After an awful night’s sleep, we awoke at 6 a.m. to culminate my husband’s long process of naturalization. Later that morning, we entered a large room full of mostly immigrants sitting in burgundy chairs in front of a modest black stage decorated with U.S. flag bunting.
The A/C was blistering cold. The song “America” by Neil Diamond played on repeat, nonstop. Finally, we stood for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Soon the lights went off, and along with the words “a message from the President of the United States,” his carrot-colored face appeared on a screen. My heart felt like an open wound. My fellow Americans, he began, but before I heard the rest, my mind had left the building.
Another very early morning. I drive for an hour to volunteer as a Spanish interpreter for a human rights lawyer who’s surveying the conditions of a center where immigrants are being detained. I park on the curb outside and enter what can only be described as a prison. Except it’s not. I pass a security checkpoint and present my credentials to the men in charge, who are not police officers but rather workers of GEO Group, a company that operates privatized corrections and detention facilities.
I sit alone for a few minutes in the empty waiting room until the lawyer I’m working with arrives. She and I enter together. Three 10-inch thick metal doors are buzzed open before we’re inside. It feels like a prison. Except it’s not.
After a short corridor of bright white light, four steel doors are enclosing tiny interview rooms. We’re instructed to wait in one. There’s grey walls, gray floors, three chairs and a table. It looks like a prison. Except it’s not.
An officer arrives with our first interviewee, a middle-aged man with a beard and long ponytail. He’s wearing an orange uniform. Throughout the interview, I move from one language to another, Spanish to English, English to Spanish, as I try my best to become an invisible voice between the man and the lawyer.
He hasn’t been outside in days. He mentions cruel punishments, forced labor, and security concerns. Before leaving, he talks about his uniform. They’re color-coded, from navy blue to bright orange to stoplight red. Orange connotes mid-tier danger, like having been arrested for drug-related crimes. Navy means no criminal record. And red is reserved for those with a “severe” criminal history.
Someone in red comes in. Shackles on his hands and feet. Beneath his tattooed face, I see the eyes and the broken soul of a kid. He’s barely 21. He came to the U.S. as a toddler and has no memory of the country he’ll most likely be deported to. His family’s precarious situation found them living in a dangerous neighborhood where he eventually joined a gang. One bad decision defined my whole life, he explains. Smiling, he talks about the 2-year-old daughter waiting for him at home. He speaks of regret and longing for another chance at life. I sit there thinking this is a person who never even had a chance.
The next interviewee, I’ll never forget. I introduce myself in Spanish, and upon hearing my accent from Medellin, she throws herself in my arms. Mami, usted es Colombiana! She yelps in excitement. We hug for a brief moment, and I hold back the river of tears that inevitably bubbles up. I refuse to overshadow her smile with my sadness.
She shares her story of being charged with the crime of re-entry. She was pulled over by a cop, her kids were in the car as she was handcuffed ― she was taking them to school. After being deported once, she had come back for them. They’re 8 and 12. I struggle to find the words in Spanish to explain the legal difficulties of her case. A new deportation is inevitable, I finally say. She consoles us with her sunny smile. To God, nothing is impossible, she answers, refusing to lose hope. A guard shows up, ready to escort her back. My heart feels like an open wound.
During the drive back home, I can’t stop thinking about our shared Colombian heritage. I can’t stop thinking, what’s the difference between her story and mine?
In 1998, my father received an abduction threat. They had already kidnapped three people on the block his auto parts business was on. Violence had long become a norm in the country, and going to the authorities was like putting a Band-Aid on a cut that needed stitches ― a laughable remedy that would only hold for so long.
Out of the blue, when I was 5 years old, we abandoned Medellin and fled to Miami.
Despite having the financial means to abruptly leave Colombia, our family of five encountered many of the penalties that follow sudden immigration. My parents spoke exactly zero words of English. We had no home, and cramming ourselves into a guest room at a distant relative’s house was the best available option for weeks. My father says that for the first couple of months, he truly had no idea how it would all play out.
In the first few drafts of this piece, I wrote about hard work as the sole reason we were able to stay in the U.S. and eventually become citizens, the story I’d heard my parents echo through the years. I wrote this after calling mom and dad to fact check fragments of this essay, and as most immigrant parents, they continue to believe success is measured in gallons of sweat and tears.
Still, as I pondered the answer of “hard work” on the page, the missing puzzle piece became even more evident. Many immigrants are unbelievably hard workers, and barely any achieve legal immigration status as a reward. Besides, fewer and fewer immigrants are being allowed to prove themselves worthy of citizenship through the customary hard-work route. So what else is playing a crucial role in defining immigrants’ destinies?
I wish it weren’t as simple as one word, but more and more, I’m convinced that it is: privilege. As obvious as it sounds, it’s a matter that’s largely left out of the immigration debate, despite it being what creates immense disparities in immigration experiences, even within people from the same country.
As a part of Colombia’s upper-class who owned a large house and sent their children to private school, my parents had enough cash to arrange for five visas and pay for five plane tickets on demand. That’s much more than what can be said of most Latin American citizens.
Additionally, my dad had connections in the U.S from his auto parts business. My parents didn’t have to take low-paying jobs to make ends meet. They didn’t have to move to a questionable neighborhood to have a roof over our heads or break the law to keep our family together. Instead, they were able to use their savings to stay afloat during the transition, and eventually establish a new life. Privilege allowed them to follow the law.
Yes, their hard work and sacrifice, two unmistakable ingredients of the endangered American Dream, eventually afforded our family U.S. citizenship. But that path would have never been available to us were it not for the fortunate circumstances we arrived with in the first place.
To end the naturalization ceremony, they handed out little U.S. flags as the chirpy man on the podium recited the origin countries of people who’d become citizens that day. Folks from Chile, Haiti, Cuba, France, Russia, Colombia, Argentina, Belgium and Mexico cheered and applauded. I locked eyes with my now Colombian-American husband, who was smiling two rows away and eagerly clapped for his accomplishment.
Because this was an accomplishment; although he also had a leg up as the grandson of a New York native, he worked for years to meet the many requirements that eventually turned his inherited green card into the coveted blue passport.
As I clapped, thoughts of the families separated at borders, the caged children who may never see their parents again, the people dying in detention centers, and the shattered American Dreams of thousands of human beings who never had a leg up pierced my heart.
What’s the difference between their stories and ours? Privilege. And that’s how, despite being a success story, I know the system is broken.