A brown immigrant in America: The last 5 days
None of us are any longer the Americans we once thought we were
When Donald Trump signed the first batch of Executive Orders regarding immigration on Wednesday, I felt scared and called my mom.
My mom once told me, despite (or maybe because of) all its promise and opportunity, the idea of America has always impelled a certain level of anxiety and fear. Dislocation and loneliness will do that to you. But that didn’t stop her from running towards it.
We arrived in Los Angeles on the eve of Christmas Eve 1995. I remember the city more than the airport. It seemed so easy, gliding from the terminal through customs straight to the golden doors — even with a Jordanian passport, even with Mohammed as a middle name. Back then, coming to America had been so simple that embracing my mother’s uncle in a new language in a new land seemed perfectly normal. The drive to Union City in his little white pickup truck so uncomplicated that it was practically forgettable.
We were lucky.
In 2002, we applied for our permanent residency — to be citizens-in-waiting. We were denied. Applied again, but we were denied. We were denied. We were denied. A technicality: my father had started working before his last visa approval — never-mind that he was employed by a regional branch of the EPA. The truth: we applied as Arab nationals in the months after September 11. Tens of thousands of dollars later, we were placed in deportation hearings. We faced a federal judge. Despite our incompetent lawyer’s best efforts to mess it up, our case was administratively closed; we had been deemed not a priority by the state.
We were lucky.
When you apply for a green card, you have to give up your previous status and claims to past citizenship. You literally become a person with no country. No one really talks about this arcane requirement and the burden it places on individuals and families, often assuming that the process shouldn’t take that long. In 15 years though, I haven’t been able to travel abroad for fear of being denied re-entry. I’ve missed grandparents’ funerals and cousins’ weddings, business trips and trips home.
Friday’s Executive Orders made this requirement a reality for nearly half a million permanent residents and stoked anger among immigrants and non-immigrants alike. Within hours, protests sprang up at airports across the country.
I cannot imagine the heartbreak of the Somali national who left Vienna on eager to get home to his wife but was turned away upon landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport because a small man with small hands signed a big document while in flight. I cannot imagine that that night’s protests brought him and his wife any consolation.
The marching, the yelling, the confrontation felt like a kind of action. Today’s announcement by Washington State Attorney General and Governor to file suit against the Trump administration feels like hope. But I get to hold my American children today and tell them I love them.
Since Wednesday, I’ve wrestled with despair, anxiety, frustration. I’ve considered everything from hiding in a bunker to having ICE detain my ass as publicly as possible — an act that would likely amount to a pointless martyrdom that puts my own family at risk. This is what these Executive Orders have done. They’ve induced a kind of paranoia. I’ve considered completely irrational exercises of political will that put me and my family in harm’s way. That frustration is a reaction to the limitations placed on a highly restricted immigrant community with already limited political recourse.
There is no short term political gain in helping us. There are no votes in simplifying the layers of complex immigration policy. When politicians campaign on it, it’s a signal to their constituents. At it’s best, it’s a promise and a fidelity to the notion that America is a place we can all come together. It is a devotion to a unique kind of hospitality — that by virtue of the newcomer’s contribution, we are all made richer, fuller, more American.
For my mother, for my community, it has never really mattered how American we might feel. The notion (perceived or not) prevails that we cannot turn that feeling or identity into action. After all, when it’s election season and time comes for everyone to raise their hands, we don’t get to. Instead, we watch as you decide our fates.
Last week, the President of the United States declared there’s no place for Brown Immigrants in America. That our bodies cannot find refuge in an American identity. That we are invalid, not welcome, a menace to be protected from. The President of the United States re-affirmed in hard copy what in my lifetime had only been implied and what has represented the worst moments of our history: that Americanness and patriotism are the providence of the few.
Today, being in my own body feels like more of a risk than it ever has before. I’m jumpier around law enforcement. A protest at the airport gave me pause. I don’t jay-walk. I’m acting out of fear. I hate that I’m acting out of fear. But the name on my license feels like a gamble and the house keep stacking the deck.
Apologists have claimed that the Executive Actions are all rhetoric and posturing. Ignoring the fact that people were impugned and that civil liberties were infringed, when did rhetoric and symbolism stop mattering? Barack Obama and Trump himself were elected on symbolism and rhetoric. Communities that don’t have the political currency or will in the first place can live and die by words and symbols.
As long as we’re acknowledging rhetoric, we have to explicitly acknowledge what many of us implicitly know — that our immigration conversation is a race conversation too. It intersects with our already racially coded language around national security and patriotism. What does it mean and who gets to to be American? have long been the questions that drive the perfecting of our union. This intersection we now find ourselves in places Brown Immigrants in the cross hairs.
From the injustices against the people of first nation to the 3/5 compromise to every wave of immigration ever, the American experiment has been one of making our people whole. We have utterly failed at this this week.
Even if you are not an immigrant or a child of one or married to one or work with one, you’re in this boat now too. Whether you fully grasp it, your identity is at stake. Who you fundamentally are is in question, and who you could be has already forever been altered. Our identities are intertwined in this. Your exceptionalism. Your beacon of hope. From the grand idea to the cliche. The very triteness of the American melting pot. The “give me your poor, tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This is all at stake. You get to decide.
Starting today, we are either the people that rejected this cruel idea or tacitly endorsed it through silence.
My immigration to the US is, in many ways, an unremarkable story. But only recently have I learned how vital it is. When forces threaten to erase your very existence, telling, re-telling, and documenting how you came to be can itself be an of political courage.
Don’t get me wrong, it shouldn’t be. Yet here we are.
To my fellow Brown Immigrants and children of Brown Immigrants: keep putting on a good face or just put on because survival necessitates it. But know that I see you. I know you’re scared. You’re not crazy. I’m scared too. Your fear and anxiety is valid. You are a person. It was an American poet, Walt Whitman, who wrote we are large and contain multitudes. We are brown and mighty. Immigrant and American. Here and worthy.
Whitman was writing about the greater American body as much as yours and mine. Know that you are as American as apple pie and baseball, as Jim Crowe and redlining, as Michelle Obama and Donald Trump. Your body, in this moment and this place, is inalienable. No one can take that from you.
That anyone has to to even write these words — much less make it a mantra so as to not forget — is a tragic injustice.
In the face of that, now is the time for leadership and service and action. more than that, it is the time for compassion, caring, open arms. Its the time for ands not ors or buts. Now, as we ever have before, we need more of our best to light the way forward. Because it’s vital to our social contract — more importantly, because you are human and deserving no matter what anyone says, without a hint of cynicism I mean this: I don’t know you and I love you.