“Where are you from?” Freedom and the Immigrant Experience
I’m back in Los Angeles after spending the last few months in Taiwan.
On my way back to the States, I was detained in San Francisco for traveling on an expired green card.
Let me explain.
In 2015, I arrived in the U.S. on a spousal visa. I was issued a conditional green card, valid for two years, where I had a 90 day window before expiration to "lift the conditions" on my card by submitting another application. Which I did, promptly, on the first day I was eligible. I'd had first hand knowledge of how slow and incompetent the U.S. immigration system could be, and I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
Unfortunately, my application happened to coincide with a certain election and mass confusion around a certain travel ban. So here I am, thirteen months later, and last I checked, the immigration office in Los Angeles hadn’t even gotten around to my case. They were still processing applications submitted in the panic of 2016.
Before I left for Taiwan a few months ago, I called the immigration office and asked for some advice. The lady at the call center told me I could get a passport stamp at the border that would allow me to travel on my green card for another year. This turned out to be the wrong information. I don’t know why she told me this, but I guess considering my previous experiences with immigration, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
So that’s how I ended up being detained coming back into the country. I was ushered into a backroom and was questioned for 45 minutes while they verified my details.
The border patrol officer who interviewed me turned out to be a real grunt. This isn’t a comment on his appearance, but his general attitude and the way he treated people. He talked slowly, in that condescending tone some people like to use on minorities with foreign-sounding names. He used that tone long after it’d become clear that the people he was talking to (at) spoke perfect English. That’s the problem with grunts: working in grunt-like conditions does a number on their personalities. Even after I’d been cleared by the system, I had to sit there and wait for him to send me off with a lecture - like I was his son.
If I could boil down his Catch-22 argument:
Just because you followed the rules, doesn’t give you the right to disobey the law.
“Didn’t you know that traveling on an expired green card was against the law? No, I don’t want to hear excuses. It’s the law. We wouldn’t be a country without laws. You should’ve stayed put (in LA). But you’re lucky, because I’m letting you off this time.”
He was letting me off.
I recount this story to explain something that an immigrant or minority understands intuitively upon setting foot in this country:
It’s possible to go through your entire life obeying all the rules, until that moment arrives when it doesn’t matter anymore.
My Seventeen Month Nightmare:
The Immigration Process That Almost Cost Me My Marriage
I wish I were the type of person who could just let things go. I really do. My tendency to hold grudges is not an admirable or attractive quality. I often make it a point to remember when someone (deliberately) gets in my way. You know, for down the road. Because whether they know it or not, I'll owe them one.
Anyway, this is a part of my personality I’m trying to fix.
What I’ve learned since arriving in North America is that I can’t let my guard down here. At least, not in the same way that I could in Taipei. America, to me, is just another opportunity, and I have to accept all the positives and negatives that come with it.
But it’s hard to forget how I was made to pay for it. January 2014 to June 2015 - seventeen months trapped in immigration limbo. Seventeen months of my life. My time. Stuck between a job I hated in Canada and an immigration process with no end in sight. At one point, they lost our paperwork, but forgot to mention this little detail until we reached out to them nearly 14 months into the process.
For a non-trivial percentage of my life, America forced me to choose between my marriage and my mental health, and I resented having to make that choice. In my eyes, the system had held me hostage, then turned around and expected me to feel grateful for it. It damaged the relationship I had with Jennie to the point where it almost cost us our marriage.
At the same time, I recognize my privilege. I know there are people today who have it much worse. I think about the men, women and children still waiting in Syrian refugee camps and it makes me sick. Because I understand it’s not just about the deplorable conditions in which they live and the indifference or hostility they’re met with. It’s the waiting that kills you. Waiting without limit or hope. It’s a fate that’s worse than death, because at least death has certainty. Death has an end date.
Waiting is what eats you up from the inside.
When it was all over, Jennie met me at the arrivals terminal at Boston Logan Airport on June 1st, 2015. One of the first things she asked me was, “aren’t you happy that we’re finally together?”
Happy. Happy? I didn’t say anything because her question had pissed me off, and I knew an argument was brewing.
And argue we did, over and over again in the ensuing months, about the same issue. After all, didn’t we both have to wait for our lives to begin? Why was it that she could learn to let things go, while I had to make such a big deal out of it? Looking back, she was probably right. My wife is usually the more sensible one. Sure, things had been bad, but maybe I was being too dramatic. But I could only go by what I felt during those seventeen months, and that feeling, overwhelmingly, was anger.
“I love you,” I said at the arrivals terminal. “But I’m still trying to decide whether this has been worth it.”
Race and Freedom in America:
“The World is Going One Way, People Another”
Let me be brutally honest: whether or not America is made great again is of no consequence to me. Greatness, after all, is relative. America was “great” in the 1950s because most parts of the world were only a few years removed from being smoldering piles of rubble.
The world is different now. Better get used to it.
Of course, I’m rooting for this country. I’ve grown fond of the people I’ve met here. They have an optimism that I envy and they’re not handicapped by their failures. They have this idea that they can still make their own way in the world. These are ideas that I admire and still believe in.
But I’ve also seen their treatment of immigrants and minorities when the chips were down. What’s happening today with the Dreamers. Muslims. The Black American experience. I’ve walked through the Japanese internment camps at Manzanar. These are things that transcend both politics and administrations. And as bad as things are today, we’re currently nine years into an economic recovery. The U.S. unemployment rate is at 4%.
I wonder who the scapegoats will be in the next recession?
My Definition Of Freedom Is Choice
I’m not from here.
If America is one giant melting pot, I’ve got no desire or intention of melting into anything. I can only look at things as they are, unglazed by patriotism, tradition, or social mores. No subject or speech is taboo or sacred to me. These things are my business simply because I see them as my business. And if I’m interested, I’ll stay. If not, I’ll leave. But one thing’s for certain: from here on out, I’ll be coming and going as I please.
I refuse to be someone's collateral damage. Why should minorities have to continually pay for other people’s ignorance or indifference? When do we get to pay them back? In that sense, I was American before ever setting foot in this country. There will be no taxation without representation.
So give me liberty, or give me death.