Not Today

Not Today

I was in a bad mood. My flight to SFO had been delayed significantly, and five hours in, our pilot apologized: “Due to strong winds we’ll have to stop in LAX to refuel.” As soon as we landed, I turned off airplane mode and opened Twitter to pass the time while I waited to take off again. One thing was quickly made clear: due to an Executive Order from the White House, green card and visa holders are being detained in airports around the U.S. Fuck.

It took me a few seconds of scrolling to realize that it probably wouldn’t affect me. I clicked past a few headlines to learn that the ban was targeted at specific majority-Muslim countries. I, a white guy, with my fluent English, with a German last name, with a student visa tied to a renowned university, with a job at a large Silicon Valley company, probably wouldn’t get caught up in this coming into San Francisco, of all places. I was, and am, acutely aware of my privilege. But what if? The flight from LAX to SFO felt like hours.

On any other occasion, I would have dealt with the drudgery of going through immigration without any worries. It is, for me, basically just a nuisance. Stand in line, hand my passport and forms over, stamp here, stamp there, answer a few questions, get fingerprinted for the hundredth time, and go on with my life to sleep the jet-lag away at home. Not on 1/27/2017. Now I was nervous. “Please walk down to the aisle and turn right, you’ll see the sign for the Secondary Inspection Office.” Fuck, again.

It was not my first time going through a secondary inspection (in fact, it is common for students on the Optional Practical Training extension of their F1 visa to get the extra screening) but I had just been at home in Costa Rica to get my visa renewed, and it hadn’t gone smoothly. My passport had been held at the embassy in “administrative processing.” No one could tell me when, or if, I could go back to San Francisco, or even leave Costa Rica, for that matter, since I had to hand over my passport to the U.S. Embassy while they processed my visa renewal. No one could tell me why my visa was delayed beyond a hazy “it is out of our hands, we’re waiting for clearance from the Department of Homeland Security.” A couple of years ago, an acquaintance in a similar situation had to wait eight months before returning to the U.S. I was afraid I’d be on the same boat.

But after two weeks of “administrative processing,” I got the phone call. My visa was approved. After anxiously waiting around my parents’ house, and endless hours on the phone on hold with the embassy, I was lucky. I had my visa, and I had my passport back. I had to move some things around at work, but my boss had been understanding about the delay, and my job wasn’t at risk. Now I was heading home, but the whole experience made me feel alienated. And now this on the way in?

There were another five or so people in the Secondary Inspection waiting room, which was dead quiet. I handed my papers to a customs officer, sat down, pulled out my copy of 1984, and tried to read. Everyone there looked mildly nervous, except for a Middle Eastern looking man who was pacing back and forth. He was visibly terrified. I wanted to comfort him, but two things made me hesitate: I didn’t know his story and didn’t know what to say, and I was scared that anything I said to him could affect how I was perceived by the customs officers currently deciding whether or not to let me into the country. I didn’t say anything. And later that night, finally at home in my bed, I deeply regretted it.

With this order, Trump and his administration broke a promise to millions of permanent residents and visa-holders in this country. He reminded us that we can get kicked out at any time, for reasons that have nothing to do with who we are or what we’ve done. Had Trump decided to start with the Bad Hombres instead of the people with ties to Muslim countries, I could be the one detained at SFO. I have not lived in Costa Rica for 7 years, but I could quickly be turned away from my home in San Francisco, barred from going back to my apartment, to my girlfriend, to my friends, to my job, and to the life I’ve built in the United States. Just because I was not born here.

The political climate of the past few days can’t be diminished. This is not normal. My current visa expires in 2018, and while I am planning to apply for the H1B lottery in a few months, I am not sure that staying is even going to be a real option anymore. I am deeply conflicted.

This week, for the first time ever, I doubted whether I should publish my thoughts. I doubted whether I should offer comfort to a terrified stranger. I doubted whether I would even want to stay in the U.S. long term. All of this because of deeper doubts about whether the country where I’ve lived for the past six years, which claims to be a nation of immigrants, will tolerate having immigrants here at all.

Photo: taken from Mark Suster’s Never Let Anybody Tell You to Shut Up, source unknown. Please contact me if you’re the owner.

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