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.