New York City, 2016: Protestors march against President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration policies. Photo credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com.
When I crossed the border from Mexico in 1993, there were no doubts about what I would do once I arrived in Chicago: find a job in a factory, or wash dishes, or get down on my knees to scrub dirty toilets, whichever came first. In Mexico, I had grown up in a house surrounded by adults who would leave for long stretches of time and come back home every year for a few weeks only. I eventually understood that they all went to work in another country, the United States. This coming and going seemed like the natural order of things, which I took as a sign that one day I would make the same journey myself.
I was almost 20 years old when I left Guadalajara, my native city. I slipped into the United States for the same reasons others in my family had: I was desperate for work and I knew America had an insatiable need for cheap labor.
Recently, the big news on the immigration front has been that the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from ending DACA, the program that protects young people brought to the country without proper documentation from being deported. DACA is said to temporarily protect about 600,000 young people.
While the court’s decision was cause for celebration, the ruling does nothing to address the condition of the majority of undocumented people currently living in the United States — including people like my uncles and me, in the pre-DACA generation; and also those in the post-DACA generation, like the Central American children Donald Trump put in cages.
In practical terms, this means that the lives of over 10 million people currently remain in limbo.
Consider my case: Once upon a time, I came to a shiny city on a flatland, confident in the redemptive power of industrious manual labor. Following in the footsteps of my uncles, I set out to better myself as best I could.
But my uncles showed me how hard it would be to live out this American dream. After devoting the better part of their youth to working in the steel and meatpacking industries in Chicago, all four of them were, one by one, expelled from the deceitfully shiny promise of America. As I write this in the wee hours of the night, one of them, Manuel, besieged by obesity and diabetes, blinded in one eye, drives a taxi in violence-ridden Guadalajara. He occasionally contacts his relatives in Chicago, hoping still that the Social Security Administration will keep its word and cut him a monthly check from all the taxes he put into its coffers in decades past.
What it’s like to be a pariah — that is the first deep truth America taught me.
It would be dishonest, however, if I didn’t confess that I proved luckier than my uncles. Having abandoned formal education at age 13, the fact that I have gone on to receive a degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the humanities in a country bent on seeing me as a lesser human is nothing short of a miracle.
But it also feels to me like a cruel joke: a parody of the expectations of the undocumented, of higher education, and of equality, the founding myth of America.
It is precisely this kind of inconsistency, this tension — the generosity of American public institutions, clashing with the meanness of its legal system — that constantly informs my ambivalence toward the United States. It is, at times, a fluttering sensation in the chest. Most often, though, it’s just a mean throbbing pain.
What connects all of my family, my unlucky uncles and myself, is a rooted sense of foreboding, of experiencing oneself as superfluous. Acute observers, my uncles accepted their fate as a fact of life.
As for me, I have of late come to understand that the limbo I inhabit is a deliberate creation. And now, as if awakening from a fairy tale, I find myself as just another brown body, a collection of depleted muscles, not so different from my uncles, after all — an overeducated man whom no American public institution of learning can legally hire.
Anybody looking at a case like mine would probably think there must be a glitch in the immigration system. But the truth, at least the truth I have been able to observe and experience, is that, rather than a malfunction, this kind of exclusion, the creation of subclasses, has long been a fundamental principle of America’s imperial project.
From the expelling of Indigenous peoples to the enslavement of Africans to the displacement of Mexicans in the Southwest to the Chinese exclusion, there hasn’t been a moment in American history yet when its leaders haven’t been actively engaged in the creation of racialized outcasts. In my condition as an identifiable undocumented Mexican man, I merely embody one of its latest iterations.
And it’s not just me: my family too is implicated in my status as a pariah. My wife, an Anglo-American woman I have been married to for a decade, and whose family has lived in the United States since the mid-nineteenth century, cannot keep our young family united in her country of birth. Current immigration laws make it impossible for families like ours to stay together, without having to go through an excruciating uprooting from the land of our children’s birth — an uprooting that could last anywhere from three to ten years, or become permanent.
My family’s situation bears witness to a heart-wrenching phenomenon — mixed status families, where some members are citizens, some permanent residents, while others have no legal status whatsoever. And, while one might associate these draconian measures with a totalitarian regime, it ought to be noted that these particular rules were implemented not by a Republican administration, but during Bill Clinton’s tenure.
In fact, the legal limbo in which my family finds itself is the result of a 1996 bill, commonly known IIRIRA. At the time, this bill received the full support of then-senator Joe Biden. Finely attuned to ever-changing polls, however, presidential candidate Biden has recently tweeted that, on day one, he’ll send yet another bill to Congress. His goal — admirable if sadly belated — will be to dispel the shadows currently engulfing 11 million people, plus their loved ones.
Yes, the Supreme Court’s decision on DACA was cause for celebration. But for me, it was also a pointed reminder that the Dreamers form a small part of a much larger group of Mexican immigrants that remains at the mercy of the law. The temporary nature of DACA makes even its recipients fully conscious of being disposable at any moment. For all the benefits and peace of mind DACA may yet offer some of us, all of my people are rightly fearful.
We know ourselves to be pawns in a political system that pretends to be the greatest democracy on earth, but which for millions of people has proven to be nothing but an immoral and unjust caste system.
I should know. I’ve been part of it for nearly 30 years.