The Politics of Fear

Living in America While Immigrant and Brown

Protesters and immigrants’ rights advocates rally in opposition to President Donald Trump’s immigration order as it sowed more chaos and outrage across the country Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, at Battery Park in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

On November 9, 2016, I woke up heavy with dread. Just a day before, I posted on social media a lighthearted message about being unable to vote but trusting that Americans would uphold the rights of Black and Brown people, LGBTQ folks, and immigrants — undocumented or otherwise — so we could continue to live and thrive in the United States. Where I am now is waking up in the middle of the night from the reoccurring nightmare of my running away from monsters and daily headache from clenching my teeth at night. My stress manifests itself quite literally.

As a woman of color and an unnaturalized immigrant, I compartmentalize my fear into two buckets: fear living under an oppressive government before coming to the United States and fear living under an oppressive government in the United States. Moving to New York in 2002 from Vietnam, I grew up understanding the need to watch what you say in private and in public because you could never be sure who was listening. I saw the emotional and physical traumas in a country thick with the aftermath of decade-long wars where children are still playing on top of leftover unexploded ordnance. My family history splits between those who left and those who stayed behind, of failed refugee attempts, of why my great grandfather committed suicide. This is the fear I know.

The fear that I am trying to understand is the anxiety that intensified under this administration. As I write this, I fear that my words will be used against me at airports’ U.S. Customs and Border Protection, during my immigration interviews, and possible police interactions. My course of action oscillates between wiping my identity completely from the Internet and fighting back because fear is debilitating.

In my fifteen years of living in New York, I have been called different racial and gender slurs, and as a person of color, your skin hardens over time to them. However, the weeks after the election demonstrated another level of verbal and physical attacks that I did not expect. Or at least, I did not think the attacks could happen to me since I was living in a metropolitan bubble. At the end of November, my mother reached out to make sure that I was okay. At the end of our conversation, she commented, “Even though he is President, the police will still protect us, right?”

Recently, I developed a habit of checking my wallet for identification and mentally making a list of phone numbers that I can reach out to in case something bad happens to me. As I leave the house, I run through every scenario in my head: Where is the nearest exit? Who on the street could possibly attack me? Is my mom safe on the subway? Will my stepdad be able to defend himself when he drives across state lines? Will my friends be okay? Will anyone stand up for us?

After a series of campaign promises being turned into Executive Orders, I’m frightful of traveling to another state, let alone to another country to visit my family. I’m uneasy in crowded public spaces. I dread looking at Facebook to see another unsubstantiated or confirmed report of ICE raid across the U.S. I think thrice now before texting or posting anything online. More often than not, I feel guilty for letting political fear gets to me.

Yet from where I stand, I am luckier than most. I am a femme-presenting bisexual woman who is now married to a man, which on the surface precludes me at the moment from discriminations against the LGBTQ community. I have a full-time job and an artist profile that put me in somewhat of a financially secure position. If things were to get so bad, I still can buy my ticket out and survive for a month or so before having to find another job. And lastly, I am neither a Black woman nor a Muslim woman nor a Latina woman nor a trans person nor a disabled woman; my privilege rests on the harmful stereotype of the model minority myth and a culture that was created for able-bodied people.

My reason for writing this now is to verbalize my fears and put some kind of logic behind them so I can move beyond the political intimidation that Corey Robin wonderfully called “the specter hanging over my head.” I hope that for people who are waiting in limbo for a change in immigration status, you find comfort in my experience and know that you are not alone. I hope that, too, through time and soon, we all find the courage to stand up to what we fear most even if it means that some of our privileges might be taken away.

If I can ask one thing from those of us with documentation: if it is safe for us to speak up and stand along side our community without documentation, we need to do so regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, economic, and incarceration status. Full stop. To paraphrase the words of Carol Zou, immigrants do not need to prove to anyone that they deserve to live and exist.

The thing that I begin to understand about fear is, when you push a group of people far enough into a corner, beware that their survival instincts will kick in and watch out for the revolution.