Returning to Appalachia

In Southern Appalachia many of the families make a living gathering galax, a prized possession in many floral bouquets, and similar to sorting out leaves in a forest they are left struggling to understand immigration law on their own. In the 17 counties that lie within the north western mountains of North Carolina there is a total of one free immigration lawyer. One.

Because of the complete desert of services in these fertile hills, unlike every other locality we have visited, not a single person had previously had legal counsel. This is despite the fact that many parents have been here for more than two decades. One woman, whose father is a U.S. citizen, has had a case pending since 1998. It is hard to explain that immigration is processing cases like hers from 1995 and, because her father checked the wrong box so many years ago, she’ll need to add another ten years on top of that. Another couple has a son, born here in the hills, who is almost 21 years old and thus eligible to apply for his parents to receive citizenship. They are resigned when I tell them that because they crossed the border unlawfully in 1994 they would have to first return to Mexico before they could become green card holders. Because they continued to stay in the U.S. without status for more than 18 months they have now accrued a ten year bar so, when they do leave, they must be separated for another decade before they can have a more permanent constellation of a family.

Even the simplest immigration cases are unbelievably complicated.

Our van in the mountains

When I began this journey it was my initial belief that we would see ALL of the United States. To be fair, I knew Hawaii and Alaska were out and I couldn’t quite figure out how we’d meet immigrants in North Dakota (though I know they are there), but the silly motto “Fifty Families, fifty states, a nation of immigrants” rang through my head like the marketing campaigns of social causes in the past. We are told our work has to be catchy, to cause excitement, to have a tagline everyone will remember, when the real work is often with one pair of hands, one living room, one answer to a thousand questions. Last night we held a four hour long conversation with a dozen white community members, processing how to make change in what is largely a conservative county. Teachers brainstormed how to get Martina into their classrooms, to talk to their students who largely speak Spanish at home.

How can we not come back?

I must admit that there is a selfish motive at play here as well. This work is tiring. And exhausting. And hard. My energy spikes up when giving a presentation or sitting with a group of allies in a living room like a sugar attack and I’m all bouncy on the tip of my toes and feeling like I could take over the world. And then the sun sets and my energy runs out and I can’t find a parking space or have too many emails and I’m a deflated balloon only worse because what’s left after the oxygen leaves the room is anxiety and anger and fear and stress.

Before the road trip, before the election, I had decided to leave behind New York City and move to the country. I crave deep silence and silence walks in the woods and a community whose gatherings don’t need doodle polls and subway rides. Even when imagining this trip I had envisioned nights spent under

We’ve simply been to busy to be silent for more than a day.

Yet here in Southern Appalachia, it appears we may be able to do both. To spend the weekend in silence, in walking meditation, writing on an old wooden desk while looking out at the tip tops of the mountains beyond the trees. To drive down dirt roads to rural libraries and speak at Catholic church basements halfway up a mountain. And while I hesitate to “go back” to a place on a trip that was conceived on expansive exploration, that there are so many people that need help in these mountains, mainly myself.