What we owe one another

We came to the US on a special visa – one of those “highly qualified” rations awarded to my husband, and we were part of the package. These things do not last forever. Three years later, knowing that we were ready to throw in our lot with Ohio, we applied for green cards.

We were lucky. We had the resources of the firm behind us. Still, there are processes and procedures – and gaps. In order to apply for our green cards, we had to surrender the visas granted under the original agreement to let us into the country. Instead, we were issued “provisional papers”, to be used for travel “only if necessary”.

That was the summer that my mother was dying. Travel was, repeatedly, necessary.

Leaving the country was easy. No one knew quite what to make of my “provisional papers”, but I was on my way out, so it wasn’t much of an issue. Coming home (because yes, home was here; home is where my children sleep and my husband watches endless episodes of culinary competitions on tv and the cats ruck up the rugs) was a little more time-consuming.

If you have been in that line at the airport, you have seen the individuals and families pulled aside, sent to the back room, a cage of windows, to await further scrutiny after the line has been processed and dismissed. If you were in the line, your passport stamped, passed on to customs to collect your bags, you may have wondered what happened to those people in that side room, who they might be, and why they were there.

That was the summer of the side room for me.

For the most part, we were processed separately. I do think that one family was seeking asylum. Then there was, on that last trip, the slightly older (white) man who wanted to enter on a British passport but stay forever (instead of the 90 days allowed without a visa). “I am a veteran!” he kept insisting. “I served in [I think] Vietnam! I am a US citizen!” The immigration guys gathered around his burgundy passport and scratched their heads. Then they shrugged and let him in, indefinitely.

“Look at you, big man harassing a veteran!” one of them teased another.

I was the last one left after the old man. For the third time that summer, the immigration officer, the “big man”, scrutinized my provisional papers, trying to work out how he or his colleagues had dealt with them before. No one knew quite what was correct.

“When are they going to give you your green card?” he sighed, as he tried one more combo of stamps and hoped for the best.

“Put in a good word for me!” I told him as we waved goodbye.

This country owed me nothing, yet it consistently (and somewhat arbitrarily) erred on the side of eroding red tape with understanding, if not of bureaucracy then of relationship. And I, caught between my mother and my children, between continents, homes, waves of grief, needed that moment of compassion more than anything.

And I understood that it was a privilege.

One day at the federal building downtown, the machine refused to recognize my fingerprints (then when it did, said they didn’t match themselves?). An older woman came over to take charge of my hand, massaging it vigorously, trying to bully my blood vessels into provoking a reaction from the scanner.

“It’s worst for the ones who’ve worked with their hands. Some of them, their fingerprints have worn completely away,” she told me.

“What happens to them?” I asked. She did not answer me.

I have been a citizen of these United States for nearly a decade now, and from the start, my experience of it was as far a cry from the plight of those families and individuals at that other airport, or trying to reach it, or trying to persuade someone to accept their papers, or to stamp their application, or to see their family sitting silently behind them, urging their plea with piercing eyes, or fading into hiding, or worse, as the wail of a newborn infant from the ululation of a bereaved mother.

But looking back at all I have been given and granted, it is easy to see what I owe them: the people caught between countries, who have wagered their lives on the integrity and honor, on the humanity of America.

If you are looking for ways to help, Episcopal Migration Ministries directly supports Afghan people arriving in America as refugees from the current crisis.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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