On Being an Immigrant in the New Regime, January 28, 2017.

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No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Meditation XVII


I’m not a citizen, but I have lived in this country for many years, obeying its laws, investing in its economy, shopping in its malls, paying its taxes, and – incidentally –  working to educate its youth. About five years ago, I also finally managed to navigate my way through this country’s byzantine immigration laws, moving painstakingly from one category of visa to another, achieving permanent resident status.

Many of those who have always been citizens here have no idea what’s involved in getting that “green card.” Some believe that to be a permanent resident is the same as being a citizen (nowhere close); it’s a common assumption that getting a green card is as easy as getting a twitter account, and about as expensive. It comes as a surprise to many Americans when I tell them how complicated and burdensome the process actually is. You have to get a special medical exam (and not from your own doctor – you have to a special, certified doctor, and it’s not covered by insurance). You have to prove that you don’t have any communicable diseases, such as the leprosy or yellow fever well known to be endemic in Canada. My lawyer was, I thought, recklessly confident that I could get an “expedited” green card if I applied as an “outstanding researcher/professor.” We pulled it off somehow, thanks to her cunning, and my labor: I had to assemble a massive dossier on myself, 300 pages of every credential I’ve ever possessed, from my birth certificate to my doctoral diploma, and every professional thing I’ve ever written, along with ten reference letters about my productivity and character. There was a criminal background check (I came up clean). I had to testify, on the application form, that I was not a communist or a terrorist, and that I had not been a member of the National Socialist Party of Germany between the years 1936-1945. And, because I was sponsored by neither a spouse, a relative, nor an employer, and because there was no way an ordinary person could penetrate the arcane mysteries of US immigration law, the fees for this whole process, paid in part to the government, but mainly to my  lawyer, cost me about $10,000.

In other words, it takes a lot of time, work, privilege, and money to get a green card, which is why lots of immigrants never get one at all, why they can’t get one. It’s also why, when you encounter an immigrant to the US in possession of a green card, you can rest assured that 1) they have been very, very thoroughly vetted; 2) they don’t have leprosy; 3) they were very earnestly committed to making a decent, safe life for themselves in this country.


When I got my green card five years ago, according to the little letter of congratulation that came with it in the mail, I had ceased to be merely an “Alien” – here on suffrance, regarded with suspicion – and instead was acknowledged as a “US Person.”

Up until a few hours ago, I assumed that being a card-carrying Person, had, in fact, guaranteed me legal personhood – that I and this country had a formal agreement whereby I would meet my obligations to it, and in return it would grant certain basic protections to me. I thought we had some kind of deal; I naively assumed that we had a contract.

Except earlier today, I and hundreds of thousands of other green card holders – US Persons, remember – just found out that that was a dumb assumption indeed. Thousands of US Persons have just been denied entrance to the country where they have jobs, property bought via those jobs, obligations, friends, lives. The explanation from the government is that these US Persons are, in fact, not – they are bogeymen, monsters, threats, made hateful because of their difference. Purporting never to have heard of any comparable, grotesque precedent in history, this government has summarily denied US Persons their human and legal right to be treated as persons.

This action is supposed to make this country safer, stronger, more great – as though denying human rights ever makes anything better. And if you think that a wall here, a registry there, this little police action, that little act of totalitarianism is no big deal, that things will be all right (as I have been told by well-intentioned, complacently-safe, white, male, citizens)… are you sure? Because if you think that government will stop with just those people, and that people like me have nothing to worry about, because people like me are just like you, and that surely our rights are safe…well, history would tell you otherwise. When some “people” seize the power to define, categorize, register, and limit who gets to be a person – you can comfort yourself that you are “us” and not “them” all you like, but you’ve already lost your rights, along with theirs, and mine. What you would like to think is safe, secure, legal – is not, not when it gets in the way of those driven by power, fear, hatred, and violence. Your safety, and that of your neighbors, is just about as inviolable, as inalienable as a 2×3 inch piece of green, laminated plastic.

That’s what happened today. Let’s brace ourselves for what happens tomorrow.

 

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