruark.

Some stats on the talk:

  • 104  4th grade students
  • Throughout the migration unit, students are asked the following driving question: What is it like to move to another country?
  • The unit includes the following topics:
    • Geography, specifically Mexicans who move to the States, and human migration in general;
    • Writing – non fiction, biographical essays;
    • Reading – The Circuit, a juvenile autobiography by a former migrant worker in the fields of California.
  • At the end of the unit, students create a final project consisting of a photo essay gallery of Migration Stories to and from Querétaro

Margo and I had given a similar talk to high school students at the PrepaTec de Monterrey (ITESM Campus Queretaro) prior to the publication of Amor and Exile. But I was particularly impressed by these young students’ level of interest and thoughtful reflection on the topic, particularly considering their age—ten and eleven years old. The kids really enjoyed the book trailer, and had dozens of questions for us, ranging from what our favorite foods and colors are, to what the name of the law that prevented Margo from legalizing in the U.S. was—we had a field day spelling out the IIRIRA of 1996. 🙂

Heather commented that it was a really great experience to be able to get into the subject in such depth. By inviting many speakers from different countries who live in Querétaro and by allowing the students to explore both sides of the issue, they enable students to analyze the complex reasons for illegal immigration and the societal impact of migration in both directions. She also mentioned that the unit is well received by parents, even to a extent greater than she imagines it might be received in the United States.

We were glad to have this opportunity to share our story on a personal level with the students at ITJ, and help foster awareness of this complex issues amidst our next generation of global leaders.

ITJ 1 27 2014
Nicole and family after ITJ Talk, January 2014

Amor and Exile Year-In-Review 2013

An Amor and Exile Year-In-Review, 2013 timeline

2013 was a big year for Amor and Exile and for the pro-immigration movement. Brush up on the issues of the past year with this Amor and Exile Year-In-Review for 2013.

January

Obama administration announces stateside waiver processing, creates relief for some families (Take Two, Southern California Public Radio)

February

Action for Family Unity collage of photos of families separated or in exile due to immigration law
Action for Family Unity collage of photos of families separated or in exile due to immigration law

March

April

May

June

  • “Send Amor and Exile to Washington” campaign raises over $12,000 and delivers a copy to every member of Congress, the nine Supreme Court justices, President and First Lady Obama and Vice-President Biden and other D.C. officials
  • A&E featured on the News and Politics section of BlogHer (BlogHer.com)
  • Nicole and Nathaniel launch A&E on the East Coast with the first public readings at AILA D.C. headquarters and Ukazoo Books in Baltimore, MD
  • Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) calls for relief for exiled/separated families with colleague letter supporting Amor and Exile (amorandexile.com)
  • Nathaniel launches A&E in Boise at Hyde Park Books, with Nicole skyping in from Querétaro (facebook.com)
  • SB 744 passed in the Senate (New York Times)
  • A&E discussed in “All About Family” (Baltimore Jewish Times)
  • Nathaniel’s work as Idaho journalist and A&E highlighted (Idaho Press-Tribune)

June collage
Clockwise from bottom L: Constituent letters to Congressional reps; Nicole and Nate meet with Rep. Luis Gutierrez; Nicole and Nate after hand-delivering over 100 copies of A&E; Nicole on Capitol Hill; Nicole at Ukazoo reading in Baltimore; Nicole, cover designer Gilad Foss and Nate in Baltimore; Nate and Margi Hoffman mailing books to D.C. officials; and the audience at the A&E launch at Hyde Park Books in Boise, ID.

July

  • Nicole launches A&E in Mexico with Nathaniel skyping in, starting in Querétaro at the Casa del Atrio (amorandexile.com)
  • A&E and Nicole’s story covered in Boulder, Colorado (Boulder Weekly)
  • Nathaniel hosts reading at the American Friends Service Committee in Denver with a call-in by Nicole

Top: Nicole at La Casa del Atrio reading, Querétaro, México; Nicole and friends of A&E at the Querétaro reading
Top: Nicole at La Casa del Atrio reading, Querétaro, México. Bottom: Nicole and friends of A&E at the Querétaro reading

August

  • Reading in San Miguel de Allende, home of J.W. Lown, profiled in A&E
  • Edgar Falcon marries on the border in highly publicized wedding on the El Paso/Mexico border (Texas Tribune)

August collage
Clockwise from top: San Miguel de Allende reading, Nicole with supporter at SMA reading, U.S. citizen Edgar Falcon marries Mexican citizen Maricruz Valtierra at U.S./Mexico border in August.

September

October

  • HR 15, a comprehensive immigration reform bill largely based on SB 744, is introduced in the House of Representatives (ImmigrationImpact.com)
  • Nathaniel shares A&E at the International Institute of the Bay Area on October 24th
  • A&E and Nicole and Margo’s story featured on PRI The World (PRI The World)
  • Rift surfacing between some immigration reform activist groups (prernalal.com)
  • House Reps Pearce (R-NM) and O’Rourke (D-TX) sponsor the American Families United Act (AFU website)

Amor and Exile in October 2013
Nathaniel signs copies of Amor and Exile at reading at the International Institute of the Bay Area in October.

November

  • Nicole and Margo’s story featured alongside series of profiles of SF Bay Area immigration activists (SF Bay Guardian)
  • Town-hall discussion of A&E and immigration issues at Rediscovered Books in Boise and Baltimore event co-hosted by Chizuk Amuno and Beth-El congregations (amorandexile.com)
  • Illegal Immigration and Marriage,” discussion of A&E with Nathaniel and Nicole on “Midday with Dan Rodricks” (WYPR.org)
  • Pre-Thanksgiving Reading of A&E in (Nicole’s hometown of Syracuse, NY (Post-Standard | Syracuse.com)

Amor and Exile in November 2013
Clockwise from upper L: Nate on the air with Nicole on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show; Nicole skyping in from Mexico with Deyanira and Ben at Rediscovered Books reading; the audience at the RD Books reading in Boise; the audience at the reading at the Jefferson Clinton Hotel in Syracuse, NY; Nicole and her grandmother, Thelma Kinney, at the Syracuse reading, the day before Thanksgiving.

December

  • Immigration reform officially “dead” for 2013 (Hispanic News Network)
  • Fight for comprehensive immigration reform shaping up for 2014 (Grand Island Independent)
  • A&E available on Kindle in the Amazon Prime Lending Library
  • A&E has sold over 1,000 copies and hosted 14 public readings in the U.S. and Mexico in its first six months.
  • Giveaway days planned in January to coincide with the start of the Congressional session, to help elevate the debate on immigration reform—stay tuned!

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.

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