My offering for the September church newsletter:
Reindeer Games –
Earlier this summer my family and I took a trip to Iceland. As we were flying home afterward, I was filling out the U.S. Customs form and got to the question about whether I had “been in proximity to livestock” while abroad. With perhaps over-scrupulous honesty, I checked “Yes.” I had, after all, patted an Icelandic pony on the head, after we encountered it waiting behind a fence on the side of the road.
The result was that as soon as I submitted my documents to the electronic reader at Logan, the machine returned my image with a large X through my picture. I was directed away from the rest of the group and told to wait in a much slower-moving line where they presumably put the problem cases. Finally, I got to speak with the customs officer. “So what, were you playing with them reindeers?” was his wry Bostonian response to my form. “No,” I said, “I touched a horse.”
I then had to stop by the USDA for a second round of interrogation. They were plainly expecting bigger trouble than what I had to offer. “Are you transporting any fruits and vegetables? Any meat products?” It took them a while to believe me that all I had done was touch a horse. “An Icelandic pony, actually,” I said. “Just once. On the head.”
They let me though. The whole thing didn’t take more than fifteen minutes. Nobody was rude. But it was a kind of momentary flash of statelessness, nonetheless – a fleeting experience of being marooned from my official identity – that felt in its sudden- ness something like the panic of waking up in a hotel room and forgetting how you got there. It was that “Where am I? Who am I?” feeling that Tomas Tranströmer calls in a poem “the fifteen-second battle in the hell of nothingness.” (Hass translation).
I can only imagine, then, what it would feel like to approach the slow line in Customs, with an X through your face, and realize that you don’t have a U.S. Passport to show them when you get there, or a funny story about a horse. What it would feel like to actually be stateless, in short. I was confronted all over again by the basic perversity of the unearned power that is conferred by being born into citizenship in this country. “Isn’t it sort of horrifying,” I said to a friend, “that you and I just have these passports that let us go across our borders whenever we want – and other people have to risk their lives to do the same, just because they were born someplace else?” “Yes, Josh,” she replied – not easily bowled over by my insights – “this is that privilege thing everyone’s talking about.” Oh, right!
It is true that our current immigration law nominally recognizes the right to seek asylum from persecution. What this looks like in practice, however, is that people are placed into administrative detention for months or longer, while they submit to a “credible fear” interview, and then into adversarial “removal proceedings,” where they are not provided with an attorney and government lawyers argue for their deportation. (The senior ministers and I recently joined a protest in front of the local I.C.E. office in solidarity with 22 asylum seeking women who, along with their children, have now spent over a year in this grueling process, and who have gone on hunger strike to protest their treatment.) If I felt that I was somehow being made to feel suspect by having to wait in the slow line at the airport, I can only imagine how it would feel to spend a year being effectively incarcerated with your children, even though you had never violated the law.
There aren’t simple solutions to everything that is wrong with our immigration system, to be sure. But our starting point has to be a conviction that no human being is illegal. The arbitrary fact of what country we were born in and what papers we carry should never stand in the way of our shared membership in the human community. As world leaders gather at the U.N. later this month to discuss the global refugee and migration crisis, let us remind them of the opening words of one of the U.N.’s founding documents: “All people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of