Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

Illegal Immigrants, For a Few Hours

April 29, 2010

Lonely Planet said it was an official border crossing. Michelin made it look like a road, at least. But this, these two sandy tire tracks in the savannah, with a little row of tall grass growing wildly in between, this could not be an international highway. Where are we?

There’s a police officer ahead, two of them actually. He’s waving at us, better stop. Damn, I hope he doesn’t give us a hard time. We probably do look a little suspicious crossing the border this way. He probably thinks we have a car full of gems or rhino horns.

“It is very lonely here, you know. I haven’t had a soda all day.”

Is he asking us for a soda? Is that all he wants? Maybe he can tell us where the border is.

“Yes, it’s that way. Not far, you go.”

A conspicuous and incongruous metal sign is barely visible above the tall grass on the right side of the road. Tanroads, it says at the top, like a header, and below it lists four cities and the distance to each. Are we in Tanzania? Did we cross the border? And what is a mileage sign doing here? There isn’t a single mileage sign in all of Uganda, and now here there’s one where there are no drivers to read it.

At what looks like it might be an official border a log has been laid across the road, and a sign is propped on it: Police Checkpoint. To the left of the road is a house of cards, several rectangular sheets of scrap metal stacked in a way that just barely keeps them all standing. A thick, balding, jovial man in a purple soccer jersey sits on the dusty ground outside, plucking a chicken.

Najua Englisy?

“I only speak Swahili.”


“Kyaka, you go.”


“Yes, you go.”

With our tenuous claim to legal entry we drive to Kyaka, about a hundred kilometers away if the unexpected road sign could be believed. What happens if you get arrested for sneaking across an African border? In a car you never bothered to import? Without insurance? Can’t be good, can it?

The only people at the immigration office in Kyaka are a very large, underdressed housewife and what are presumably the children she and the absent immigration officer have parented. We sit in her living room and watch a Mexican telenovella while she phones her husband for us. She passes her phone.

“You come Monday. I am at the market.”

But we are illegal – shit, can I say that to him? that we’re illegal? – but we just crossed the border and we need to buy our visas.

“I am coming.”

In his office, which was separate from his living room, he is friendly but suspicious of our irregular movement.

“You must drive to the official border.”

But it’s an hour away, and we’d be illegal the whole way. The car doesn’t have insurance. What if the police stop us?

“I can’t stamp you in until Uganda stamps you out.”

But now that we’re here we can’t get out of Tanzania until you stamp us into Tanzania. They won’t let us back across the border. It was an argument we would win, though he quickly refuses when we ask for a multiple entry visa. Suspicious in his own way, he does not issue a receipt for the money we give him for our visas.

“You have seven days.”

Having legalized ourselves, we have to import the car. The nearest office doesn’t have the right papers – but does have a large heap of delicious dried pineapple sitting on the dirty counter – so we have to drive to another one, all the way back to the official border crossing that we talked the immigration officer out of sending us to. We are fearful that every police officer along the way might notice our illegal, uninsured car. We pass through several roadblocks, but no one stops us.

The customs officer requires a copy of the car’s registration, and the nearest copier is in Uganda. After struggling to get our visas in Tanzania, we now sneak down an alleyway back into Uganda, just to use the copy machine. Back at the customs office in Tanzania, the paperwork is perfunctory. As we are leaving we ask where to get the car insured.

“Why do you want to do that?”

What if the police stop us?

“What is this sticker here?”

Our insurance in Kenya.

“You just point to this one and you tell the police it is for Tanzania. They cannot read.”

Are you joking? Is he joking? We chuckle in a way meant to show we are either laughing with him at the absurdity of a government official suggesting we break the law or laughing with him at the idiots over in the police department, whichever one he means.

“You just look very serious. You don’t laugh, you look serious. They will let you go.”

We drove away. Do you think he’s phoning his police buddies at the next roadblock to tell them to be looking for a white couple in a Suzuki without insurance?

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The American Dream

March 16, 2008

I come from two big families so there are far too many of us to celebrate every birthday individually; instead, we lump them all together by month.   The September family birthday party is always the largest.  Last year, between toys for my younger cousins, cards for my aunts and uncles, and cake and ice cream for everyone, my extended family asked about my work with refugees.

It was immediately clear that while I have one perspective about refugees specifically and immigrants more generally, most of my extended family has a very different perspective.  Where I see cultural and economic benefit, they see potential terrorism.  I became defensive and then aggressive – I answered their questions in haste and missed an opportunity to tell my family about the work that I do and why I believe it should be done.

Generally, a refugee is exactly what the popular conception suggests: someone fleeing from warfare.  Legally, for the purposes of immigration to the United States, the definition of a refugee is more precise.  To paraphrase and simplify, a refugee is someone who flees his or her country of nationality because of persecution, or fear of persecution, for at least one of five reasons: race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  There are more than ten million refugees worldwide, though it is not a static population.

It is my job to help a refugee explain his or her story, and in particular his or her fear of persecution, which I then record so that an immigration officer can determine the legitimacy of the applicant’s request for refugee status in the United States.  The stories, as expected, are often obscene.  It is unbelievable what people will tolerate before they are willing to make the traumatic and fearful choice to flee home for something unknown.  Most don’t go far, largely because they don’t want to go far.  They cross the nearest international border for immediate safety, then hover there hoping that soon enough they will be able to return.  Years and even decades later, many find they are still hovering in that limbo.

It is this type of refugee that typically is resettled to the United States.  They are people who have been warehoused in refugee camps, people for whom there is no durable solution to their displacement, people who cannot repatriate and who are not allowed any substantive local integration in their country of first asylum.  They are registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, vetted by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, & Migration, and finally approved for resettlement by the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship & Immigration Service.  Their names are checked and their fingerprints are scanned.  Of more than ten million refugees worldwide, it is about 50,000 who are resettled to the United States, in a good year.

Once in the United States, most adult refugees are working within ninety days.  Most children are in school.  They pay their bills and their taxes, shop for groceries and clothing, and go to church or the mosque.  They buy a television, which they gather around at night to watch whatever is on.  They save to buy a car.  They are, just like the rest of us, normal.  After five years, they are eligible to become naturalized citizens.  At that point, the fact that they were not born in the United States does not make them any less American than anyone else.

The beauty of being American is that we’re not as easily defined as other nationalities.  We’re not this color and we’re not that religion.  We’re everyone and we’re no one.  Many foreign observers say that the one thing most Americans tend to be is optimistic.  We tend to believe that with a little effort and creative savvy, with enough entrepreneurial pluck, we can succeed.  Much of the world marvels at our optimism; they call us naïve.  It is our bravado, not our wealth, which makes much of the world dislike us.  By the standards of Europe, we’re young.  We swagger.

Refugees and other immigrants naturally embody this American spirit.  They come to the United States with nothing but their determination to work hard and rebuild.  They believe that if they do, they will grow and prosper.  With typical American optimism, they believe that each generation will be better off than the last – their children will be better off than them and their grandchildren better off than their children.  This vitality is exactly why the United States needs its immigrants.  America is not white and it is not Christian; America is optimistic.  Immigrants, with all of their many and varied American Dreams, should not be feared.  They should be embraced. 

This is what I should have told my family.