Whenever I glance at my phone, turn on the TV, or overhear a passing conversation, immigration is being talked about. It’s what many people call a “hot button issue.” I see political candidates from either end of the spectrum using immigration increasingly to support their campaigns and appeal to their followers. But to me and my family, immigration is not just a popular issue– immigration has defined our entire lives.
My parents came to the United States from Cuba as political refugees in 1995. We are fortunate that they have been residents during their time in the country, but I never understood why they didn’t just apply for citizenship the second they were eligible. I was upset with them for waiting so long to fulfill this process, but as I talked to them I better understood that becoming a citizen is not only a legal process but an emotional one. After all, how do you just say goodbye to everything you’ve ever known?
The day of my parents’ citizenship exam came just a few days after the El Paso shooting. For the first time, I have felt real fear. To learn someone was intentionally targeting communities like my own, and knowing that it is not just that one person, stopped my world. A few days later, hearing my parents referred to as “alien numbers” at their interviews— along with every other immigrant there— really put into perspective my country’s attitude towards those not born here. As a writer, I carry my notebook with me everywhere; this poem comes directly from my notes of observations at the USCIS field office during my parents’ interviews. It explores the experience of immigration and what it means to be American.
“Notes from the USCIS Field Office”
I walk in to be greeted by a very much poster-American young man;
feeling uneasy even though I know I shouldn’t be,
but my mind can’t help but see him as the first challenger
in this game where you’re only given one life.
I walk into the room and walk up to the desk,
Translating as I always have.
Reminding my father of documentation
that with hidden nervousness he had left at the security checkpoint.
I follow into the waiting area.
Thinking, the most important moments of my life have been spent in waiting rooms,
always waiting for something out of my control.
I look around seeing families much like my own:
People, young and old, dressed in their finest clothing;
Clinging onto something they believe will help them seem more
The man with his Yankees baseball cap,
The woman dressed from head to toe in red, white, and blue,
The boy, probably younger than me,
who has most likely only known American identity,
shaking, fidgeting, praying, nervous for what awaits him beyond the double doors.
The families all coming together,
no matter how “American” they try to seem,
the distinctive stamp of Hispanic identity ever-present in their existence.
I see the horror on the faces of those walking in rushing,
fearful that they lost their chance,
impeded by the situations of an immigrant’s life.
A reminder of our tie to American time.
A woman runs out of the dreaded double doors
into her husband’s arms,
tears of happiness,
tears of relief.
For a brief moment,
Hope overcomes me.
But I am quickly brought back to my reality.
I see the son lean over to his worried mother,
planting a kiss on her cheek,
a child reminding her of her strength.
I see myself in the daughter anxiously waiting by her father’s side.
Her face bearing a trace of
I see myself in the woman next to us,
and back out in a flash.
Another person failed by a system promising hope—
never intended for us.
We are called in.
We walk through the dreaded yet much anticipated double doors.
Greeted by unexpected news,
how convenient, there has been an issue.
I can feel myself growing nauseous,
a feeling that would not leave me for several days.
Sitting in the back of the room,
I see my father asked his height.
a one-inch difference in his reply poses strong concern;
Who knew not knowing your height made you a criminal?
But my father, the calmest of warriors, continues on.
He answers their questions, showing them he is sufficiently,
at the mercy of the agent.
I walk through the hallway:
a great vision for our country on one side,
and instructions on what to do in the case of an active shooter
facing it on the other.
Enough time to think of the blatant irony,
while the feelings keep rushing through me.
Is this the greatness we wish to achieve?
I emerge from the dreaded double doors,
Slumping in my seat,
my mom walks out of hers,
at the mercy of the agent.
We did it,
but I know
we will never be–