Defending our right to be a (mixed status) family

“How did you and your husband meet?” The question could have sprung from party small talk. But this is no party. The immigration officer poses her red pen above her notepad and looks steadily across her desk at me.

I glance out the window of the cramped, second-floor office of the Portland US Immigration Services Department. Down below, pedestrians walk along the sidewalks small and silent as dolls.

I swallow to clear my throat, “We met on a soccer field. I saw some Latinos playing pick-up soccer in the park by my house. I got my cleats, and walked over to them slowly, a little nervous. To my surprise, they let me play. I felt a jolt of attraction when I met Luis, but dismissed the idea because he was obviously older. We became friends over the next six months.”

The immigration officer nods and jots down notes. My muscles quicken with the memory of playing soccer during those first six months. Sweating and jostling for the soccer ball was our first dialogue, and how we connected as people of different religions, cultures, and native languages.

The officer continues to probe me about how our relationship continued, and how we sustained it while physically separated during my graduate studies in Boston. Our lawyer sits beside me with his fingers casually interlaced in his lap. Only the jiggling of his foot signals his acute attention to our conversation.

Finally, the officer asks. “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?” To win my husband’s immigration case and progress towards his legal resident alien status, we have to demonstrate two important points. One, our marriage is valid. Two, Luis’ deportation to Chile would cause extreme hardship to two U.S. citizens, our one-year old son, Matias, and me.

I cross and uncross my legs and the familiar drape of my merino wool slacks, which I have donned for so many graduate school events, steadies me. I begin to cover the points of our case, my hands rising in gestures remembered from so many rehearsals in front of our bathroom mirror.

“If we move to Chile, I would be separated from my family. It would also be difficult to pursue my professional degree, and re-paying my student loans against the exchange rate would be impossible,” I say, my voice reverberating inside my head. I swallow. Unlike a presentation for graduate school, my answer is my final chance to defend my family’s ability to live together in this country. My face flushes and my heart pounds. Despite all my efforts, my husband is going to be deported, and I am going to be left alone to raise our son, just as my mother raised my brother and I.

For most of my life I have muscled against the idea of having a family. While my peers picked out baby names and flirted with the certainty of marriage, baby and a house, I studied and focused on my long term goal of a college education.

Now, I have a toddler learning to walk, and a husband who is undocumented. We live in a studio apartment so we can afford to pay our lawyer. We hold our breath when my husband has to drive to work with an expired license, unable to renew it without a social security number, thanks to recent changes in the law. We fall asleep listening for a sharp knock at the door.

I take a shuddering breath. I think of our son. He is with my mother, likely wrapped in a thick blanket against the chill and watching the construction through the window of our apartment. He will be pressed up against the glass, mesmerized by the movements of the loud, orange equipment as they scoop out mud and heap it to the side. He will watch these backhoes dig out dirt and he will wait for his papa and mama to come home. He will expect us to come home because everything he has learned from his first 12 months of life is that his papa and mama come home.

I lean forward and roll my hands palms up. My voice breaks as I explain what she already knows from her file review. “If we were to be separated, I would be in the same situation that I grew up in, which I have worked so hard to escape. Building a family with my husband is the hardest, most important work I do every day.” I am talking fast now, words catching in my mouth, “All I want, all we want, is to be able to continue this work.”

Her face softens, and she puts down her pen. She takes her glasses off and leans back. “You should be proud of what you have accomplished, despite your life experiences. Now, we will need to consider the other aspects of your case, but I believe your relationship is legitimate. You can expect a final decision likely within the next nine months.”

I look down at my hands in my lap. Raw-knuckled from the memory of cutting thistles and cleaning houses at a young age. Calloused at the index finger from gripping my pen to take notes during graduate school. Words lost, I look up and smile weakly at her, twisting my fingers in my lap.

I walk back out to the waiting room with trembling legs, and it is Luis’ turn to be interviewed. I watch him rise and move towards the secured door with his hands carefully open at his sides. He strides across the gleaming floor with the same athletic grace with which he played soccer in Chile as a professional futbolista. We pass each other and our eyes briefly lock.

The March sun shines blindingly across the marble floor and the rows of hushed immigrants and their families all bowing their heads. I sit down in this graveyard of waiting, and I close my eyes against the sun.

I struggle to sit upright. I want the worries of a normal married couple. I want to talk about the future, about building our house, or the possibility of a second child without the desperate qualifier of, “Si sale todo bien”– if the immigration case goes well. I want my husband to have the simple dignity of being able to open a bank account or renew his driver’s license.

Hours or minutes pass as I grip the armrests and try to keep from sliding to the floor. Luis finally emerges from the secured doors with our lawyer. He is dressed in the blue button-down shirt and charcoal gray slacks he wore first for our wedding.

Our lawyer is smiling as he nears us, “It could not have gone better,” he tells us, relief loud in his voice. Luis’ eyes relax for the first time that day. We stand close and our conversation is a relieved jumble of thoughts. Luis and I smile at each other like awkward pre-teenagers at a school dance. Our hands bump lightly.

* * *

Days later and still dazed, I slowly wipe down our table after dinner. Luis and I sanded and refinished this table to a tawny glow during our first summer as a couple. He is sprawled on our beige carpet to show Matias how to build a tower of blocks. Sunlight washes across my husband’s moreno skin and my son’s rosy, golden complexion.

Luis stacks one, two, and then five blocks. He places his hand over Matias’ fat, dimpled one and helps him lift a block, talking rhythmically as he shows how to center them gently so they will not tumble. He then hands a block to Matias and nods his head in encouragement, his brown eyes shining with attention. Matias places the sixth block by himself and withdraws his hand carefully. The tour wavers briefly and holds.

Eso es! There you go,” Luis exclaims, and he raises his head to find me. We smile at each other over our son’s glee. I look down at my hands holding the washcloth.

While my mind has fretted over the uncertainty in our lives, my hands have carried on with quiet confidence. Daily, my hands run down my husband’s back as we pass each other in our small kitchen. Daily, my hands stroke Matias’ warm forehead as he curls between Luis and I in almost-slumber, his small hand tight around Luis’ work-roughened finger. My hands, our hands, communicate in an intimate Morse code of touch. We create a language for three people who share their lives today, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

My hands already know what I first saw in the immigration officer’s eyes as she put down her pen. We are three people choosing to join our lives against all odds. We are three people growing together with each touch, shared grief, and shared grin. We are stumbling along in the same daily grace of every other family.