A Mere Taste Of The Refugee’s Desperation

In 1990, my visa status in the US changed from ‘student’ to ‘skilled worker’; in the alphanumeric soup of visa designations, I went from being F-1 to H-1. This was occasion to celebrate; I could now legally work in the US, and earn more than the minimum hourly wage. There was a glitch though: the F-1 was a ‘multiple-entry’ visa; I could come and go from the US freely for its duration. The H-1 was a ‘single-entry’ visa; if I left the US, I would have to apply for a visa renewal to gain reentry. Such renewals were not guaranteed. Very soon, a tale of disaster made the rounds. A friend went home to Bombay to attend his sister’s wedding; when he applied for a renewal, his visa was denied. Despite repeated entreaties from his employer (and from my then graduate adviser who wrote in support of his personal qualities and work ethic) he was ‘stuck’ in Bombay. There he stayed.

Very soon, H-1 visa holders began to devise a ‘work-around’ to this problem: departures from the US to Canada or Mexico, which lasted less than a week, were counted as ‘non-significant departures.’ If so, you could leave the US, visit an American consulate in Canada or Mexico, and then apply for a new multiple-entry H-1 visa there. If you were successful, all was well; if not, well, you just went back to the US, and planned something else, perhaps a trip to another consulate somewhere else in Canada or Mexico. (On the grapevine, news spread of so-called ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ consulates; those who were lenient at granting renewals, and those who weren’t.) One reason given for asking for a renewal during a so-called ‘significant departure’ was that the applicant was soon going to be making a business trip overseas for his employer; the length of the trip would be too short to allow the time to apply for a renewal while traveling. This tall tale was supported by a letter from the employer (almost all of whom, quite naturally, supported their employees’ attempts to return to their jobs.)

In the spring of 1992, I desperately wanted to return home to visit my family; I had been away from ‘home’ for almost five years; in that period of time, I had only managed to make one trip home; it had lasted three weeks. Three weeks in five years seemed awfully slim pickings. But if I wanted to make a trip back to India, I’d have to go through the ‘traveling for a new H-1’ runaround. So I did.

In May 1992, armed with my visa application papers and a supporting letter from my employer, I drove to Montreal, to apply for a H-1 renewal. A Canadian friend offered crash space, which I gratefully accepted. I had managed to take a day off from work with some difficulty; I would drive up on a Thursday, apply for the visa on Friday, spend a day in Montreal on Saturday and then drive back on Sunday to resume work on Monday.

The best laid plans of man, etc.

On Friday morning, I submitted my application to the consular officer, and went to wait. A short while later, I was summoned by the consular officer and informed that I would have to return on Monday to find out the fate of my application. (Apparently, Montreal residents got priority, and would be served the same day.) I stared at him dumbfounded; consulates always processed visas on the same day; I could not possibly take another day off from work; this policy seemed exactly backwards for surely Montreal residents could easily return next week while out of town applicants could not. I asked for accommodation; I explained my case and said that I had to return to the US to go back to work; my employer would not let me take another day off; surely Montreal residents could come back on Monday to pick up their visas? And so on.

All to no avail. I was speaking to a bureaucrat, frozen, unblinking, uncaring. As our conversation stumbled into another zone of futility, my vision began to cloud. I wanted to see my mother and my brother and my sister-in-law; I wanted to see my infant nephew and hold him in my arms; I’d only been home for three weeks in five years and now this automaton was trampling callously on those barely expressible desires.

I snapped, and raged; I loudly proclaimed the stupidity of this policy. The consular officer had had enough and called security to remove me. I shook them off and walked out of my own accord, cursing as I went.  Back in my truck, I crumbled, sinking into a teary despondency. I was ‘stuck’ in the US; I would not be allowed to see my family after all.

Compared to the refugees now seeking entry to the US, I was a vastly, monumentally, privileged and fortunate person. I was able to apply again for a visa. (A month later, I made another road-trip; this time, to Quebec City. My visa application was successful and I traveled to India in August 1992 for four weeks.) I was able to visit my family and play with my little nephew, take long walks with my mother, share a drink with my brother, enjoy my sister-in-law’s cooking. The problem I faced at the US consulate in Montreal was a relatively minor one; I could have tried for an extension of my vacation, and after all, I was able to afford another trip to Canada relatively quickly. But that sensation, that sick feeling of being denied contact with one’s family, a kind of refuge–thanks to an impervious bureaucracy–has always stayed with me; it was a peculiar kind of nausea and fear and hopelessness. I can only imagine–very dimly–what those must be feeling who have been denied entry to the US over the past day or so because of Donald Trump’s racist executive order. This one cuts quite deep, quite personally. I’m united–through my differences–with all immigrants, all refugees.

Note: As a reminder: the stay order issued by the Federal Court only applies to those refugees who have already traveled to the US and were denied entry at US ports; those who had not started their journey yet remain in limbo, as so do those who now wait at detention centers at airports, waiting for their cases to be processed.

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