So, if you aren’t living under a rock in the United States, you have probably heard headlines about immigrants recently. They’re being detained. A wall. Kids separated from parents. Criminals. Gang members. Whatever. It’s all over the news.
Today, I want to put a human face on just one immigration story.
Now, I realize that, like all of my experiences, I get to come at my story from a perspective of white privilege. I have always “looked” American. My native language is English, so, aside from learning new lingo and saying (and spelling) words funny, I did not have the same barriers to society that so many others do.
I came to the United States, to a town outside of Atlanta, GA, when I was 7. I was old enough to know that the changes were huge, and to notice them, but not old enough to have figured out that America wasn’t a borough in New York City. (Geography is still not my strong point, although I will study it with my seventh grader as we homeschool this year.)
I remember sitting in immigration offices. I remember the very specific photos we needed for our resident alien cards (something like 64% of your ear had to be showing, along with both eyes and other incredibly challenging poses to create when you’re seven and fidgety). I remember starting school in a new country and being overwhelmed when I didn’t know the lunch procedures, the right language to accuse someone of cutting me in line, the right way to pronounce yogurt… again, small stuff, but I was a tiny white girl with enormous buck teeth… nobody saw me as threatening in any way.
So, fast forward a few years. My parents both naturalized as US citizens when I was in high school. This was an arduous process. It involved a number of letters scheduling meetings in a big city about an hour away, scheduled at 6am, with no number to reschedule if you weren’t available, and arriving on time meant also standing outside with everyone else who had received the letter to wait for the office to actually open at 9am. This was just what one did to become an American. It involved studying for an exam about American history that I am certain that most of the people I know could not pass. It also involved sending checks—usually for $500—that would be deposited but never logged, with no recourse for the sender, so my parents probably had to send those checks multiple times. I’m pretty sure at least one check was sent on my behalf, although that process did not go anywhere. Anyway, at some point both of my parents got a piece of paper with their photos stapled to it (no lie, it is not even laminated) declaring them naturalized citizens.
Fast forward a few more years—I was 19 and newly married. I realized I needed to update my green card to show my married name (and also because I was supposed to have done it when I turned 18, but jobs, boys, and college made that seem like a non-priority). I filled out the paperwork, brought originals of all of my documentation—marriage license, birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, student ID, electric bill… pretty much everything I had that I could use to prove I was me. I got to the office, filled out all of the forms, and waited. When it was my turn, I chatted with the woman looking over my information. I must have mentioned offhand that both of my parents naturalized. She took my green card and went to another office. I didn’t think anything of it. She came back a few minutes later and said that she could not give me a green card.
I started to worry.
She said she couldn’t give me a new green card because I was already a citizen! Apparently, I had become a citizen when my parents both naturalized before I turned 18. Of course, they did not tell us that, and also did not think it was necessary to refund the money we paid to attempt to naturalize me. So, I told her that that was super, but could I please have my green card back?
She said she couldn’t give it to me. Since I was a citizen, she had destroyed it already (the picture was truly terrible, but I wouldn’t have minded keeping the card to let my kids know that I actually did used to be an alien). But, I argued, what would I do if someone questioned my citizenship? Would I be allowed back in the States? I had no proof that I was allowed to be here. Would she sign a piece of paper saying that I was a citizen?
She told me that she could not give me anything to prove that I was a citizen, and that I’d have to apply for the $500 piece of non-laminated paper that says I’m a citizen. Or, I could go the ‘poor-man’s’ route and get a US Passport. Now, to do that, I had to send the originals of my parents’ naturalization certificates along with originals of my birth certificate and marriage license (and maybe more). As a newly married college student, I went the poor man’s route, but the entire time that I was waiting for my passport there were two huge stressors:
- What if someone stopped me for some reason and I could not prove that I was legally allowed to be here? Would I be deported?
- What if the passport office lost all of the originals of all of the documents that prove that I exist at all? Along with my parents’ proof that they are legal citizens?
The ending was fine for me—I got my passport, my parents got their documents back, and only when I had my passport stolen have I had to go through the stress and process again.
But again, I’m unlikely to be stopped and asked. I’m white. I’m a woman. I don’t have an accent, I don’t demonstrate religious leanings that people fear. Probably the scariest thing about me is the number of children that appear to call me mom, and frankly, sometimes that scares me too.
But what about the people who are legally allowed to be here and are being stopped by border patrol and cannot produce evidence for a perfectly legitimate reason (like the INS agents destroying their green cards because they are actually already citizens)?
We have been conditioned to fear people who are different. Sometimes those people give us legitimate reason to fear them (9/11, I’m lookin’ at you!), but we conveniently ignore all the times that people who look like us also give us reason to be scared (most serial killers in the US). But when we lean into that fear, we forget that there are actual people involved. Regardless of whether the President of the United States thinks that they are “animals”, they are not. These are real people. And we should treat them the way we would want to be treated.