I’m an immigrant

I know, right? But I’m one of the lucky ones.

The most anxious few hours of my life took place on May 1, 2010, in an immigration area at JFK Airport.

After two years of forms, interviews and medical exams, not to mention thousands of dollars, I was entering the US on a K-1 immigrant visa. I was tired, jet lagged, alone. I couldn’t contact anyone — those “no mobile devices” signs are strictly enforced — and I had really no idea what to expect next.

You see, no matter how much preparation I had done, how many forms I’d filled out, how many copies of documents I had with me, the actual decision to allow me to enter the US rested on the one Homeland Security agent on duty. Did I have the correct sealed envelope that the US Embassy in London has sent me? What was in that envelope? Would I be able to answer all of the agent’s questions?

I was lucky. I’m white, middle-class, “christian”, British. English is my first language. I was immigrating for love, for an American fiancée. I was being sponsored. I didn’t have any dependents. And, crucially, I wasn’t in fear for my life.

I can’t imagine going through that process under different circumstances. The thought of doing it in a different language, or with different skin, or with a family waiting for me on either side, is terrifying.

I am still only a Permanent Resident of the US, not a citizen. My right to remain can be taken away at any time. I’ve never given that much thought — it seemed a technicality, the small print on the Green Card. But for the first time in the seven years I’ve lived here, I’m worried. Not so much for me, but for those in a similar situation but without the safety net accorded to me by my place of birth.

Today we are hearing stories of legal Permanent Residents barred from returning to their family in the US because they happened to travel elsewhere while Muslim. We are hearing stories of people who risked their lives for the United States being denied entry.

I used to joke sometimes that I was the only person I knew who had to have their marriage approved by the government. I would get frustrated returning from trips abroad that Green-Card holders were always in the longest lines, despite having already been through the toughest verification process. To use a cliché, those were First World Problems.

To imply that getting an immigrant visa is trivial is to be willfully ignorant and naïve. To imply that refugees and immigrants are only interested in taking advantage of America’s generosity is xenophobic and isolationist. To imply that America does not have a duty as a world power to help those in need — at home or abroad — is downright wrong.

Today I have made donations to the ACLU and to CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I urge you to do the same. Now is the time that tolerance and understanding, friendship and compassion, generosity and neighborliness are more important than ever before. Now is the time that American values are being tested. Now is the time to make a difference.

Correction: an earlier version of this post suggested that donations to the ACLU are tax-deductible. They are not.

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