“Strep throat!” I screamed into the phone. “Ask the doctor if it’s strep throat!”
Clicking the phone off, I felt a familiar surge of anger and resentment. A native-born American, I’ve learned about the U.S. immigration system first-hand after marrying a former professional soccer player from the Muslim coast of Kenya. This week, my twelve-year-old stepsons, Jamil and Jamal, came down with a mysterious illness — mysterious, at least, to my husband, who is unfazed by malaria but like the rest of us, freaked out by the unfamiliar. On the Swahili coast, people tend to identify illness in poetic terms and the private clinic’s doctor had described the twins’ malady as “a virus in the blood.” With a strike in Kenya shuttering the only hospital within 150 miles, my husband sounded terrified.
I won’t feel safe until they’re here, I thought. But the boys’ visas were inexplicably delayed*, and I feared they might be stuck in Kenya indefinitely. Kenya is not included in the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” an executive order barring refugees from seven predominately Muslim countries, but the U.S. Department of State was more sclerotic than usual, as bureaucrats waited for some kind of clarity — clarity they were unlikely to get as long as Donald Trump is in office.
This week, many of us reached the “bargaining stage” in the Kübler-Ross continuum. Was there something — anything — we could have done to prevent Trump and his Republican cheering section from dismantling 250 years of civil society?
In a Vanity Fair interview, Van Jones attributed Trump’s election to mass incarceration of African-American males, potential Democrats unable to vote because they’re convicted felons. On Medium, Dale Beran wrote an interesting piece about 4chan, the online community of disaffected male misfits that he believes set the stage for Trump’s victory.
Both ideas have merit, but the rise of right-wing authoritarianism is a global trend, not confined to U.S. voting demographics or guys living in their mother’s basements. My theory? Our failure to deal with immigration is both symptom and cause, as the United States faces its gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War. Immigrants are scapegoated for the rapid changes wrought by technology and globalization, none of which can be kept out by a border fence.
I’ve seen the problem as well as the solution play out in New York’s Hudson Valley, where I live surrounded by hipster refugees from Brooklyn and Trump supporters. (I wonder sometimes which group poses a graver threat to America.) As the reality of a Trump presidency settled in, I looked at my neighbors differently. I’m Jewish and I had never felt unsafe in America before; suddenly, I felt a chill, imagining what Rwandans felt as radios blared messages of hate. I found myself reacting viscerally: Neo-Nazi sympathizer? Sorry, you’re not my friend. Decent human being? We’ll agree to disagree.
The most decent of all Trump voters is my next-door-neighbor Pauline. In her 70s, with salt-and-pepper hair and an elfin grin, she’s never lived anywhere but our village. Part of why I like her is what we have in common: Pauline’s family has been decimated by alcoholism and early death, and so has mine. Pauline no longer drinks but she keeps a glass ashtray perched on her car’s console, a token of her determination to keep puffing away despite heart problems and a racking cough that sounds like emphysema. Pauline’s grown sons pop over to shovel snow and fix her roof. Blue-collar guys, they share their mother’s gift for the pointed wisecrack.
Here’s the lesson Pauline taught me: she was a one-woman welcome wagon for my Kenyan husband. I used to drive up to find them bumming cigarettes from each other like teenagers, chatting away on their respective sides of the fence. After she explained about fall leaves, going so far as to give him one of the leaf bags sold by the local hardware store, he spent the next few weekends energetically raking, bagging, and stacking the leaf bags at curbside. As the village’s token eco-feminazi, I would have happily let them rot, but when I mentioned the possibility, he simply shook his head, and I realized that he and Pauline understood village life better than I did.
“I don’t have nothing against blacks,” she rasped when I mentioned the subject of race. “Never did. They’re just like anybody else!”
After the election, the conversation got dicier. “You voted for him?” I asked. I could hear the wounded, accusatory tone in my voice. So could Pauline.
“It’s the damn Mexicans,” she explained, shaking her head as if to say, I’m not really crazy about the guy, either. “They’re taking our jobs.”
It’s true that there are a lot of Mexicans in upstate New York, not just earning low wages as farmworkers, but doing construction and yard work. Sometimes the whole family pitches in on a job, getting it done faster and cheaper. Locals still make good money doing odd jobs but now they have competition. Pauline is concerned for her family’s future but it’s worth mentioning that her wisecracking sons are doing just fine, because they’re union members. Go figure.
Immigrants have always been scapegoats for economic downturns. America’s immigration system is a Byzantine compromise between sentimental tales of Ellis Island grandparents and Natty Bumpo nativism, with a healthy dose of special interest politics. The result is one of the developed world’s most outdated immigration systems. The political stalemate on immigration has only done harm, making it difficult for the country to properly assimilate the millions of people who arrive here, legally or illegally, through marriage, mainframes, or modeling. (Or because their father, for some crazy reason, fell in love with a mouthy female journalist from New York.)
The remedies are well-known to academics and policy wonks: prioritizing immigration status for people with skills that help the U.S. economy (no, this does not include “modeling” or “blow jobs”), setting up programs to help immigrants assimilate, and, most importantly, making it easier for immigrants to become citizens. These are not radical solutions. They are simply doing on a societal level what Pauline did with my husband by making him feel welcome and explaining how we do things. His newfound enthusiasm for raking tells you all you need to know about what happens when immigration is done right. (Not to say that he hops to when his wife asks him to fix the sink. Marriage is pretty much the same for everyone, I’ve discovered.)
Funding assimilation programs and making it easier to obtain citizenship are political non-starters, at least until sanity is restored. But once we have real leadership again, encouraging immigrants to become citizens will be crucial to reweaving our national identity. Citizenship confers responsibilities as well as rights, whether raking leaves or voting. If there is an upside to having tens of millions of non-citizens, whether undocumented folks or green card holders, I don’t see it. Wouldn’t it be better to have more people with a stake in America’s well-being?
For the record, the U.S. already has rigorous vetting for immigrants. I can tell you from experience, having married a non-religious guy named “Said” that a Muslim name alone triggers a security check that in the words of one consular official, can last for “a week or a year.” Or, theoretically, forever, since there is no deadline for officials to complete what is euphemistically called “administrative processing.”
In fact, the lives of my stepsons Jamil and Jamal, and in the near future, the pressing question of where they will attend seventh grade, are in the hands of Trump’s immigration officials. Need I mention that these boys aren’t exactly a threat to the American way of life? Their passions run not to politics, but to Spongebob Squarepants and Zootopia. I’ve given them books on George Washington, evolution, and astronomy, and I recently explained Hegelian synthesis, triggering a barrage of questions that made me wish I hadn’t been quite so encouraging about Western Enlightenment thinking and, er, questioning authority.
None of that matters to the immigration authorities. The boys’ common Muslim names will trigger a background check — and we haven’t even reached that stage yet. It may take years. Every day of my life, I mourn the fact that I can’t take the kids to Disneyland, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that I can’t get them into the kind of school I attended, despite their high test scores.
Africans are so good at waiting, they forget what they’re waiting for, a foreign correspondent told me once. It’s not just Africans, but Americans, too. After nearly a decade of having the rhythm of our lives determined by the exigencies of U.S. immigration policy, I’ve learned to live with uncertainty. I just remind myself of the first step in the immigration 12-step program: Admit that I’m powerless over U.S. immigration policy. I’m an American citizen, but the Nairobi consulate can decide whether my stepkids get to live with me — and they have absolute power to deny our application, without giving us any reason.
So I admit that I’m powerless — and my American citizenship gives me no rights, because I married a foreigner. So I have become a little bit African. I am learning how to wait.
When my husband or the boys get sick, I don’t panic anymore, or I should say I’ve learned to contain my panic. Since yesterday, for example, I’ve been waiting for my husband to tell me if the boys have strep throat rather than a more frightening disease like dengue or cholera. The fear was a constant hum through my day, but I kept it at bay, and when I woke up during the night, I was able to get back to sleep.
Finally, late this morning, the phone rang.
“It’s that thing. The one you said,” my husband informs me.
“Jamal is better. He wanted to go to school today. But Jamil had a headache. He couldn’t move. I took him to the doctor again.”
“You need to give him the ibuprofen. I know you don’t like painkillers, but it helps with the inflammation. His throat’s swollen. It’ll help bring down the swelling.”
“I know, I know. I gave it to him.”
“It’s very common, strep throat.”
“I know. Don’t worry.”
“OK,” I say. “I won’t.”
*A few months later, the Nairobi consulate turned down our visa applications. We are appealing the decision.