Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Under Review

I am not a typical immigrant. Seventeen years ago, my parents brought me to the United States on an 18-wheeler tire that they pushed across the Rio Grande. I hardly remember it, but my parents tell me that we reached the shores of El Paso, only to be detained and deported by US Customs and Border Protection. End of story? We crossed the border again 24 hours later, under cover of darkness. La migra didn’t arrive to round us up like pigs this time. My parents hid me and my brother Misael among prickly shrubs until a van came to pick us up. A coyote gave us plane tickets to Dallas (airport security was lax in the 1990s), and we flew away from El Paso, de volada, as quickly as we could; I suppose la migra didn’t understand our aversion to waiting.   
            That was not my last experience with the US immigration system. I sat in the back of an SUV at the age of seven, fidgety and frustrated as our vehicle chugged along the Laredo Bridge System’s monstrous traffic. The two people in the front of the SUV pretended to by my parents; my mother and brother, who sat beside me, passed off as my aunt and my cousin, respectively. I was petulant during the six hour journey from Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo, and I was also annoyed when the coyote in the driver’s seat would ask me what my name was. I knew what I had to say: My name is Robert. This is my aunt. This is my cousin. These are my parents. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t use my real name. I didn’t comprehend that crossing the Laredo Bridge with a fake identity was the only way to get into the United States safely, and that crossing the bridge was better than wading neck-deep through the Rio Grande. But I did think that it was better to lie about my name than to be left behind like my youngest brother Paul, whom we left under my grandparents’ care back in San Luis Potosi. Paul was an American citizen and could easily get into the United States. He didn’t have to lie about his name. As I thought about these things, the SUV painstakingly moved a few more meters, like an ant amidst a swarming colony. I felt like screaming.  
Our SUV finally reached the immigration checkpoint. A Customs officer in a Ranger Smith green uniform gestured for us to stop. El coyote pulled down the window and greeted the officer.
“Immigration papers, please,” the officer instructed.
“Certainly,” el coyote calmly answered, handing over his prepared documents.
“What’s the purpose of your visit, sir?”
“Vacationing,” el coyote said.
“Very well. Move along.”
 I held my breath the entire time, avoiding the ranger’s gaze. He didn’t notice tiny me fidgeting nervously next to my mother. El coyote rolled up the window, and the gates opened. As the SUV accelerated forward, I stopped twitching. At least until we arrived at the next checkpoint.  
             I wasn’t as fidgety during the next twelve years, but I was as tired and as trapped as a parakeet in a golden cage. I never left the United States. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. I couldn’t go to Mexico to see my grandparents and my relatives. I couldn’t go abroad without having to pay more than four hundred dollars in advance parole application fees. I couldn’t become an American citizen after more than twelve years of undocumented residence in this country. I took extraordinary measures to take care of myself. When I was admitted to Yale, I skipped class to get a passport from the Mexican Consulate, so I could fly to Connecticut. When my Academic Decathlon team won the regional championship, I couldn’t go with my teammates to El Paso for the State Finals; I never would have gotten past the checkpoints outside of the city.  I waited for some legislation to come along and make traveling and working easier, but nothing productive came out of Congress or the Oval Office. Trust me: I tried to get permanent residence. I swear. But the immigration filing process is the equivalent of a bloated slug, which means to say, the whole process is not worth the money and the time. My mother, for example, requested a visa in 2001; it has been twelve years, and her case is still “Under Review”. Her visa had to be requested by a close relative- her brother- who is a US citizen. My brother Paul wasn’t yet old enough to request one for me. So I had the following options:
1.     Have a company petition the United States Customs and Immigration Services for my visa.
2.     Leave the country and apply for reentry.
3.     Marry a US citizen.
A company would not have hired me, unless I were a Canadian singing prodigy, which, sadly, I was not. Leaving the United States and applying for re-entry was out of the question; I would have had to abandon my Texan home, forsake my American education, and wait a decade in Mexico for permission to return. Given the odds of ever hearing back from USCIS, (I was more likely to be killed by a Zeta hit-man than to be granted immigration to the US) I decided to stay in Dallas. And as for marrying a US citizen, I convinced my girlfriend to grant me that special favor; it was too bad she broke up with me a year after she promised to make me an American citizen…
            I didn’t like waiting for things to happen. I needed to work after my freshman year of college, and the only way I could do that was to get a fake Social Security number. My mother dialed up a document forger, and within a day I had in my hands a gray-blue Social Security card and a green Permanent Resident card, faster than USCIS could have ever supplied. But they were only temporary solutions; E-Verify ensured that I was rejected by most companies, and I was only able to get employment within an immigrant-dependent industry: electrical wiring. So I worked as a residential wireman during the summer and hoped for my legal status to change, bidding my time until the suited men and women on Capitol Hill and the White House would notice that the immigration slug needed some speed.
            I was keeping my balance on a ladder, vigorously screwing in a light fixture in the upper bedroom of a Preston Hollow house in northern Dallas, when I heard my father shout something from downstairs. I went down to see what the fuss was about. My father stood near the stairway, phone in hand, a smile on his face.
            “Your uncle called me. There’s good news.”
            What he told me wasn’t exactly the greatest news ever, but it was a start. President Obama had announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which would grant me asylum in the United States. When my father finished telling me the good news, he smiled. A tentative smile. He knew that this program did not address his legal status; because the White House thought that legalizing undocumented minors would be earn it some votes from Latinos, only my brother Misael and I directly benefitted from DACA. My father had lived in the United States far longer than I had, and yet he was excluded from DACA. It was unfair.
            “At least there is hope,” he said, his smile unfading. For my dad, there was hope that immigration reform would not stop at DACA. I earnestly hoped so. I smiled back, and then I walked up the stairs to the bedroom I was working in, climbed the ladder, and recommenced screwing in the unfinished fixture.

Three months later, I was in Hartford on a wet and windy workday. Thick drops dripped from my umbrella and moistened my sweater, my shoes sloshing through gray puddles as I trudged along Main Street. I had an appointment with USCIS at 1 PM. I arrived 4 hours early because the New Haven-Hartford Express Bus did not offer service after 8:21 AM, and I didn’t want to risk missing my appointment. So I was stranded in the city until one o’clock. I took refuge from the rain in a café at One Constitution Plaza, where I ordered some hot tea and I sat down to do some homework. CNN news anchors burbled political opinions from the TV in front of me. People monotonously chattered in the background. I grew restless. Here I was, a nineteen-year-old immigrant who had skipped class and woken up at seven in the morning and travelled 39 miles to Hartford just to get his fingerprints scanned. I was tired, soaked, and sleepy. Why did the process have to be so hard? I tried to contain my frustration and concentrate on my reading assignments. After an hour at the café, I went out into the rain. Everything moved slowly in the blanketing spray from the traffic, umbrellas bumping into each other like leaves in a choked stream. More rain. I walked around downtown for two hours, and then I returned to One Constitution Plaza to wait for a bus to East Hartford. I stood in the rain for another half hour. At last, the bus arrived. I clung to the inner railings as people crammed into it, the bus slicked with mud and water. This is the immigration system, I thought.   
Twenty minutes later, I got off the bus and trekked half a mile to the USCIS field office. An attendant instructed me to disinfect my hands and gave me a form to fill out. I was given a number and told to sit in a waiting area. A plasma TV blurted American history facts and immigration oddities. The Mayflower. The Statue of Liberty. The good old Red, White, and Blue.  I wonder how long the people on Ellis Island had to wait. Did they remain undocumented? How did they become citizens? Someone called my number. A young bespectacled USCIS officer stood at a booth next to a scanner, expecting me. I went.
“Place your hand on the scanner,” he ordered.
The officer pressed my hand onto the scanner, a little more forcefully than I expected. The machine beeped and displayed the word “Failed”. So the scanner can’t read my fingerprints. Great. Just great. The officer sprayed disinfectant on my hand, rubbed it with a Kleenex, and pressed my fingers onto the scanner’s cold, smooth surface. The machine beeped again. Damn it. The officer tried the procedure once more. Spray. Rub. Press. Repeat. Ten minutes passed before the machine clicked and displayed the word “Passed”. I sighed.
“Sir, please look at the camera,” the officer said. A flash. My eyes glazed over for a second.
“Okay, you’re all set. Fill out this Customer Service evaluation, and you can be on your way.”
I filled it out. And as I left the field office, I felt relieved, as if I had crawled out of those prickly shrubs, or as if I had squirmed my way out of that SUV. I was free to go home, and I would receive my documents in a month. . I headed toward the exit and went out once more into the fountain pouring from the sky. I opened my umbrella. How freely did it open!

No, I am not a typical immigrant. I am, as of April 2013, a legal temporary immigrant worker. My parents are still undocumented. My brother still awaits legalization. DACA remains in place and an immigration reform bill is in the making, but the immigration slug remains as slow as ever. I feel optimistic, but I suspect that the next immigration program will have flaws. After all, don’t we hate to see our friends and family in limbo? Don’t we hate to stand in line to get our passports and our permits? Don’t we hate to wait days and months and years for things to happen? When immigration reform arrives-if indeed it ever arrives-will the wait be worth it?

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