A writer and mother learns what it means to be foreign, what it means to be dark-skinned, and the particular humiliations of daring to be both in the United States.
Photo by Magnifik 2.0
He leans in against me. Stale neck, faintly damp chest, coffee breath. There’s no getting away from his musty warmth. I focus on the yellow and black diamond pattern of my thin cotton dress, my coppery skin denting beneath the fabric as he presses cool metal to my flank. I sink into myself, away from the burn in my cheeks, away from this man skirting the border between outside and in. Don’t look as he glides his arm down my back. Don’t flinch as he presses my armpit, the back of my knee. Does he feel my swampish fever, fear percolating to my surface? I’ve been scanned many times at airports, but never with such strange intimacy. Nearby, shoeless travelers watch their belongings bump along the conveyor belt at O’Hare. The TSA officer’s wand slides along the inside of my thigh. He hasn’t spoken to me at all.
I flick my brown eyes up, meeting the worried blue eyes of my son across the man’s shoulder. The boy’s blond hair curls up beyond his now pale temple, his ears flushing at the lobes. The officer pulls away sharply. “Who is this woman to you,” he asks my son. “She’s my mother,” the boy responds edgily. The man glances from my passport to my son’s, to him, to me, to him. We don’t look alike. Do not speak, do not speak, do not speak, my dark eyes tell my fair boy. The man waves us on.
The woman who stops me by the boarding gate is rougher, bigger, more aggressive as her hands maneuver across my dress, which is flimsy and covers me snugly. There is no room to conceal anything. Why am I being searched again? I stand off to one side as people enter the walkway to the plane. My two sons wait close by, one small and dark like me, the other sturdy and fair. We are on our way to join their father, my husband, in Europe, where he is teaching a film class for summer. All four of us are American permanent residents and citizens of New Zealand—home of cinematic hobbits, champion sailors, a teen pop star, and the latest Man Booker prizewinner. Except I feel as if I am an enemy. My legs are parted, my arms adrift, my long brown hair now sticking to my neck, my clavicle, my damp cheeks, my borderlands exposed. Most of the travelers embarking look the other way, or narrow their eyes to take in the general tableau without making eye contact, avoiding the specific, the individual. I feel shame, but I’m not sure why. This is security. It’s nothing personal, really.
Something about me invites scrutiny, official inspection. Something about us, the few who are flagged, shuffled into cubicles for an extra pat-down, a secondary interview, for the snap of a rubber glove, to have our luggage and our bodies rifled through.
Eight hours of airspace, of no man’s land, of gazing out into interminable silver, pale horizons that belong to no one, of time-limning imaginary divides, cloud drift, the rush of freezing air beyond the windows, and a glimmering sense of freedom. An unwarranted sense of freedom.
A German immigration officer calls me out of line. My boys are buoyed along by the stream of disembarking passengers ahead of me. She motions me into a cubicle. “But wait, my boys… Boys! Boys! Wait! Wait!” They turn, alarmed, brows lifted, mouths ajar, the little one clutching for his brother. “My boys, my boys, please…” but she has her wand at the ready, intruding, invading. My limits are breached for the third time this trip. I stiffen, but there is no point in resistance. I have been racially profiled, I assume. My tawny skin could be, what, Palestinian, Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi? Enemy-colored, regardless of my New Zealand passport.
I used to love travel, the sense of being a global citizen. I grew up believing it was my right, a necessity. Growing up in the relative wealth of New Zealand, it was expected. Now that I live and work in the United States, I find myself questioning the ease of crossing borders, the legitimacy of the traveler and the relevance of the boundaries, the power of bureaucracies, the dangers of borderland scrutiny, and the insecurities bred by security and surveillance. Wherever I travel, it seems that I have a special status. Something about me invites scrutiny, official inspection. Something about us, the few who are flagged, shuffled into cubicles for an extra pat-down, a secondary interview, for the snap of a rubber glove, to have our luggage and our bodies rifled through.
I am an Alien. I am A54**32. For a time I was a Non-Resident Alien, then I was an Alien on Advanced Parole. I am now a Resident Alien. The language is peculiar, drumming up recollections of 1950s comics, creatures from the swamp, pods of extraterrestrials, unidentified flying objects, reds under the bed, and sci-fi evildoers. Some countries do not use this lexicon at all, others let it hover obscured, layered behind euphemisms for lawyers and bureaucrats to find. The terminology leaves me high and dry, on a continent that feels hostile and prickly.
I am permitted to live in the United States. I am permitted to work and pay income taxes. I have been allowed to offer up pieces of myself—my eyeballs, my thumbprints, my history, my blood.
I am permitted to live in the United States. I am permitted to work and pay income taxes, to pay private insurance for healthcare, to own a house and pay high property taxes that fund local schools. I am not allowed to vote in school board, village, state, or national elections. This strikes me as unusual, because many other countries extend some level of voter rights to permanent residents. I have been allowed to offer up pieces of myself—my eyeballs, my thumbprints, my history, my blood, some of my freedoms—here in the land of the free.
My iris is captured in a biometrics file with the U.S Immigration Service. My distinct irides, those patterns of my iris muscle, are my unique features. My deep brown eyes, the eyes that have held the gaze of my beloved, the eyes that look like my mother’s, that my newborn sons searched for and struggled to focus on: these are now U.S territory.
Photographs of my eyes were captured by a high-quality digital camera in a Homeland Security outpost in a room with gray vinyl flooring and gray plastic chairs, in a strip mall in Norridge, Chicagoland. A tall, bald, Vietnam veteran in a gray uniform seethed in a tarry voice, line up here, stand there, present your documents, take a number, sit down, go to that booth. I wanted to say, but wait, I’m not an enemy combatant, will it hurt, I’m from a friendly country, you buy our apples and our lamb, what will happen to this photograph. He seemed like a frightening Apocalypse Now character, a Marlon Brando-styled Colonel Kurtz, so I swallowed my questions and offered my eyeballs to the booth.
My oval eyes, that can appear delighted, alarmed, smitten, melancholic, frustrated, pained, angry, hurt, adoring, bored, opaque, determined, elated, jealous, fatigued, and frightened, have been turned into code. They were filtered and mapped into phasors or vectors, according to how iris segments are oriented and spaced. It is no secret to my family that I am mathematically challenged, but I am now a series of successful algorithms, courtesy of the ophthalmologists Burch, Safir, Flom, and Daugman, who developed the encoding methodology.
This is marvelous, but there is still no cure for glaucoma, which is robbing my mother of sight. My mother, who creates painterly masterpieces in her garden and who loves to read, spin wool, and knit, is losing the use of her eyes, as images of mine are captured and saved for an unspecified time, then scanned every time I travel to visit her. This is apparently a good thing, as it will alert security officials if an enemy of the state is entering the country.
The iris scan was first used by law enforcement agencies to identify prisoners, but the fingerprint was the earliest forensic biometric record. Loops and spirals were caught in clay in ancient Babylon and China, to keep track of business deals. Prints have been identifying criminals, real and suspected, since the late nineteenth century. In 1924, in the aftermath of the first Red Scare in the U.S., the Identification Division of the FBI was set up. By the time a second such scare was underway in the ’40s, the FBI had one hundred million cards blacked with whorls and spirals, lined up in tall filing cabinets. By 1971, two hundred million people had their two prints inked, rolled, and stamped. Now Homeland Security stores more than one hundred and twenty million peoples’ prints, and the FBI has over one hundred million computerized records, both criminal and civil. All are available to Interpol’s network.
My own prints, my furrows, ridges, and valleys, were harvested five or six times. How many times do American authorities need fingerprints? Do they change over time? Do the bad guys change their prints? Sometimes. The 1930s bank robber John Dillinger burned his off with acid, and more recent criminals altered theirs surgically. My fingers pluck mint from my garden, knead fresh bread, stroke my sons’ hair, lace themselves between my husband’s—I have not altered them.
It seems incongruous to mention the assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon as background to this, to group my own potential criminality with those other swarthy invaders, the ones who pierced airspace, buildings, and human lives. To say it was bad timing to move to the United States weeks before, though, seems callous. I don’t want to trivialize the horror of that day. Nonetheless, it locked me into eight years of cyclic fingerprinting, assignations in federal buildings shielded by concrete barriers and teeming with holstered security guards, appointments in strip malls, searches in airports, and a lag of five years between my husband and children getting permanent residency and me finally being able to use the same line in the airport as my family. This altered my perception of myself to a woman vulnerable to the hands of airport authorities, to a person of color profiled as a possible enemy, to a foreigner with ambiguous status. The “security” of the greater good has become my shaky insecurity.
Being viewed as a potential threat diminishes you, fractures a personal landscape, peels off pieces of bark until you are raw. You begin to suspect your own legitimacy, your place in the long, snaking lines of mainly brown people waiting for their numbers to come up. Are you trying to sneak through a keyhole into a society that doesn’t want you? are you in the shadows of illegality? could they deport you? could they separate you from your children? could they make you disappear?
If you’ve ever been in a secondary interrogation room in an American port of entry, you will recognize this fear. The large room is walled off from the main passport control hall that travelers snake through after disembarking. Uniformed border officers perch up behind a high counter looking down at rows of weary arrivals slouched in plastic chairs. There are a few citizens, but most are tourists or expatriates or immigrants. There is no privacy. Yelling, crying, pleading, and peeing take place in full view and earshot of those waiting for their passport to come to the top of the pile. It’s a morality play in the public square, except we are an unwilling and undemonstrative audience.
There’s the vacationing Italian whose travel agent has not informed him that even though Italy is a friendly nation with a visa waiver, he should have a passport with an electronic chip or a current visa. When the officers finally dismiss him, he protests their treatment and tries to argue. “Do you want to leave or shall we put you on the next plane back to Italy?” He leaves.
There’s the English student planning a Transamerica road trip for six weeks, but he’s visibly of Asian heritage, so they hector him about why he’s on vacation for so long, and how did he get that time off work? He explains that he has left his job, because he’s a student, and besides, in the U.K. most workers get six weeks paid leave, but they don’t believe him. They harangue him for forty-five minutes before letting him go.
There’s the Fijian-born Indian New Zealander with a U.S. green card who says she was in New Zealand for six months because her brother was killed in a motorbike crash and she stayed longer to help her aging mother. She quietly weeps, laying out her mourning before a room of witnesses uncomfortable with this uninvited intimacy.
A Chinese woman speaks via a translator. The officer asks if she has a child. She says no. After fifteen minutes of questioning, the officer calls a colleague over.
“Why are you lying?” they ask.
“I’m not lying,” she repeats.
“The computer tells us you have an eight-year-old daughter. Why deny it?” They take turns berating her, yelling at her.
The translator is flustered, frantic, near tears. “But we misunderstood you,” the translator pleads. “We thought you meant did she have a child with her, is she traveling with her child, but her daughter is with her grandparents in China. It was confused in translation.”
There is a secondary, secondary interview room, where body searches take place. I have not had that experience.
I was on advanced parole for years. I was not held against my will, but sometimes I felt unduly confined. How did I get to this limbo? The process started not long after we moved in 2001 for my husband’s job, as a department chair in a large college. We were pressed into the permanent residency process for employment reasons, so my husband could travel freely to international conferences and business meetings. He seemed to have moved to a different country than me; his experience was so different, so smooth, benign and friendly. He got a Social Security number and driver’s license immediately, a bank account, and within a couple of years, he, and our children, had permanent residency.
How do you determine the depths of your “moral turpitude”? Stabbing Peter Fellows in the leg with a freshly sharpened pencil because he wouldn’t stop swinging on the back of my chair in fourth grade? Sleeping with a boyfriend’s brother?
I didn’t achieve residency until the last days of December 2008. I don’t know why. Maybe because my last name was different from my husband’s, or because I hadn’t secured my SSN before 9/11, or maybe because I was brown, or because something in my application had raised a red flag. I’d been convicted and fined twenty-five dollars for stealing a can of tuna when I was a student. I’d had my wisdom teeth removed under the influence of valium and left the store with a can in one hand and my wallet in the other. (Under the Clean Slate Act, it no longer appears on my record in my homeland, but I’ve illuminated my crime forever with the U.S Immigration Service.)
The tenor of the questions in that application took me by surprise. Maybe I was naïve, having moved from a country with no perceived external threats, little government corruption, four million people and thirty million sheep. The questions had a film noir quality, a hangover from a more sinister age. I thought of the McCarthy era, the Hollywood blacklists and the House Un-American Activities Committee. I did un-American things most days, like pronouncing schedule with a soft “sh”; I scoffed at my son reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at school; and I struggled to understand the partnership between peanut butter and jelly. But there was no subversion in our suburban life.
The forms asked:
Have I ever been a member of a communist organization?
No. (Although when I was at university I went out with a dude in the student chapter of the NZ Workers League. Is that paranoia?)
Have I ever been a member of a terrorist organization?
No. (Protesting against the Springbok rugby tour with the All Blacks of New Zealand? Concrete down a toilet at a feminist rally?)
Have you ever committed a crime of moral turpitude?
Moral turpitude has been in U.S. immigration law since 1891, but isn’t defined by statute (though State Department regulations try to clarify it), and doesn’t feature in other countries, so I pondered this carefully. Have I been guilty of “conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty, or good morals?” How do you determine the depths of your turpitude?
Stabbing Peter Fellows in the leg with a freshly sharpened pencil because he wouldn’t stop swinging on the back of my chair in fourth grade?
Sticky-ing the living room floor with booze when my mother was out of town, dumping the bottles in the church trash bin across the road, lying that I was at my friend’s house?
Telling my sister’s boyfriend that my sister cheated on him when he was sick with mono?
Sleeping with a boyfriend’s brother?
Having three boyfriends at the same time, dismissing one out the window while another was knocking at the door?
Failing to act when, as a camp counselor, a nine-year-old girl confided that she had been raped by her uncle?
I was unjust, dishonest, and had dodgy morals. But I grew up. Was there a statute of limitation?
Overall, I thought I was a good person. I was kind to friends and made my kids clean their teeth after eating sweets. I believed in the common good and paid my taxes in full. I had adopted two rescue cats. So I checked No: I had not committed Crimes of Moral Turpitude.
In the weeks and years after 9/11 everything was jammed up and panicked. My husband had secured basic documents like driver’s license and Social Security number as soon as we had arrived, while I focused on settling in the children, who were two and seven. I, who had been a journalist, editor, and public relations advisor all my adult life, was for the first time a homemaker, as designated by our banker on our account application. I had a visa to work, but no work authorization, and could not get one in any reasonable time, so I declined several job offers. I waded into a pool of uncertainty, of bureaucracy, of hyper-vigilance. I couldn’t drive my children because I couldn’t get a driver’s license, which required a Social Security number. I couldn’t get a SSN because that would require a letter from the Department of Transportation, which would provide one only if I had a SSN. I rocketed backward and forward for days between two departments. I met others in a similar position—expatriate spouses of foreign lawyers, business advisors and consultants hired by international corporations and big agencies—trapped stateside with a driving prohibition that made us feel akin to women in Saudi Arabia.
My discomfort is incomparable to those fleeing persecution or poverty. We sat side by side on gray chairs in featureless waiting rooms that smelled inexplicably of classroom chalk, school raincoats, and pee. We were all children again, powerless before authority. My homeland is not an engorged country bursting to spew its surplus into the U.S. or a nation of ambiguous and contested boundaries, but a friend of America. I am not of an underclass. I am ashamed and conflicted that I want to set myself apart from the others, but I need to shriek: “You started it, you flirted with my husband first, you courted us, you encouraged us from the other side of the world and this is how you treat me!”
My love affair is with my husband, not my adopted country or the gatekeepers. I am here like so many international families of the so-called “knowledge economy.” I came as a package of four. As much as I know terrorism is a threat, I also know my kids are more likely to die by beer, heroin, a speeding Ford, a tainted cantaloupe, or a bad hot dog at a Cubs game. I worry about my sons as they become old enough to travel without parents. Will the blond, blue-eyed son be waved on, while his dark-eyed, tawny brother is held back?
Toni Nealie writes and teaches in Chicago, where she earned her MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. She previously worked in magazines, politics, and public relations in the U.K. and her native New Zealand. This essay is part of a collection in progress about journeys and homelands.
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