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.

A Bedtime Story About ‘Immigration And Separation’

Last week, as is our custom at home, I read to my daughter before I put her to bed. (We pick a mix of ‘long stories’ and ‘short stories’ and settle on a number beforehand, one which has to be conformed to by a ‘promise.’) On this particular night, the ‘long story’ was Edwidge Danticat‘s Mama’s Nightingale; I did not know what the book’s contents were and only picked it up because, well, the author was Edwidge Danticat. That’s not entirely accurate: the subtitle did say A Story of Immigration and Separation but I presumed it was about an immigrant child feeling homesick for the home she has left behind. Perhaps, subconsciously, I had hoped to be able to tell my daughter about my migration to the US, my occasional nostalgia for an older ‘home.’

The opening passages of Danticat’s story soon dispelled these hopes:

When Mama goes away, what I miss most is the sound of her voice….For the last three months, Mama has been at Sunshine Correctional, a prison for women without papers….Every night after he makes dinner for us and helps me with my homework, Papa sits at the kitchen table and writes letters to the judges who send people without papers to jail. He also writes to our mayor and congresswoman and all the newspapers and television reporters he’s heard of. No one ever writes him back.

I’ll admit to hesitating when I read the bit about an imprisoned mother; I was reading to a not-quite-four-year-old after all. But I pressed on. My daughter’s curiosity about why this girl had been separated from her mother was not easily satisfied; I did the best I could to explain the surrounding context.

Danticat’s story is ultimately one with a happy ending–a family reunification–in which the young girl who is the subject of the story plays an empowered and leading role. I read–with some relish–those parts of the book in which the young daughter of the imprisoned mother is able to intervene in her mother’s case; there was ample opportunity here for my daughter to find behavior and attitudes worth emulating.

My story reading over, I noticed the book carried a postscript by Danticat, which I read aloud as well. In it, Danticat notes that she is the child of parents who migrated to the US before she could, that she was unable to join them because they were ‘without papers,’ a notion which fascinated her then and resulted in her writing this current story. And then at the end, there was a straightforward recitation of some grim numbers, an accounting of the tens of thousands of who have been ‘returned’ or ‘removed’ from the US–thus splitting many, many families asunder–by the Obama administration.

I have heard of, and read, those statistics many times; they have featured in many political debates I have participated in. But my relationship to them, despite being an immigrant myself, has always been a rather peripheral one. Not on that night, not with my daughter sitting on my lap. As I tried to finish reading Danticat’s postscript, my daughter looked at me in some surprise: my voice had caught in my throat, and I was unable to continue reading aloud. I tucked her in just a little more affectionately that night.

Losing and Gaining Citizenships

I became an American citizen more than fourteen years ago. Ironically, my decision to do so was prompted by my leaving the US–for what was supposed to be a two-year stint as a post-doctoral fellow in Australia. I was then a permanent resident of the US, equipped with the famed ‘green card.’ Subject to certain restrictions, I could travel in and out of the US but not wanting to deal with the INS hassling me during my extended stay overseas, I decided to apply for naturalization.

In taking on American citizenship, I lost my Indian one. From then on, I would need a visa to travel to India. My feelings about this state of affairs, as can be imagined, were mixed. (As a post from last year indicates, I’ve paid a certain price for this decision.) On one hand, I had not lived in India for over thirteen years and seemed unlikely to return to take up residence any time soon, if ever. My academic career often required me to travel–for conferences, for instance–and possessing a passport that meant fewer trips to consular offices was always going to be a blessing. More to the point, I had spent those same thirteen years in the US and was enmeshed in its life and politics (and tax regimes). On the other, losing my Indian citizenship felt like a significant distancing from a shared past and culture and history, from family and home. I don’t know if I ever thought of it as a betrayal of any kind–though some unkind friends of mine did urge this interpretation on me. I did however feel I had self-consciously turned my back on an older me.

But at the time, I don’t think I gave the loss much thought at all. I had been thirteen years gone from India; notions of ‘home’ had grown more confused in my mind. I did not find myself in the grip of an existential question of any sort, but rather, considered myself to be dealing with a far more mundane concern: which travel document would work better for me? Because I had become stranded in a voluntary exile of sorts, because my identity had become a more confused entity, questions of citizenship did not feel as infected with nationalist or nativist urgency as they might have.

As I was sworn in on that cold December morning in 2000, I realized it was the first time I had deliberately chosen the citizenship of a nation. My Indian one had come to me by birth; my passport had been mine to ask for; a set of allegiances lay waiting for me to take on. Here, I had inserted myself into the process of gaining a nationality; previously, I had been born into the role. My older passport had been the culmination of a long series of experiences that had reinforced my nationality; my newer one was the first indication of my newer one, the first contributor to the building of a new edifice of identity.

On ‘Bureaucratic Torture’ – Contd.

Yesterday I wrote about ‘bureaucratic torture.’ I anticipated it and remembered it with little joy. Today, I experienced it.

I showed up on time at the consulate’s office (or rather, the office of the company to whom consular services have been outsourced.) I stood in line, dealt with the usual gruff security guards, was ushered upstairs (on a manually operated elevator straight out of the 1930s.) As I stood in line again, waiting to have my forms checked, I felt my heart sink as I watched the interactions taking place ahead of me: gruff, brusque, rigidly adhering to the template I had described in yesterday’s post: the missing form, signature, documentation; the appeal for flexibility; the brisk denial.

My turn came. I had prepared this set of forms and documents carefully; perhaps all would be well. Soon enough, I was disabused of that fond hope. Some forms were ‘missing’; others were ‘incorrectly filled out’; additional signatures and notarizations were needed. I argued briefly about the confusing and incomplete directions on the website, then shut up and took notes. I left in a rush, hoping that I would be able to return in the afternoon to submit the forms again. First, back to Brooklyn, to my wife’s office to print out forms, obtain her signature and a notarization. Then, to my daughter’s day-care to obtain her thumb impression. (Yes, you read that right; I needed to color her thumb with a marker and then control her squirming while I pressed it down next to her photograph. Apparently a parent’s signature would only work on page 2, not on page 1. ) Lastly, back home to find my wife’s passport and make copies.

Then, back on the train, heading into Manhattan, hoping to make it before the afternoon deadline expired. I was light-headed with hunger, thanks to the lack of breakfast and lunch. I made it on time, and was mercifully allowed to go up without standing in line all over again. Upstairs though, I waited again. Finally when my turn came, I handed in the forms and came the closest to praying that I have in a while.

To no avail. My wife’s signature on a notarized form apparently did not resemble, to the officer’s satisfaction, the signature on her passport. My form was ‘regretfully’ returned to me. I needed to get it re-signed till the resemblance was adequate. Now, I groveled: Surely the variance in signatures was normal? Surely I had been subjected to enough of a run-around? Again, to no avail. I had hit the dreaded stonewall.

I was beaten. I asked for confirmation, several times, that everything else with the forms was copasetic, received several meaningless assurances, and left. Tomorrow awaits.

My trials and travails are trifling and insignificant compared to the cruel mistreatment of those–like the Palestinians I mentioned in yesterday’s post–for whom such a day is a commonplace in their lives. This fact provides me with some comfort, some opportunity to consider that I still have it better than those whose lives are beaten down on a daily basis by a particularly cruel mix of opaque regulation and intransigent officialdom.

On ‘Bureaucratic Torture’

For the past few days I’ve been racked with a terrible anxiety: I have a visa application appointment tomorrow. At the Indian consulate, to apply for a ten-year tourist visa, so that I may journey back to the land of my birth and former citizenship. I’ve had photographs taken, filled out forms, checked and re-checked them, searched for documents, filled out affidavits for lost passports, had them notarized in duplicate, triplicate and sometimes I’ve wondered whether quadruplicate might not be required too. And on and on, all the while dealing with a poorly designed website, the final insult to injury. I’m in the midst of an experience that I thought I had left behind once I had attained American citizenship more than a dozen years ago: brain-rotting encounters with immigration authorities. (Two years ago, because my American passport had expired, I had gone through the same procedure and submitted the same documents and affidavits.)

A few years ago, I interviewed an Israeli academic for an endowed chair position at Brooklyn College. During the interview, the candidate spoke, with some feeling, about her research on what she termed ‘bureaucratic torture’: the relentless, grinding, subjection of Palestinians to an endless series of checks, verifications, and paperwork-based procedures, all conducted by implacably hostile officials at a variety of venues including, most prominently, road check-points in the Occupied Territories. Over a period of time, these would reduce even the sanest and strongest human to a weak-kneed, anxious paranoiac, one convinced that someone, somewhere, would find out, somehow that something or the other was ‘not in order’. The penalties for that ‘disorder’ would then inevitably follow. The cold eye of the bureaucrat, the official, knew no sympathy and it would hand out none.

I listened to these descriptions with great interest. While I’ve never been unfortunate enough to be subjected to the kind of soul-destroying checks that are a Palestinian’s all-too common fate, I have had–as is evident from my angst-ridden preamble above–my fair share of encounters with hidebound bureaucrats: first in India, and then later in the US, most notably with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (My Australian friends might find this hard to believe, but the few encounters I had with their Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs were relatively mellow affairs, each encounter mediated by a pleasant enough official who moved my papers along expeditiously.)

In India, because I assisted my mother in her management of a manufacturing unit, I had frequent occasion to encounter the archetypal babu. The classic bureaucratic encounter followed a well-worn and familiar template: the submission of a form–or several–with a stack of paperwork to a bored official, who with great alacrity, found some lacunae or the other, one for which there was no work-around forthcoming, and which necessitated a return to the office at some later date. All too often, I ran into one unblinkingly pedantic officer after another, each one convinced the natural order of the universe would be disrupted were any concession to common sense made.

Those encounters have left their mark; nothing reduces me to a gibbering mess faster than the anticipation of something similarly hidebound. Tonight I’ll calm my nerves with a glass of wine, and will not relax till I have my stamped passport in hand.