Two Years of Exile

3 Aug

 Yesterday, August 2, marks our two year anniversary of being in this country, two years of our so-called exile (so-called by your humble narrator, thank you very much). Maybe it sounds absurd- that Conan could be exiled to his own country of origin. I am sure that the politicians, the immigration officials, much of the “conservative” crowd could never fathom such a thing, but Louisville (and Southern Indiana) is Conan’s adopted home. He even has the fleur-de-lis tattoo to show for it!

 

Conan's Louisville love

Conan’s Louisville love

I imagine it would be tricky to not adopt a place as your own after 10 years living there. After growing up there, getting your first car, acquiring long-term intimate friendships, being around friends’ kids who know you and treat you as an uncle. After learning a language with a Kentucky accent, falling in love, seeing snow and leaves that change color for the first time, and again year after year. After putting pride into your work, being able to drive around town and point out the fruits of your labors on so many houses, having your first successful job interview in a foreign language, where you cleverly tell the interviewer he should hire you as a roofer because you “sleep great during storms” knowing the roof you did won’t leak. After partying too hard for your own good, and later learning to tone it down, taking childbirth classes with your partner, learning about rent and bills and being the kind of friend people can count on. Despite having scary experiences with racists threatening his life, despite hearing in the media every single day that he is illegal, somehow nearly sub-human, that he doesn’t belong, it still became his home. I can’t imagine creating that kind of bond with a place and its people without calling it home. I’ve lived in places for a mere matter of months and felt lost and lonely upon returning to Kentucky.

The difference is, I was born in a country of money and privilege, where I can lawfully go just about anywhere in the world if I can get the money together to do it, even though I don’t come from wealthy parents. I backpacked around Europe at 18, I studied and volunteered in South America, and now I’ve successfully (and pretty painlessly) acquired permanent residency in Mexico. People from Mexico or Central America (and most of South America, too) who are not very wealthy and/or very educated/ highly skilled are mostly not going to get a visa to the U.S.* There are some work visas available every year, but the number of work visas like that is far fewer than the number of low-wage jobs that need filling and that are often filled by immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Plus it is expensive and time-consuming for the companies who want to give out these kinds of work visas; there are not many incentives for them to work with future immigrants.

So when I decided I wanted to go to x,y or z country, I saved up and bought a plane ticket and got my passport stamped as I arrived. That was never an option for Conan. I don’t want to argue about the “right” or “wrong” of Conan breaking the law this way, since I personally break the law all the time, every time I jaywalk, every time I drank alcohol before I turned 21, and in many other ways on many other occasions. I don’t think Conan hurt anyone in his breaking of the law, and that’s the most important thing in my eyes.

That is part of the back story of our exile. Now, the U.S. just calls this type of exile deportation, or in Conan’s case, voluntary departure. But “voluntary” would give you the idea that the move was based on his free will, which was not actually the case. Of course he wanted to see his mom and the rest of his family, especially with his very first child and his partner to introduce. But was that the moment he would’ve chosen to move of his own free will? Nope. Voluntary departure is just a sugar-coated legal term for getting deported on your own dime instead of in handcuffs after weeks or months in immigration jail (which is a HUGE for-profit business all it’s own) waiting for the slow-as-molasses-in-January immigration system to get around to sending you off. Voluntary departure happens when your family or friends in the U.S. get together enough money to put down a bond (anywhere from 1-10 thousand dollars) so you can not rot in jail while you wait for your immigration court date. On your court date, if the judge decides you are indeed in need of removal from the great United States of America, they give you a certain amount of time (usually a few months) to get out and prove that you’ve left by the date assigned you.

In Conan’s case, in the law’s eyes, he had no reason to be in the U.S., end of story, never mind all the letters that employers and family and friends wrote making his case. Our fabulous lawyer then tried to ask for an extension on the voluntary departure, because I was 7 months pregnant by Conan’s court date, pleading that Conan deserved some time with his first child. The judge accused our lawyer of trying to stall the process and denied the extension. I suppose that is the back story to my semi-self-imposed exile from my country, from my sweet little hometown. Of course I could have stayed. But I didn’t want to be separated from my partner, and I refused to separate him from his seven week old daughter because of my government.

 

This picture pretty much sums up the reason for my exile.

This picture pretty much sums up the reason for my exile.

So no, it’s not true that having US citizen children gets you papers in the US (although having Mexican citizen children is pretty much a free ticket to your papers down here, thank goodness!). Lucia could apply for her Papi in 16 more years, when she becomes an adult, but until then it is not much help. Even if we have ten children, USCIS will take that into account but absolutely not guarantee his entry.

And yes, Conan and I are married now. We frequently have people (on both sides of the border) assume that our marriage gives him a free ticket into the U.S. This is also not the case, unfortunately. Probably once upon a time marriage to a US citizen was a pretty quick ticket to getting legal residency and later citizenship, just like once upon a time the US also accepted unaccompanied children immigrants and refugees. But immigration politics and policies are very different now. When a US citizen marries a foreigner they have to prove that their marriage is legitimate, and if the sensitive souls who work for USCIS decide that there’s not enough proof, then they turn you down. And it takes months or years for these kinds of cases to be processed. It’s also expensive- both because of immigration fees and because you really need a lawyer to deal with these guys. When you are making pesos or some other local currency that’s not dollars, it’s pretty hard to save for that sort of thing, too. And in cases like ours, where the applying spouse has already been deported or “voluntarily departed” from the country, there are even more time-consuming and expensive steps to go through, and zero guarantees of success.

And why did Conan get removed from the country? There were a couple factors going against him- some naïveté on his part, some bad luck, bad policies, racial profiling. He was taking a friend on an errand the evening before New Year’s Eve, 2011, in Southern Indiana, where there are a million cops and not much to do. At some point a couple years before that, he had been pulled over in the same area, and ticketed for not having a license. He did not get a ticket for anything else because he wasn’t actually doing anything wrong, driving-wise nor vehicle-wise. Not having a license is, of course, illegal, but is also just a tad-bit unfair since you can’t acquire a license if you are undocumented in the US.

He had gone to his court date crossing his fingers that they only dealt with the no-license situation and didn’t delve any further into his immigration situation. But his name wasn’t on the docket at all, and he foolishly, optimistically assumed they had dropped his case (he did not get a lawyer). As it turned out, he had gone to the wrong place (there’s a county court and a city court down the street from each other in Jeffersonville, IN) and thus he had a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear for court. So the officer, who said he pulled him over for not having his lights on- although both Conan and our friend say his lights were on- arrested Conan on the spot, and assured him he’d be deported as well, just out of friendliness.

Conan spent a couple days in jail waiting for his court date in Jeffersonville. There they gave him another court date for January and called in the immigration authorities to come pick him up. From there he was moved around to 4 different facilities while we got the money together and tried to post his bond (which is a story all in itself).

Once we did post bond and he was released, he was released with no money and without his ID. I had bought him a bus ticket back to Louisville, since I wasn’t able to drive to Chicago to pick him up (and he was actually somewhere in Wisconsin then, but those nice immigration folks were able to take him to Chicago). I was assured by the man who accepted my bond that he would get the message to the folks in Wisconsin that Conan had a bus ticket, and that they would pass along the confirmation number. Neither of those things happened. They dropped him off somewhere downtown in the snow and bitter wind of January in Chicago, Conan in only his hoody. He finally had some very kind strangers let him use their cell phone, and so he found out about the bus ticket, although he didn’t get the confirmation number. (He hadn’t called me because he thought I was still on vacation in Mexico.) He finally got to the bus station and couldn’t get the bus because he didn’t have ID. It was a huge mess. Finally he was able to get a bus and I picked him up at 2 in the morning, a pale, gaunt figure with huge bags under his eyes.

He got out and got back to Louisville just in time, because he had court in Jeffersonville for his driving without a license case the next morning. If he hadn’t been able to make it there he would’ve had another warrant and it would be ever more complicated and expensive to attempt to get him back in to the country some day.

As it is, despite being married to me and having a U.S. citizen child, we’re still not looking to even start the process yet. We don’t have the money, for one, and at this point we’re not even sure when we’d like to try to live there again. We’re enjoying the time with his family, trying to reconstruct our lives in this context, little by little. It’s hard that we don’t see my family much. It’s terrible that he can’t even go visit, under any circumstances. It was a bit of a shock to have to leave quickly with our tiny new baby. But these are not the worst circumstances to be in exile under. We are not fleeing any wars; our lives were not threatened. Lucia and I can visit every so often. I’ve heard much worse stories, although that didn’t make the reality any easier at first.

It’s been hard for both of us in different ways, although Conan is quick to say that it’s been “fine” for him, the same way someone politely says they’re “okay” after a loved one dies. I suspect, in part, that he doesn’t want people here to think he’s stuck-up, acting like he’s more gringo than Mexican, acting like this isn’t his home. But of course, it wasn’t his home for 10 years, and it’s a lot to adapt to upon returning, whether he wants to talk about it or not (Sorry for outing you on the internet, mi amor.).

Two years later, now with our own house in-progress, with some friends, with work, developing our life here in Mexico, I am quite a bit less bitter about our exile. I’m still angry about the system. I hate that we can’t visit our friends and family together. But finally, I am starting to claim a sunny little piece of Oaxaca as my own. And best of all, we’re sharing this life with Lucia, our little bilingual dual-citizen who loves tortillas and pasta and all of her weirdly-named grandparents. We hope that Lucia doesn’t have to know about exile, that she grows up knowing that it’s perfectly natural to have more than one home, that she can belong anywhere her little heart can learn to love, anywhere and everywhere she wants to call home.

 

*There are lots of people from Mexico, Central and South America who are lawfully documented to be in the U.S. Please don’t take my generalization about the process as license to discriminate/assume that everyone with brown skin that seems “latino” does not have papers.

2 Responses to “Two Years of Exile”

  1. fml221 August 4, 2014 at 5:08 am #

    This is a really powerful piece, and you write about it well. Thanks.

  2. Julia Inman August 6, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    Heart-rending. I’m still processing…

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