There’s an article in the Sunday LA Times about the lovely Guzman family, who – as I wrote recently – were reunited in a well-deserved but nevertheless miraculous court hearing a few weeks back.
The article was good – better than the average immigration-related reporting certainly – but it was by no means excellent. The attempted realism of the piece was at times emotionally tone-deaf, like the hard-bitten one-liners that substituted battle scars or war stories for the PTSD and horror stories suffered by those of us confronting the immigration system in one way or another. No guts-or-glory here. Certain passages had a bare crudeness, as if under florescent lighting, so that grace-under-fire looked more like clumsiness. A few times, when the article tried to adopt a playful tone, it went just a little sharp. And given the baggage of many American readers, I found the headline “The New Latino South: Could He Be a Good American” to invite unnecessary judgment without being thought-provoking.
But the Guzmans shone brightly through, especially little Logan – a testament to his loving parents!
As to be expected, the article sported a raucous comments section. Now, as a rule, I never do anything more than skim the comments sections of immigration-related articles because reading (or, God forbid, responding to) the hateful thoughts contained therein is about as much fun as taking a cheese grater to your own face. I can’t forget that bigots and demagogues exist (after all, I live in exile), but I try to maintain a healthy distance from individual examples on the internet, which magnifies incivility a thousand-fold. Ignorance of ignorance may not be “bliss,” but it can play a pretty large role in stubbornly maintaining my willful affection for humanity.
But having gotten to know Emily a bit better through the online spaces in which we spouses-of-“undesireables” congregate, I didn’t want to let her comments section be colonized by hate, so I went for it…
The first thing I noticed was that we spouses – exiles, soon-to-be-exiles, waiver-awaiters, closet cases, etc… – do have a territory of our own.
I was not the only one to take to the comments in defense of the Guzmans; a small army of spouses who I’ve come to know through the web (thanks in large part to Emily’s organizing efforts) also wanted to show their support and did so – with gusto!
For once, I think our declarations overwhelmed the few (though stubborn) “illegal-is-illegal-is-illegal-is…” broken records. Mind you, there’s still a lot of hate in that comments section, but it’s tame compared to most immigration-related articles. Usually, commenters become so wrathfully psychotic with rage that these articles have their comments sections closed lest mild-mannered readers get nailed through the computer screen by the troll spittle flying from commenters foaming lips. For the first time that I’ve seen, uneducated and xenophobic but mulishly self-affirming protestations came across as just that. No, our little nation of spouses was not staggeringly compelling or articulate; we were just numerous, persistent, and informed – three traits to never underestimate.
We’re a funny group – a motley mix spanning several generations, classes, races, and at least three continents – but we’ve fashioned our own common ground out of cyberspace and populated it with the compassion and information that is so hard to come by on this issue within the physical borders of the United States. It’s not a utopia, but it is a patria for those of us unable to find one on terra firma.
Oddly enough, the comments section also helped me get a better handle on some of my lingering prejudices about a lot of the folks facing immigration problems… it’s an unflattering realization in many, many ways, but I want to share it – to exorcise it:
I’ve struggled mightily with the criminal histories of the undocumented spouses in a small-but-noticeable number of cases – even when I know better after personal interaction; I still derived a sick sense of superiority from our own squeaky-clean record.
Now, you might remember that Leo had an arrest for driving without a license, but I’m not talking about breaking rules that have been made impossible to follow for the express purpose of harassing a population (like all of the Arizona-like “existing while immigrant” laws being passed across the South or like the “internal passports”-turn the licensing debate has taken). I also don’t mean the act of crossing the border.
I mean criminal acts.
Despite the scores of undocumented folks I know in the States without the slightest inkling of a criminal record who still can’t get documents and end up being deported even with an American partner or kids, I feel like almost all of the newspaper stories I’ve read are about some tough undocumented kid who had some trouble with the law (sometimes a little more than “trouble”) before meeting an American girl, having a kid, and turning his life around to become an upstanding gent before his whole world was turned upside-down once again by ICE.
Chances are the reporting is more varied; I’m just admittedly sensitive to all of that “criminaliens” crap, so – with a wince – I notice it. And I never really knew what to say to those pointed comments jabbing directly at a criminal past.
I have an ambiguous relationship with “the law,” given that it can be used to oppress just as easily as protect; the whole tortured history of race and citizenship in America is written in laws – from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Indian Removal Act to the Jim Crow South. I find the distinction between just and unjust laws, which Dr. King explained in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, to be extremely compelling: “an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”
So it’s pretty easy for me to decide that crossing the US/Mexico border isn’t a Big Fucking Deal given that immigration laws are currently inhumane and reprehensible. Until they’re reformed in such a way as to facilitate the legal movement of people rather than force the clandestine smuggling of people, I will firmly believe that folks from the Minute Men to Sheriff Arpaio to Border Patrol are engaged in far more “unlawful” behavior than the weary, aspiring immigrants they persecute.
But at heart, I really am a square. Despite being politically rather radical, I’ve got a pretty conservative core; I like rules. A lot. So even though laws can be wrong, I sure like it when they’re right. I almost delight in following them – to the point that I was known in high school for refusing to jaywalk. I wish I were kidding.
So when immigration news stories demonstrate an uncanny attraction to former “offenders,” I start to have ethical indigestion. On the one hand, I don’t think that deportation is a good way to deal with crime; after all, it’s only facilitated international gang activity. I also don’t think that there are many crimes for which taking someone’s future is an appropriate punishment (what motivation would one have to turn their life around then?). And frankly, there are no crimes for which one’s children should be punished. None.
But – on the other hand – I feel an uncomfortable affinity for those who think guns, drugs, gangs, etc… are actually pretty Big Fucking Deals. I do, too.
Well… at least with a new caveat.
Reading some of the comments on the article, I realized that the commenters were making judgments to which they would never be subjected themselves – that I have been making judgments to which I have never been subjected and have no chance of ever being subjected!
They are congratulating themselves on not making choices with which they were never presented.
I’m not talking about “you don’t know [war, famine, poverty, etc…], but if you did, you would have crossed the border, too!” No, I’m talking about guns, drugs, gangs, etc… and I’ll use myself and my teen years (a time of much “indiscretion,” it seems) as an example:
Anyone who knows Boulder, CO will not be surprised that no one tried to recruit me into a gang while I was growing up there. A handgun may as well have been a unicorn; my chances of seeing one were about even. I never knew anyone who was so addicted to drugs as to hurt someone else, steal, or sell their body. Until a few years ago, I never lost a friend, neighbor, or even acquaintance to violence. I knew people who did harder drugs (mostly upper middle class social drugs), but I never laid eyes on anything other than pot. I never saw or heard violence between partners or violence against children. I was never the victim of crime. The closest I got to sexual assault was a disturbed man trying to grind with me on a crowded bus; it was gross but not scarring. I never had to care for my parents instead of them caring for me. When money was tight, I wasn’t aware – and money was never that tight; I always had food, clothing, shelter, school supplies, toys, etc… I never had to earn money for anyone but me and never had to use it to buy necessities. I had not one but two loving families; each of my parents had at least one post-secondary degree. I had small class sizes with engaged and encouraging teachers in a physically safe schooling environment; no one ever doubted that I would go on to college. I knew some folks who had “records,” but I never knew anyone in jail.
The list goes on…
My point is that I never made any hard choices because I was never presented with any hard choices.
Does that make me a saint?
Well, I guess it doesn’t.
It makes me lucky.
Now there are a handful of rare moments that I came a few inches from trouble:
When still in middle school, I stole a tiny box of glitter eye shadow. No one noticed and nothing happened. I think I thought I’d feel rebellious (a terms otherwise absent from my adolescent vocabulary); I felt dumb and scared. I didn’t do it again.
Early in high school, I was out with a tougher group of my friends (I had an eclectic set of friend groups) who wanted to buy some pot. They didn’t manage to procure any.
Around the same time – for about two weeks – I thought that I was pretty tough, too, and smoked pot on 2 or 3 occasions. I told my mother about it. She said, “hm… how did it make you feel?” In the end, the answer was fuzzy but not all that different, and I hated the fiberglass feeling in my lungs and lips. We talked about drugs that I must never even think of doing, about the supply chain and the role of drugs in violence in Latin America, and about drug enforcement. The allure wore off in short order, and I decided the stuff wasn’t for me. I also stopped drinking except for a small glass of wine at special family occasions. Even in college I didn’t drink socially – except when in Europe, where it was allowed – until I was 21. My reason? The drinking age. I am that square.
The only time I was ever in trouble in school was again in middle school when, as the loudspeaker announcement girl, I read off the “World of 100 People” stats (a beautiful, more recent rendering can be found here) as my “fact of the day.” One of the most tyrannical teachers in the school took offense, gave me detention, and relieved me of my duties. My homeroom teacher reinstated me.
I can hear you snoring.
Yep, that’s the extent of my rap sheet, and I still feel uncomfortable admitting to the first three "offenses!"
Looking back, I’m quite sure that the worst possible punishments I could have suffered for any of these offenses would have been grounding by my parents and – at the absolute worst extreme – maybe some restorative justice or community service (based on the “sentences” of the “delinquents” I knew).
These were pretty pedestrian indiscretions, obviously – but not only because of the scale of my actions; there was also nothing more tied up in them than the curiosity of a privileged, sheltered goody-two-shoes. These weren't hard choices; they were dumb choices, and aside from the “100 People” stunt, these actions had little place in my “normal;” they were just a few moments of me testing limits. I am certain, however, that any number of changes in my circumstances – from the place to my race – would have produced drastically different responses if "caught." The fact that a judge (if it ever got there) would see me as a sheltered kid testing my limits is just another extension of my privilege – never mind that my normal was having the pocket money to actually buy that glitter or that I could make the choice to remove myself from an environment with drugs or alcohol and discuss it with a caring, sober, and well-educated adult like my mom.
At around the same time I was pocketing $1.99-worth of glitter (I feel so awkward even writing that), a rough-and-tumble kid in Mexico City that I would come to know 10 years later was running with a gang and getting in violent brawls; after one of these fights put him in the hospital, he found out that he had a heart condition that would kill him young. Now, he’d almost been killed and almost died in other ways, and he’d lost many friends. But only the promise of inglorious, chest-clutching kind of death scared him into living life; wanting to sever all of his ties to his former life, he crossed to the States with a only few bucks in his pocket and proceeded to work too damn hard to make any legal trouble.
The first time I met this guy (we’ll call him “Manny,” since that was a name one friend called him by mistake and thereafter insisted on using), I noticed a nasty scar on his arm and asked him about it; he told me that he’d been stabbed. Just like that, he said it was a knife wound! And, crazier still, I assumed he meant by someone in the restaurant kitchen where he worked (because I’m extremely stupid in certain areas of my life). No, Manny said, not in the kitchen. On the street then, I thought; wow, can’t be too careful these days with knife-wielding maniacs about! (That one of them was obviously Manny never crossed my mind.) “Wow,” I said, “so he just came at you with a knife and stabbed you in the arm?”
We were obviously not communicating and it turned out to have been a telling interaction.
Even as I got to know him better, I still didn’t get him. I stupidly jabbered to my friends that Manny’s life made me wonder whether Mexican soap operas were actually reality TV shows. The tragedy was so over-the-top that Dickens himself would probably have decided “we gotta tone this down. It’s a little much;” it seemed almost farcical.
We started dating and spent the entire next 7 months totally talking past one another. Obviously this relationship didn’t last. Manny wasn’t a bad guy, but he was a terrible boyfriend, so although I wish him well, I’m really glad I eventually made that distinction. Inside and outside of our relationship, it was painfully clear that he was injured and lost. It was also painfully clear that even though he wanted to do good, he didn’t know how. Up until now I could never quite reconcile Manny’s desire to do good with his penchant for fucking up. And thinking back on our relationship, I wonder what would have happened if he had been “the one” and somehow managed to get himself figured out and be the perfect husband and dad... We would have been one of those immigration stories that make me flinch.
Only now do I see that his “normal” was my “extreme and terrifying deviance.” My normal, meanwhile, was the life he’d come looking for but wouldn’t recognize even if it bit him on the nose because he’d never seen it modeled. Telling Manny to get an internship (which I had done testily on several occasions) was like telling me to get a fair price for a kilo of cocaine; neither of us had the information or support to even know where to begin.
My choices during high school were between things like my trademark superhero lunchbox/purses – Spider-Man or X-Men? Clever little me. Manny had choices like “be in this gang or be a victim of it.” Sure, I can fantasize about what I would do in his circumstances or point to alternative paths that were probably not visible from his vantage point. In the end, though – even though we’re all heroes of hypothetical situations – I have to recognize that I’ve simply never been confronted by those choices.
Now, I’ve painted us both with pretty broad brushes to make a point, and within our backgrounds and even our very persons, there are a lot more nuances and ambiguities. I’m also not saying that Manny was blameless due to circumstances beyond his control nor am I saying that he was just “destined” to have an inverted Midas touch; that would be replacing one blind over-simplification with another.
But what I am saying is that, when hearing the stories of the women in our little online nation or reading articles about families in our position, I should have always been more careful about levying even silent judgments. I made the mistake on many occasions of confusing character with a dearth of opportunities and a wealth of difficulties.
I’m forced now to realize that if Manny had ever become the man he so desperately wanted to be – as the partners of many of my sisters-in-immigration have – it would have been a much greater accomplishment than my unbroken winning streak; the cards have always been stacked in my favor, after all.
I would have to recognize and respect a strength that I frankly don’t know if I possess.
So to the LA Times commenters – from one privileged “law-abiding” citizen to another: don’t give yourselves too much credit.