In 1982, I was living and working at a women and children’s hospital in Pakistan. I had gone on a tourist visa with intent to stay the year. I had arrived in September with a 3-month visa. My visa had expired but I had stayed on, hoping the proper papers would come and not thinking much about it.

And then in December, just two weeks before Christmas, I received a hand-written letter from the local police office telling me that I must leave the country in 24 hours.

Was this a joke?

My mom and I pored over the letter laughing. It was my father who said “I don’t think it’s a joke, I think it’s serious” and suddenly my world changed.

It was two weeks before Christmas and I could not eat or sleep. I had come to Pakistan in a bad place. I was with my family and in my home and I was gradually healing. I intended on staying in Pakistan at least a year. Now suddenly my plans were turned upside down. I had to leave. I was no longer living in the country with proper documentation and I had been asked to leave. Mercifully I was given until after Christmas to leave. Two weeks later I was deported. And although it happened many years ago, the memory of that event is alive. 

Well not technically ‘deported’ as in I wasn’t escorted to the border. I went on my own accord but it wasn’t willingly. And had I not left, I would have been escorted to the border.

Pakistan was my home. It was Pakistan I looked to when I was having a bad day in the United States. “In just a few months I’ll be going back” is what I said to myself all during the summer before I arrived. I couldn’t imagine that I would be made to leave, to pack up all my possessions and leave the place I loved most in the world; the place that  raised me from breast-feeding baby through bratty adolescence to adult woman.

I think of this event a lot when I think about those who were brought to the U.S in diapers, have known nothing else, yet have only recently had a path toward legal registration. I get that we have laws and rules, that borders can’t be a free for all — anywhere. I get that this is a complicated issue and there are no easy solutions. But the United States has been negligent in not working on immigration policy with urgency and putting laws into place at a federal level.

I believe the decision to allow those brought to the United States as children a way to apply for legal status so that they can stay and work without fear of deportation is a good start. This is just one piece of what should be a multifaceted approach – beyond that should be a means for their parents and grandparents to register and have legal status. It is estimated that over 12 million people (men,women, and children) are here without the proper documents. These are people who are working and have no way of becoming citizens, of coming out of the immigrant “closet”. If a solid plan existed, a plan that experts say should include paying taxes, registering, and learning English, then I would put money on most people coming forward. They are sick of living in the shadows, but the alternative of leaving what has become home seems incomprehensible. The Opportunity Agenda, a group with a mission of “building the national will to expand opportunity in America.” gives these recommendations to Congress around immigration and a “roadmap” to citizenship.

  • Provide safe, legal means for migration through points of entry.
  • Eliminate the existing three and ten-year bars to admissibility.
  • Increase the number of employment-based immigrant visas to reflect market demand for sought-after skills and experience.
  • Allow individuals outside of the United States to meet certain criteria to submit and process their applications at the U.S. Consulate in their country of residence.
  • Enact laws that create a system which allows individuals already residing in the United States, including undocumented persons, members of multi-status families, refugees, and asylees, to apply for permanent residence by registering, learning English, and continuing to pay taxes*

I am hopeful that a comprehensive new policy will be a priority – a bipartisan priority. But until then I enjoy telling my deportation story. The astonished “How could a white person be deported?” that I get every time I tell it is a point of connection, for all of those who I have told know someone who is here without authorization.  In their world, it is inconceivable that a white person would not have the proper papers to stay in a place. It is brown people who get deported; brown people who are undocumented. English: Statue of Liberty Gaeilge: Dealbh na ... May 2013 bring about better policy and may the United States continue with a common sense approach to the words inscribed on that statue of hope for many –Lady Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

“I saw the Statue of Liberty. And I said to myself, ‘Lady, you’re such a beautiful! You opened your arms and you get all the foreigners here. Give me a chance to prove that I am worth it, to do something, to be someone in America.’ And always that statue was on my mind.” Immigrant from Greece (Wikipedia)

I know many immigrants read Communicating Across Boundaries and I value your voice.

What are your thoughts? You may differ profoundly from what I have voiced and that’s okay. Join in the conversation through the comments.

* articles

Drunk Driving or Illegal Immigration?

On August 20th in the town of Milford, Massachusetts a drunk driver killed a 23-year-old man. The driver was in a pick-up truck and after he hit him the evidence shows that he then dragged the man for hundreds of yards before he finally stopped.

The drunk driver was from Ecuador and it has since been found that he was living illegally in the United States. We discussed this story intensely at our lunch table at work – the place where we attempt to solve world-wide problems and eat simultaneously. A couple of people at the table were quite adamant that if we had stricter immigration laws this would never have happened. One even suggested that banning immigration altogether would solve many problems in the country. They forcefully made their case but the logic failed at some point. The man was killed by drunk driving. That the alleged killer was here illegally became important only after the fact. The argument of illegal immigration needs to be in a separate arena, not mixed up with drunk driving. The problem with the reasoning is that it assumes that everyone who is in this country without the proper papers is going to drink and drive, wreaking havoc in a family and community. The reality is that most of our views of undocumented immigrants are based on either the media or who we’ve met who has that status. In my case, I could assume that all undocumented immigrant women have breast cancer because on a regular basis women who are not here legally contact me to help connect them to treatment for breast cancer. People who are here without legal papers are not all drunk drivers and they don’t all have breast cancer. That is fact.

While in Arizona our family had the privilege of being invited to two citizenship parties. Petra is from Germany and had worked hard for the status. Just days before she became a citizen she was concerned that because she had received one parking ticket she would no longer be considered for citizenship. It was a valid concern. Her life was an open book during the process. We celebrated with red,white & blue and Petra was visibly relieved that the process was finally over. She and her lovely daughter, Jaqueline, could now legally call the United States “home”.

Isabel is from Mexico. She came to the U.S. years before and was thoroughly settled with an American born husband and two beautiful girls. For her too, the citizenship process was arduous and her life was looked at through a microscope. Watching some of the bureaucracy that these friends went through I gained great respect for people who embark on this process. It’s a long way from Ellis Island to citizenship. I know those who go through the process often have little respect, and great frustration with those who circumvent the process.

Illegal immigration and drunk driving.  They are two separate issues. Each needs to be looked at with regards to the community and larger society but they should not be mixed up. To mix them up will muddy already dirty waters, making them even more difficult than they already are.