I originally wrote the story below in the innocent days of August 2016. Its hard to believe how much hope I had then, and what a contrast I feel now.
For those friends who caution restraint, even in linguistics, who believe that an erosion of civil rights has not yet begun, I ask that you attempt empathy for me, even if you can’t for those currently in the same limbo at airports around the country.
Each one of the detained has a life, a social network, goals, and loved ones waiting for them at home. The vast majority are students and doctors, parents and neighbors, co-workers and friends. We already have a rigorous vetting process for all applications to this country that is proven to be as effective as possible. This type of thing has never happened before, despite claims to the contrary. This policy does not increase security, but threatens our partnerships in conflict regions and is a death sentence to families that risked their lives to support our interests.
I am a deeply privileged white woman with resources of many kinds to help me through my own experience. Please recognize that without all the help I had, my refused entry would have been emotionally crushing and life-altering. Delay of even one more day in my case would have meant an entire year lost because I would have been too far behind to catch up.
I do believe that in times of peace and stability it is helpful to adapt your attitude to hand out happy, but this is not that time. This time our integrity is under threat. This is not a bureaucratic error. Foundational elements of our political system are under threat and ‘not minding’ is not an option.
If you feel this story in any way might help someone understand the human cost of a refused entry, please share. We are all human, we all feel joy and pain and loss. We have come too far to return to tribalism and hatred and outright violence.
The most white supremacist thought to which I have ever been immediately attuned was in the stress of the situation described below. I was in the deportation lounge thinking ‘Can’t they see I’m not a terrorist?’ My second though was ‘wow, that was pretty racist. What does a terrorist look like? Why can’t she look like you?’ I didn’t know until I had that thought how shocking it is to realize you were racist all along. The shame of that self-reflection is not easy to bear and is terrifying to share publicly. Both feelings inform how important it is to share this story. It is critical that we are all a little more reflective, a little more honest, with ourselves and with our fellow citizens.
Any shame I feel is outweighed by the hope that in sharing I might help one person to see a little more clearly. Hopefully some of this speaks to you.
The secret to a charmed life is making all the green lights… and not minding the red ones
This popped into my head on a sunny September afternoon while waiting in traffic at an intersection I used to breeze through in SE Portland.
I was considering my helplessness, stuck in Portland while the rest of my graduate classmates were moving in, finding books, meeting each other and beginning class. That was all continuing on the other side of the world while I was waiting for a light, and waiting for my whole life at the same time.
I was supposed to be in London, and I was here, waiting for the British civil service to decide if I was going to be allowed back, if I could live and study in the UK, a place I was pretty sure was integral to my whole future. Looking back, I suppose there was an issue I was a security risk. I thought I was a normal 20 something, just wanting to go back to school. I didn’t think that my constant international travel looked suspicious, although I should have known better after all that time traveling to weird destinations. Student tickets aren’t usually the means of constant global circumnavigation
It started like all my other trips. I packed, printed documents, double checked lists and said my goodbyes. From the moment I stepped on the plane I was on my way to a new chapter of life, expectant, nervous, a little jittery with my soundtrack plugged firmly in my ears.
I hit the immigration hall out of the gate. I was excited to be there and I knew this drill. A lifetime of international travel and I thought I knew it all. Little did I know I had only ever seen one side of that system.
I strode confidently up to the podium, my passport and a print-out of my invitation letter proudly displayed. I tried to keep the conversation short and polite, my goal was to get out of the airport and on the train asap. I guessed I could be in my room in 2 hours, max. My head was already at Paddington station, looking for a taxi.
I was drawn back to the podium by a question “Where is your visa?”
I was confused. They were supposed to stamp that. That is how most visas worked for American passport holders (outside China, at least.) My two previous student visas had been granted that way.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Isn’t that what we’re doing? Did I forget to give you my letter?”
(Always be polite when traveling, it costs nothing and is much more effective)
“I’m sorry, I’ll be right back”
I was left standing alone at the podium while others streamed by me. I had never had this perspective before, I was always the streaming, moving quickly through barriers with a smile and a quick polite word. It was disorienting, to suddenly know something is different and off, but not understand what exactly is happening. I was told to take a seat and wait. My original timeline was now very off and I was very much present in only this moment.
Flights land at Heathrow from all over the world, passengers enter the UK from 3 international terminals. That year 68 million passengers passed through their doors.
After I had been sitting for 20 minutes, a flight landed from Lagos. About half of the African passengers were detained for health screenings. I considered how lucky I was. Mine was probably a simple misunderstanding, his was being born in the wrong place. I was scared but grateful for the reminder to take deep breaths and choose happy.
I was not allowed in that day. I was refused entry, detained and treated suspiciously by a group I had previously barely noticed. I was fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. I was in a windowless room with a payphone useless to me. It was early Sunday morning GMT, who would be available? Could anyone help? I sat with the other Americans who had made my same mistake. For some it had been a gamble, for some a genuine misunderstanding. There was a quorum of about 5-6 students, constantly shifting, but always about the same size. There was a woman who had been at a conference and couldn’t give up her passport long enough to get the visa. She was kind in telling me to give up hope immediately, but I was still naïve enough to be unable to comply.
There was a VERY highly strung gentleman from New York who kept us informed of the events he was currently missing at his college on an hourly basis, in between lamenting how miserable this situation was. Now was the coach to meet him, now was the welcome drinks, now was the meeting with his advisor. Maybe he could just buy a cheap ticket to Denmark or Amsterdam, and stay a few days. It is the only time in my life I have ever genuinely thought ‘you are killing my zen, man’
I was trying not to panic and so had not begun to focus on how this knot would be unraveled. I kept thinking that when they understood how the mistake happened, and that I was unaware of a rule change, there would be some accommodation. There was a singular unwillingness to do anything other than process us and send us home to deal with their colleagues in another branch of UKBA.
We went down to the arrivals hall to collect my bags, including the extra I had brought and paid for. I was quickly learning what it was to be accompanied everywhere, treated as a suspect.
My luggage was searched thoroughly in the otherwise empty entry hall as other passengers sailed through ‘nothing to declare’ and searchd again in front of the entire flight I was put on to get me home as quickly as possible. I had a short chance to call my parents to tell them to expect me. I was escorted with 3 guards, all at least a head taller than I was, the most unlikely international menace you had ever seen. They walked either side and behind me, to the van with the cage in the back and from the cage to the secure departure area where they checked my bags again. My rational mind knew it was a shaming mechanism: how could I have any contraband when the bags had been in their possession since they last searched them? The rest of me was mostly numb. The female guard, taking pity, gave me the chance to pull 2 things from my checked bags- a clean shirt and a stuffed dog who was my most constant companion.
And there I was. In seat 47G, on my way to another 30 hour journey back home to figure out what came next. I flew to Dallas, was met and given a hotel room, woke in darkness to the ringing of the wake-up call and stumbled onto a plane to O’Hare, more grief from TSA, probably because I was a mess and easy. Finally, I arrived back where I started, 72 hours later. My parents had hugs and plans and we had a mad rush for the first 3 days while I got a new passport (a whole other story) and sent all the paperwork to the consulate. Apparently, they aren’t kidding when they say ‘check all immigration requirements’ because those suckers change! As an undergrad I needed a letter, as a postgrad (and post 9/11 and 7/7) one needed a bank account, and a letter, and a whole form, and additional photos. We sent everything they asked and called everyone we knew who might be able to help. And then we waited.
The thing that people misunderstand about government, is that there are lots of parts and they function very differently. The civil service is a job for life. It’s a slow but steady rise, as long as you do your job, don’t make trouble, and are good at the tasks assigned you, its possible to have a wonderful life, and contribute to society. People in the civil service are the balance to politics. They keep the trains running, and the security at borders well, but they are also impervious to changing or breaking the rules. They are annoyed by people trying to circumvent a system and they are careful and thorough. All of which meant I was totally helpless, waiting at that light. Hoping a stranger would read my application, including the statement of why I made the mistake I did and got sent back. There was nothing I could do, no levers to pull.
The only option was to wait at that light, and wait for that civil servant and trust that I would be on time where I was going, and that things would work out ok. The only thing I could do was try to not mind the waiting. To decide that there was a reason that things happen and I’m not always in control.
Sometimes we hit all the green lights, and some days there are more red ones. The way to ensure we have a charmed life either way is to make sure to hit all the greens, or just to choose… not to mind the red ones.
I was able to have hope because I trusted the system, and I have faith in something higher. I still believe there is an order to the universe, but our system is in trouble. It is imperative that we fight on, using whatever tools we can, until we see green lights for everyone again.