When I think back on the day we found out my Love’s first US residency visa was denied, it plays in my mind like a slow motion, melodramatic montage. The scene is a grocery store, an unfortunately impersonal place for life altering news: florescent lights, pre-packaged meat, metal shopping carts, out-of-season strawberries, a freshly buffed floor.
My Love and I were deliberating over the evening’s menu. I noticed a marked change in his typically cheery demeanor somewhere between the produce section and the canned fruits and vegetable aisle.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, as he dragged his feet, hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped forward. “Fine. Fine. Everything’s fine,” he responded, almost as if he was trying to convince himself. He added a lighthearted joke as we turned the corner looping past the meat counter. I recognized his brave face and knew something was wrong; I had my suspicions as to what and panic grabbed my lungs.
Once our grocery list, chicken broth, basmati rice and plain yogurt, was checked off we went to the counter to check out. Between the beep, beep, beep of the registers I noticed the music playing over the loud speaker. The tune sounded familiar; it was Carole King’s sad love ballad, ‘So Far Away’:
You’re so far away;
doesn’t anybody stay
in one place any more?
I froze, disoriented by what felt like a cruel joke. I thought to myself, “Oh god, his visa’s been denied.”
My Love submitted an appeal and so began the next season of waiting. Thirteen months later, we were sitting in our usual booth at the neighborhood bar when he told me, once again, he’s received a denial. The waiting was, indeed, over. In fact, it was final this time; there was no appealing the appeal. He had thirty days to vacate the country.
Three weeks later he was on a flight home to India. We kissed goodbye as I stepped on to the Terminal Tram at OʼHare. I took a deep breathe and watched the doors close. He wouldn’t let me walk him to his departure gate; he said he was afraid I’d be too upset and would miss my flight home.
After he left there were nights that I congratulated myself by reading a poem aloud because I made it to bed having taken my medicine, washed my face and brushed my teeth. This was congratulatory only because some nights doing these things was impossible. I paid the bills, I changed the oil in the car, but brushing my teeth – it was unbearable. My devastation surfaced in the overly mundane. When I started going out again, even putting on mascara, I cried at inappropriate and inopportune moments. At the gas station, the opening of a new wine bar, walking to the store on the corner.
My Love initially came to the US from India to go to graduate school. Once he earned his Masters of Divinity he was offered a position with a US-based international non-profit. This is where his visa application process began. From application to final denial, the entire process took 30 months and thousands of dollars – on top of everything, he wasn’t permitted to work during this time.
It became clear early on in our relationship that inter-national love carries a particular bureaucratic burden and underlying, omnipresent anxiety. A few months after we started dating, my Love went on an international peacemaking delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan. I was terrified that he would be unduly denied entry upon returning to the US and made him memorize my cell phone number in case he was detained. Of course, none of this was new to him. I carry the privilege of a US passport, not to mention the white skin I wear, most often, without thought. He carries or wears neither.
Now, several years later, we’ve submitted yet another US immigration application. Some days I think we’re insane for doing so – isn’t the definition of insane something along the lines of doing the same thing again and again, while expecting a different result? Even more, I wonder whether the emotional and financial toll this process continually takes on our self confidence, partnership, and already meager bank account is worth the temporary relief of familiar surroundings.
Throughout the years I’ve become wary of writing and even talking about our experience with US Immigration for fear of adding solution-less noise to the political cacophony, or – even worse – wallowing. In truth, I have more questions than insightful revelation or policy suggestion.
I’ve long wondered: What happens to a person or a family when they feel they no longer have agency over the trajectory of their own lives? When the only information deemed pertinent in making major, life-altering, bureaucratic decisions on behalf of another are numbers printed on a bank statement, the name of one’s father and the location of one’s birth? And what of a system that was created to purposefully price out low-income applicants with high application fees? A system that routinely ignores applications received from a long list of countries whose residents primarily have brown skin or practice a particular religion?
And more recently, I’ve started to wonder: What happens to the people who have been wounded by the process? When it’s communicated that sharing their experiences does nothing but add to the noise? That acknowledging their pain is, instead, wallowing? What of the internal and external oppression found in keeping the stories untold?
There’s the revelation. At least, for me. In the words of Adrienne Rich, “The split in our language between “political” and “personal” has, I think, been a trap.”
How will we begin to collectively understand to true cost of the current US Immigration environment unless we hear the stories of those affected? How will we make compassionate and pragmatic decisions without them? And how might these stories help us re-create a more humane system?
I think back to those first months after my Love suddenly returned to India – I fell in a hole so deep there was no sense trying to climb out. It was a kind of grief experienced on the molecular level. A grief that never touches language. A grief experienced in silence.
Even after all this time, I mentally go back to that cold, damp hole every few months, examining the ways I’m still affected, the ways I find myself believing we have fewer choices than we actually do. I draw hieroglyphics on the walls, remnants of the lessons we learned from the darkness, left for others who fall in – or rather, are pulled in:
“Hold on, help is coming. It will not be enveloped in progressive legislation, legal briefs or even an overturned ruling. It will travel to you in a poem, a hip-hop track, a whisper, a clammy hand that wipes the tears when you are delirious with sadness. I promise it’s not you; US Immigration Policy isn’t working for anyone.”
*A version of this post was originally shared on Kind Over Matter.