Papers After a Decade
I received an envelope with my immigration documents this week. I realized I am no longer the person the work permit reflects.
WE LIKE TO joke that each of us has an FBI agent, secretly peering through our laptop cameras or scrolling through our Twitter feeds in search of inflammatory content. I imagine I also have a DHS agent.
On April 12, sometime around 8:54 a.m., the agent pushed a button on their computer, which generated an email from the Department of Homeland Security. It hit my inbox while I was still in bed, stuck to the covers like most mornings these days.
Since June 2021, I had been waiting for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to approve my Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a type of relief in the immigration laws of this country that allows the government to designate a country as the scene of a humanitarian conflict or natural disaster that would “prevent aliens who are nationals of the state from returning to the state in safety,” according to the text of the statute. In recent years, given how intractable immigration reform has become, TPS has become a Band-Aid that advocates can push for to deliver some semblance of stability to undocumented people.
When President Joe Biden announced in March 2021 that Venezuelans would receive TPS, I was stunned—not because of the suddenness of the move, but because what it meant for me personally: After years of agonizing over instability, I could finally secure a full-time job, apply for a Social Security number, get a driver’s license that I could use to board a plane without fear of detention, among many other seemingly mundane activities. And yet, I refused to believe that this wish could actually come true. Even though my mother cried of happiness on the phone for me, I numbed myself to any hopes of being granted status, believing it could not possibly happen.
You can imagine my shock when that April 12 email read: “Our service records indicate that we approved your Form I-821 and mailed the approval notice and your Employment Authorization Document to the address of record.”
There’s a saying in Spanish that my father would often use to chastise me for not trusting what he said unless he offered direct proof. “Ver para creer,” he often cracked. I have always been an extremely skeptical person—so much so that he would often compare me to the apostle who doubted Christ’s resurrection. “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands,” Christ told St. Thomas. “Reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.”
Every time I read news about politicians considering TPS for Venezuela, I always thought to myself: Yeah, but it’s not actually going to happen, or If it does, they won’t approve me.
Since I submitted it in June, my application for TPS had been stuck in a massive administrative backlog that has cost many immigrants their jobs, so I had no guarantee that it would actually be approved, and certainly not by graduation this May. I had to ask my lawyer to submit an inquiry on my behalf because the case was “outside normal processing times.” I still was gaslighting myself in bed last Tuesday: Well, I don’t know how long the envelope could take to arrive. I mean, it could get lost in transit.
“We hope this information is helpful to you,” the email mocked.
I have spent so much time and mental energy imagining the moment I held my papers for the first time. My dear friend Daniel, who was also undocumented for many years, told me that when he got his green card, the only emotion left in him was rage. I empathized with that feeling of pure, unbridled anger at a system that makes our humanity depend on a piece of plastic that can be generated, as he reminded me recently, with the push of a button. It’s a Kafkaesque scenario: One morning in America, a government official commuted into work, pulled up my file and marked me not as “legal” but as “not a deportation priority for now.” (TPS does not lead to a green card, nor does it technically confer an immigration status.) They then printed a card that insists “NOT VALID FOR RE-ENTRY TO U.S.” I expected to feel that same white ire.
I stepped outside of my lawyer’s office with the envelope in hand yesterday, and I could not recognize the person whose photo was printed on the work permit.
Of course, it was me. On a superficial level, I literally could not recognize the picture, because it was not the passport photo I had waited in line for at my neighborhood UPS and subsequently submitted with my application, but a photo I sat for when I went to get my fingerprints taken a few months later.
But on a much more profound level, I realized I am no longer the person the work permit reflects.
I’ve lost weight. I cut my hair. My beard is shorter, more manicured. I barely wear that rugby. My eyes are more tired now; my skincare hides the exhaustion. I switched my meds. A sprinkle of gray hairs has gathered on the top of my head. I went back to therapy.
I think more before writing. I launched Alienhood. I’ve worked to decouple my personal measures of success from the traditional benchmarks that people with status have access to. I moved into a new apartment. I read more books. I represented an incarcerated person in court and helped a woman secure release from immigration detention. I cried at a poetry reading. I came out to my father.
Photographs are imperfect depictions of a person’s whole constitution. Even though since its inception photography has been conceptualized as a method of capturing things in their exact natural states, the four corners of a photograph inevitably curate the message the viewer receives. Civil War photographer Mathew Brady was known to drag corpses into a corner of the battlefield so he could capture the carnage and human toll of the war. In How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis—himself an immigrant—forced the middle and upper classes to confront the conditions of the urban poor by staying low to the ground, capturing barefoot children playing on the floor or exhausted workers sleeping.
Photographs in fact rarely mirror reality—they mirror a memory. Passport photos attempt to neutralize distractions through their rigid specifications: a white background, no shadows, no smiling, looking straight at the camera. But the way a person presents is also a way of manipulating photography to perform a certain kind of citizenship or legal legitimacy. I may have shaved my beard, cut my curls, and worn a tie if I wanted to project the image of a cisgender, straight man aspiring to whiteness. French theorist Roland Barthes, in his work Camera Lucida, remarked that the power of photography was in its ability to confront the viewer with the fact that what they see doesn’t exist anymore. The second I sent off my application, that self was no longer mine. It had expired.
Migrants have long found utility in images. At the turn of the twentieth century, following the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 that limited much travel between Japan and the United States, Japanese workers who were stateside and could not return to Japan to establish a family sought to bring over women they could marry. The matchmaking occurred solely through photo exchanges because of the immigration restrictions, and many of the women were often disappointed in the men they came to marry. On the other hand, that every cell phone now comes outfitted with a camera makes the process of gathering evidence for an asylum claim a bit more manageable: The open gash that a gang member cut on a migrant’s arm may have closed by the time they appear in immigration court for their hearing, but the cut remains open in the record. Likewise, the photographs of Abu Ghraib helped secure war crime convictions and a semblance of justice for the detainees and their families.
Looks deceive—and that’s part of why I have trust issues. Since coming to America, so many things about immigration, and the law, have turned out to be completely upside down. The lawyer we trusted was a fraud. The documents we received on DHS letterhead promising a green card turned out to be fake. I assumed I had status, when in fact I had none. So yeah, I stay a Doubting Thomas.
In truth, it should be the other way around: Reach hither thy hand, government, and see that my struggle, my grief, my loss, have all been real.
I am a whole person, irreducible, like so many others who have held me through the torment of illegality. Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. I can’t be grateful for being given what was already mine.
For now, I’m excited to no longer have to think about my papers every time I have a job interview or need to travel by plane. My partner and my friends threw me a surprise party the other day. They wore white and hung little dangling paper cranes from the ceiling. Since I wore navy and black (duh) we joked I was the ink. It was one of the first times I’ve felt loved because I’m undocumented, not despite it. I felt safe.
On the card, also, is its expiration date: September 9, 2022.
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