Pay No Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

dorthy and dog

Once my husband Picasso received his U.S. permanent residency approval, I thought, “this is it.” 

In my ignorance and privilege as a U.S. citizen, I figured that it was time to cue the happy ending music.

What I’ve learned this past few weeks since returning from our home-closing trip to Mexico is that there’s so much more for me to learn.

Me, who thought incorrectly and arrogantly that I already knew a lot about issues around immigration.

Me, who confidently thought she already knew a lot about herself and her husband and our relationship.

And while it hurts like a motherfucker, I want to name here how my sadness and rage against U.S. immigration morphed and worked its way into my relationship with my husband over the years.

I want to name how sometimes I wasn’t as tough on my husband around specific issues that we tussled with, because I secretly felt bad that certain doors in this world were closed to him because of his immigration situation.

I want to name here how sometimes I treated my husband like a hothouse flower, to be tended to very carefully, because I felt that he suffered a lot already over the course of his life, immigration and otherwise. 

I want to name here that sometimes I was the cause of his suffering and reacted by tending to him even more, my guilty feelings building another addition to my hothouse.

I want to name here that I’m disappointed about having to be the main breadwinner for at least the next year here in the States, while my husband gets his GED, gets a job, builds his credit, get’s a driver’s license, works on his English, gets his footing in the States. I was excited to put that main breadwinner pack down, after 14 years. I saw how I mentally flung that pack into the creek that flows by Heather Wilhelmina and Mr. Vulcan’s house a few weeks ago.

I watched myself sheepishly fish the pack out of the creek last night.

What shocked me this morning was looking out the window and realizing that when my husband entered the U.S., I naively thought that we were going to be equals now.

That in this new chapter, he was just like me – a visible and active member of this society.

Yeah, you can laugh now. It’s O.K.

Because clearly, in my privilege disguised as naivete, I didn’t think about where we are not the same, in terms of formal education, mastery of English, class, race and access in this neck of the woods.

The simple fact of how my name Giselle Stern doesn’t scream out “Mexican” on a resume, but Picasso’s full name does. And the conclusions people draw, conclusions based on our names alone.

I’m tired and tattered. Periods of growth and change will do that to you. 

I want to be clear here – it means the world to me that my husband and I get to live together with our cats in a supportive household. The reunification of families destroyed by U.S. immigration policies will always be a priority for me. 

But I do feel that there’s a dirty little secret that’s not talked about a lot – the next chapter for immigrants who have complicated pasts and are suddenly brought to the front of the line. It’s like the U.S.-born family members are supposed to shut up and be grateful. Not talk about the challenges, because there are so many people who want to be in our shoes.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately what I was taught about the U.S. as a young child, i.e., the U.S. being the best and most powerful nation of them all.

Do you all remember that line from The Wizard of Oz?

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

I’ve been feeling a lot like Dorothy lately, when she says this:

“If you are really great and powerful, you’d keep your promises.” 

Amen, Dorothy. Amen.

Where I’ve Been

Picasso came back from his temporary gig on the East Coast. Four sleeps later, we were on a plane to Mexico. This trip was to close up the apartment that we’ve rented for the past seven years. It was the official Final Visit after Picasso’s U.S. permanent residency approval this past June. Our main objective was to bring our cats Leche and Pixie Bella safely back to the States and quietly close this chapter of our lives.

While we got off to a slow start in Mexico, we were soon thrown up hard against the wall by the move. For a moment there, all we could see were bags full of garbage. Boxes full of stuff.

In the middle of this, Mr. Vulcan called and left me a voicemail. He very rarely loses his cool. But in this message, his voice sounded strained.

I called him back, broom in one hand, phone cradled between my shoulder and chin. What he told me next made me drop everything and sit down.

At 8:15 that morning, a Saturday morning no less, a representative from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) knocked loudly on the front door of where we all live, asking to speaking with Heather Wilhelmina, my husband Picasso and then, “Picasso’s wife, Giselle Stern.” He obviously didn’t ask for people by my blog’s pseudonyms, but did ask for all of us by our legal names.

None of us three were home. The DHS rep didn’t tell Mr. Vulcan the reason for his visit. Didn’t leave a business card. He was an older white man, all khaki pants and a black SUV.

I called our immigration lawyer. She was surprised – none of her clients with approved permanent residencies were ever visited at home by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She assured us that Picasso was completely and totally within his rights to travel and work. That all his documents were in order.

I spoke with friends (who I don’t want to name here right now for their own protection) who know about these kinds of visits. After speaking with them, I figured that the DHS was perhaps doing a security clearance on someone we all knew, or was confirming the validity of my marriage to Picasso.

The idea that our 13-year marriage had to be confirmed for its validity was offensive to me. But I needed to hang on to something concrete right just then.

I needed to keep moving forward with the move and not get lost in my fear. Not get paralyzed by my lived experience of how things can turn on a dime and half an hour later, your husband is in a prison uniform, handcuffed, behind bullet-proof glass.

We kept cleaning and packing. Said our goodbyes. We lost track of what day of the week it was, the physical and mental strain of the move smacking us clear across the face.

During the flight back to the States, our cat Pixie Bella was relatively quiet in her pet carrier under the seat. Leche was a whole other situation. Picasso and I passed out and slept for about 30 minutes. When we came to, Leche had bit/clawed two substantial holes in the mesh cover of his carrier.

I had nightmarish visions of Picasso and I falling asleep again. When we finally woke up, Leche was sure to be perched on the top of someone’s seat, cleaning himself without a worry in the world.

Picasso practiced reciting our home address here in Oakland while blocking Leche from making bigger holes in the mesh top of his carrier. While we most definitely live at the address he was practicing, sometimes addresses can jump out of your head when you’re being questioned in your second language under stressful circumstances.

We planned about what to do, where to meet if he was detained and released after. I mentally prepared for us to be taken into separate rooms for questioning.

I fought myself hard to not think about what would happen if Picasso was indefinitely detained, sent to jail again.

For the first time in our relationship, we walked up together to a U.S. Border and Customs agent in an airport.

And after all the money, time, tears and support, after all we’ve been through, Picasso was still sent to Secondary for further questioning. I was able to go with him, each one of us carrying one cat in their carrier on our right shoulder.

We weren’t taken into separate rooms for questioning. But we sat in a waiting room for 30 minutes, where Picasso was intermittently called up for questioning by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent who seemed hell-bent on having Picasso become an addition to his detention and deportation quota for that day.

The questions that he asked were both leading and misleading, the objective to catch Picasso in a lie.

For example, very early in the questioning, the DHS rep clearly asked Picasso, “What happened three years ago?”

Picasso was puzzled. “Three years ago? I was in Mexico. I was deported from the U.S. in 2001.”

The DHS rep moved on. More confusing questions, as well as baiting comments so that perhaps my husband would blow up. Give the rep a reason to take further action.

Picasso just answered calmly and smiled openly. He didn’t and doesn’t have anything to hide, the truth coming out from the center of his body and shining through his eyes.

He handled the questioning and the comments like a pro. After hours of not sleeping. In his second language. With our cats meowing loudly in the waiting room and a wife who he was worried was going to lose her shit.

During the whole time that I sat in chairs in the waiting area of Secondary at the San Francisco International Airport, my blue U.S. passport was in the possession of that DHS rep. It lay there on his side of the counter, right next to Picasso’s green Mexican passport with the special visa stamp that he received at this very airport just a few months before.

My blue U.S. passport lay there on the DHS rep’s side of the counter, next to Picasso’s U.S. Permanent Residency card.

Near the end of the questions and comments, the U.S. Department of homeland Security rep stated, “Look, you committed a crime. It’s always going to follow you, everywhere you go.”

As I’ve talked about here previously, my husband has a gun possession charge from 1993, when he was 19 years old. He just turned 40 last October. Obviously, everything surrounding this gun charge was addressed in Picasso’s I-212 waiver, which was approved, as well his U.S. permanent residency application.

Which, by the way, was also approved.

The DHS rep went on to close his questions and comments with a whole wash of subtly racist and classist prattle that I truly don’t want to waste one letter on here. He did manage to mention that we’ll always need to prepare for a possible Secondary visit when we come back to the States from travel.

As well as the occasional knock on the front door, early on a Saturday morning, I guess.

The fact that this DHS rep was a black man in the United States speaking to a brown man in this way made what he was saying cut that much more deeply in my heart. Made me think some hateful thoughts of a decidedly not politically correct nature. Made me look at the ceiling in Secondary and think about how far we have to go in terms of black/brown solidarity, on both ends.

He blithely handed my blue U.S. passport back to my husband, telling him that, “This goes back to your wife.”

Before we left, Picasso asked the DHS rep what he meant asking him about what happened three years ago. The DHS rep looked at him and didn’t miss a beat, saying, “Oh, I didn’t say three years ago. I asked what happened a few years ago.” His eyes met Picasso’s, waiting to see what he would do. 

My husband chose his next steps quickly and correctly. He didn’t challenge the DHS rep.

We walked out of Secondary with our cats, me biting into my lower lip to force myself not to scream.  

No one asked to see any of our cats’ paperwork at any point during our trip. They sailed through all kinds of customs and security without a single check of any of their documents.

Next lifetime, I want to come back as a much-loved cat.

We’ve done everything to the letter at this point. We went to the back of the proverbial imaginary line. We paid the “fines” that the politicos are always ranting about. Picasso’s U.S. documents are valid, real and totally in order.

So now what?

That’s where I’ve been –  living in the Now What. Slowly pulling myself out of Secondary. Having messy meltdowns and cracking morbid jokes. Petting our cats and staring at the ceiling.

And as frightened and angry as I feel, as truly scared as I am now to continue to write publicly about our post-visa life, I’m done wrestling with that deep and real fear. My husband supports this decision 100%.

Staying silent just aint on this menu.

Spines Made of Steel

44 california

Today’s my birthday. I’m 44 years old. Closer to 50 than to 30 by this point. But overall, I’m cool about that fact. 

When Picasso and I were dating in New York, I turned 30 in 2000.We’d been together eight months. That New Year’s Eve, I drank so much and for so long that I practically pickled myself permanently.

My one strong memory from January 1, 2000 is our room that we rented in a house in Long Island City, in Queens, NY. While we had kitchen privileges, we didn’t really like to go downstairs to cook.

Picasso had an electric kettle plugged in on the opposite side of the room from where I was sprawled out on our mattress on the floor.

We had a fancy bag of some kind of pre-prepared organic soup. All you had to do was throw it into the electric kettle and heat the damn thing up.

My one strong memory from January 1, 2000 is of me waking up around four in the afternoon and crawling on my hands and knees across the room, from our mattress to the kettle, dragging the pre-prepared bag of organic soup behind me like a rag doll.

I crawled because I couldn’t stand up right just then.

After that year, I made a promise to myself that I didn’t want to continue meeting the new year and my birthday in an extremely pickled state.

So I don’t. Depending on the year, I’m anywhere from stone-cold sober to lightly buzzed, with my husband Picasso always and our cats Leche and Pixie Bella usually by my side.

This year was a little different. We needed funds for our upcoming move out of Mexico. Picasso took a temporary gig in another state that started on October 17th of last year and ends on January 10th of this year. Our cats are in Mexico, being taken care of by a good friend.

All that to say that my husband and I weren’t together for the holidays. And we aren’t together for my birthday today. After everything we’ve been through as a result of U.S. immigration laws, we’ve never been separated during this holiday/birthday period in all of our years as a couple.

However, this moment of holiday separation that I’ve never gone through before is one that so many of you have. Many of you are going through it right now. And many of you don’t have the huge privilege, as I do, to know that you’ll see your loved one soon.

That difference in our experiences is one that I carry in the center of my being.

So my good friends Mr. Vulcan and Heather Wilhelmina saw me through New Year’s Eve 2013 here in Oakland, California. I’m sitting here writing this as they’re preparing a lovely 2014 birthday breakfast. In my very happily sober and not hungover state, I’m also thankful for the magic of technology that keeps my heart connected to all of my loved ones on this doubly special day.

As my good friend, Ivan and Posey’s Mama wrote to me in a sweet birthday text this morning: You are surrounded by people who love you.

And she’s right on the money.

Today, as I reflect on my birthday as well as the year that passed and the year to come, one of the things that I’m thinking about is that those of us who’ve had justice restored to our loved one’s immigration cases, we have a particular responsibility to continue to fight for the rest of our communities affected by U.S. immigration laws that separate families.

Because those of us with justice restored can speak to the deep pain, fear, frustration, anger and loss. The financial toll. Our broken, betrayed hearts. The years, on the bad days, that felt like they were lost in an abyss.

But we can also speak to never giving up, love, humor, personal growth. Our spines made of steel. What we’ve gained. And what our post-permanent residency lives look like.

I didn’t know what I stood for in life on January 1, 2000.

Today? I know what I’ll stand for permanently ’til the day I die.

Salt In The Wounds

salt

Yesterday I signed up my husband and myself for health insurance, through the Affordable Care Act. The infamous Obamacare. 

For the past three years since my return to the States, I’ve had health insurance for a total of about a year, broken up between two previous jobs. During one of those times was when I was diagnosed with Essential Thrombocytosis. 

My husband Picasso? He never had insurance in the States, because he was undocumented during all of his years in this country.

The process took a crazy long time yesterday, mainly due to me not being able to input my husband’s social security number correctly.

Yup, you read that right. I’ve got a Masters and a temp job right now that involves data entry, but I wasn’t able to input Picasso’s social security number correctly. I kept putting three numbers in the middle section, instead of two.

I’m learning to work with this new number of his.

Heather Wilhelmina finally pointed it out to me after sitting next to me for three minutes and watching what I was doing. While I typed in my social without any problems, I’d been putting in his number completely wrong all day long.

However, after that was all settled, the application was in. I’ll have to supply additional documentation, but after that, we should be good to go.

I looked at my computer screen with the Covered California flow chart showing that the application was submitted.

I thought about the time that Picasso coughed up blood when we were first living together in New York in 1999.

I thought about the time when I went to the hospital last March, the fear that I was stroking out hanging over my head, my lack of insurance making a difficult situation that much more frightening.

I thought about how I received my initial diagnosis of Essential Thrombocytosis because I was insured and I could go to the doctor without worrying how the hell I was going to pay for it.

Yesterday I was also thinking about how for every one Picasso that received their U.S. permanent residency this year, how many undocumented, detained and deported immigrants stand behind him, behind us, watching, waiting.

How many U.S. citizen family members will be able to fill out a healthcare insurance application for themselves, but not for a loved one?

I know that feeling only too well. 

After a year of stalled immigration reform, these looming deadlines of signing up for health insurance?

They’re just salt in the wounds for too many in our community.

Up Against That Cool, Cool Glass

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While the politicos twiddle their thumbs,
I want them to press their hands
Up against that cool, cool glass.

So smooth, that pane, so transparent.

I want them to pick up the phone receiver to speak.
What can be said right just then?
The speechwriters seem to have lost their pens.

The guard will only allow one minute.
The room so cold.
The glass so thick.
The chair you sit on so
unyielding.

Danger: Do Not Lean Against Doors

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this morning i’m thinking about the kids singing christmas carols in politicans’ offices in the name of immigration reform. i’m thinking about the fasters. i’m thinking about the protesters who lay down their bodies, locking and linking their bodies to buses. to fences. to each other. this morning i’m thinking about the days that i can count on one hand that are left to the 2013 legislative session. i’m thinking about how cir’s chances in 2014 are the same as mexico winning the next world cup. i’m thinking about the dream9. the dream30. the interrupters and infiltrators. i’m thinking about the petitions, the phonecalls, the lawyers and the vigils. this morning i’m thinking about how president obama’s words rang hollow and flat and fake at nelson mandela’s memorial service, because the deportations in the u.s. continued while he spoke in south africa. this morning i look at the bart doors across from me. the warning of danger: do not lean against doors. the doors of power, the doors of privilege, the doors of access that are so closed to so many. i’m thinking this morning about what it’s going to take to blow these doors off their hinges for good, for the good of us all.