This past summer, after traveling around Europe, and on my way back into the United States, I was greeted, not by a “Welcome to SFO” sign, but by a threat to be sent back to Germany.
I am currently on a visa which grants me full and legal entry to the U.S. until 2019. For the past two years, I have been living in the United States as a legal immigrant. I also have an “employment card,” which means I am under “parole” in the eyes of the government. With this card I can legally have a job. This card also tells immigration officials every time I re-enter the U.S. to place me in a separate room called “secondary.”
If you have to go in there, I am truly sorry. It was a small, dingy room with fluorescent lights that reminded me of a hospital. There was a map on the wall that was peeling from the ceiling, and multiple aggressive “no cellphone” signs. Feeling disoriented and smelling like sweat mixed with plane food, I searched for a clock. But that’s the thing — there wasn’t one. As I walked in, I was instructed to take a seat in one of the dozen seats which I had never seen full. Once I was called up, I was asked if I was who I said I was and then told to sit and wait. I felt as though I’d been waiting so long that my passport was no longer valid. During my travels abroad, my employment card had expired, and the new one was sitting in Mill Valley. However, my entry into the U.S. was still legal and justified.
After an 11-hour flight from Berlin, the last thing I wanted to do was get yelled and patronized by an old man about my immigration status. He lectured me about what expiration meant: “When milk expires you can’t drink it anymore. When your credit card expires, you can’t use it anymore.” I was thrown empty threats about being denied entry. I was purposefully intimidated in an attempt to get some kind of confession out of me — as if I had just smuggled cocaine in, as if I were hiding something. I had nothing to hide. I was seen as a criminal. There I was, standing with my 11-year-old sister, who was near tears, and my mother, who was being treated as if she had assassinated the President.
Immigration is complicated, and no one is truly an expert. There are tons of different types of visas and tons of different layers within the visa process. Everyone’s visa status is different. Everyone has different opportunities and regulations. I live and breathe my immigration; it defines me in all aspects of my life. To have someone pick apart my life and whittle it down to facts is demeaning. It takes years for people to learn the simple skill of compassion. Having sympathy for people and for people’s situations is harder than it seems. Dealing with people nicely seems so simple and easy when the reality is that it’s something so much more complex than we can even comprehend. Though this experience was horrible, it really opened my eyes to where communication is necessary — especially in something as serious as immigration.
Examining this whole experience really shifted my political views. I am immigrating legally as a privileged white female, and I cannot imagine how it would be if I were a refugee who did not speak English or did not understand the concept of intimidation or social workers and how they operate. I learned that not only is power something that can be abused, the expression of power is often the ultimate sign of insecurity. Harrowing though the experience was, I was certainly able to learn a lot about how to properly interact with people, especially those who intimidate me. I learned that standing my ground is something that I need in order for me to be the strong, independent woman I want to be. I don’t want to be pushed into a corner by someone else purely because I feel intimidated or threatened. I am strong and have never had issues voicing my opinions, but one push from someone else and I suddenly crumble. That isn’t something I want, especially since this is an experience I will have to go through every time I come back into the U.S. until I get a green card.