Long before I saw America, I recognised America. America’s skylines, suburbs and cities were known quantities, reflected in a thousand Hollywood movies and syndicated sitcoms. This familiarity is disconcerting: it encourages a false sense of security. Arriving in San Francisco ready to start my own American adventure, I half expected the immigration official to beam “Welcome to America!” as if I’d arrived not in an airport, but a 1980s Eddie Murphy comedy.
Real life isn’t like the movies. I could tell as soon as I arrived at the front of the queue and heard the officer shout ‘next’ that I’d drawn a Grumpy Guard. There were no smiles: this was the sort of official that measures bureaucratic effectiveness in increasing degrees of administrative officiousness. Still, my papers were in order. I stepped forward confident in the belief that – while this conversation was unlikely to win any awards for human warmth – it would be a straightforward administrative exchange, and I’d soon be waiting for my suitcases to turn up in baggage reclaim.
I knew from previous experiences that Canadian passports often perplex US immigration officials. Although there’s nothing approaching EU citizens’ rights of residence across member states, Canadians also don’t need to apply in advance for a visa – so provided they meet the criteria, they can simply get the necessary stamp at the border. I smile apologetically as I put my passport and my papers down, “I’d like to apply for L2 status please”* But the man who stares back isn’t confused. He is actively hostile. “You want to do what? Did you seriously think you could just turn up and apply for status here? Er, yes. I checked. Multiple times. “Who told you that?” Well, my immigration lawyers. The US Government’s own website. I have all the right documents, look: here are copies of my husband’s visa, my marriage certificate. (Never mind how strange it is that my right to come is entirely dependent upon providing public proof of a private relationship). But ask whatever questions you choose: you know I will have to answer politely. Right now, I am the Supplicant: you are the Administrator. The officer shakes his head slowly, an exaggerated gesture. This is dramatic performance, although I’m not sure for whose benefit. “These lawyers, they mess with peoples’ lives”. The sympathy is synthetic: the next moment he returns to an aggressive bark: “you do have a return ticket?”
Well, no. That’s the point: I’m emigrating.
I no longer know who’s right: the lawyers or the immigration officer in front of me. But right and wrong are irrelevant: all that matters is that the officer has all the power. Sociologists like David Graeber write about the threat of structural violence that lurks beneath all rigidly enforced bureaucracies. Face to face with the border guard, the threat of violence shimmers on the surface of every bureaucratic word, every arbitrary action. We will choose whether to let you in: or we will deport you. My interrogator sucks in his teeth, scrawls something on my papers and motions towards a small door in the wall marked Secondary Immigration. He exhales slowly, “Goooood Luuuck. And I mean it. Goooood Luuuck”.By now I am alarmed. I enter Secondary Immigration: a small, windowless waiting room. An officer staffs the reception desk: high on testosterone and administrative power, he refuses to answer any questions about anything. Exhausted after an 11 hour transatlantic flight, I’ve no idea what time it is: but when I pull out my mobile phone to check, he’s quick to call out “No Cells!”. I reflect how easy it would be for undesirables to be disappeared from this windowless room, as if they had never arrived at all. My husband is waiting for me in Arrivals. But no one knows I am here, in this room, in bureaucratic limbo.The room is mostly empty: an Indian family are waiting for their temporary Green Cards. A Nigerian woman is being questioned: a circular inquisition that seems to centre on why anyone in his or her right mind would want to live in Lagos. To the official interviewing her, this is simply incredible.
I’m not so much frightened as frustrated: I reason that in the worst case, I will buy a flight to Vancouver, and stay there overnight until the paperwork is cleared. I picture myself making angry phone calls. I consider how ironic it would be to be deported back to a country I haven’t visited since I was a teenager.
Thirty minutes later, my name is called. Perhaps it is simply that this third official is less concerned with exuding machismo. Perhaps it is just that she is kinder: she speaks to me. She is firm: the papers are not in order, there is no way they can admit me as an L2 without advance notice. But she is also conciliatory: they’re prepared to let me in as a visitor for six months. I seize the chance: within the hour, I’ve left the airport.As I thank her, I realise I am close to tears. Because when you are entirely powerless, you become grateful for the smallest of official kindnesses — even when those kindnesses mask continuing mistakes. For as I establish the next day, all the border guards were wrong. My papers were in order.
That’s why, one week later, I find myself in downtown San Francisco in the company of an immigration lawyer, applying to correct my immigration status so I can be admitted as an L2, and begin the process of applying for further bureaucratic permits – a driving licence, a social security number, authorisation to work. As we walk in the early Spring sunshine, the lawyer confides that while such mistakes aren’t frequent, they’re also not uncommon. US immigration codes are hugely complex: border guards are often poorly paid and poorly trained. The system is dysfunctional. The result is immigration officials messing with peoples’ lives.On the tenth floor of the office block, we enter another waiting room. This one has windows, with views that stretch down to the Bay. This immigration officer smiles: he apologises for his colleagues’ error. In just a few minutes, one entry in my passport is crossed out, a new one penned in. Now, I am welcome in America.
My immigration “detention” lasted less than hour – and was fixed in about as much time. Yet it was an uncomfortable reminder of how bureaucracies exercise power over the weak in arbitrary ways. As a well-educated, wealthy and white woman I rarely experience such powerlessness: this was an important reminder of how quickly injustice can be done, how impotent you can become, raging against the machine. But there is a clear political lesson alongside the personal. I might have the social and financial capital to beat the bureaucrats at their own game. But this isn’t proof of the system’s essential soundness: quite the opposite. When your immigration code is too complicated for your own officials to understand, when crossing a border becomes dependent upon bureaucratic whim and lawyers’ billable hours, the system isn’t fair: it’s broken. Sure, it’s just one minor incident: but it’s one further, personal confirmation that American immigration reform is long, long overdue.
*for those of you who haven’t yet needed to master the complicated language of US immigration, there are several dozen different visa categories. The “L” is for intra-company transfers – the “2” denotes I’m here as the dependent spouse of the transferee.