Our Green Cards arrived today. Shiny plastic; biometric bureaucratic confirmation that we can stay in San Francisco indefinitely.
Do they matter? I’ve been trained to be skeptical of official labels and categories: legal status does a poor job of defining lived experience. There are real advantages to being Permanent Residents, above all the fact that my husband is no longer a tied labourer: our right to reside here is no longer dependent upon his employer. And perhaps we will be able to apply for a credit card now. But then again, he likes his work and we have money in the bank. So our Green Cards will not change the way we live.
But I am surprised how many of the people I tell of their arrival respond with an enthusiastic “Congratulations!”; I am surprised by how many people I tell. Even the Federal Government sees cause for celebration: the papers that accompany their arrival are the first immigration notices we have received in three years to proclaim “Welcome to the United States of America”.
Even as I feel welcomed, I also feel guilty. I think of the articulate undocumented student I shared a platform with last week – far more American than I will ever be – and am reminded above all of just how much my life as an immigrant is mediated by privilege. I think of the Indian women I’ve been interviewing, waiting years for their husband’s green card applications to be approved so they have the right to work here. I wear the rights that come with Permanent Residency lightly because I can. It’s further proof of how immigration law entrenches inequality.
My thoughts inevitably turn to questions of homemaking. I am struck by how intangible I find the “United States of America”. Nationalism is always abstract nouns and optimism: “freedom”, “democracy”, “tolerance”. But this country is so vast in scope – geographically, politically, socially – that it is hard to see a coherent whole. That was easier to imagine from the outside. I grew up in a Britain by turns defensive and derisive when it came to American culture, hardened into active dislike during the Bush years. I have both family members and friends who wonder aloud how we can bear to live here, in an America replete with guns and the death penalty and excessive self-regard. Every time we drive north past San Quentin prison, I wonder the same.
But the truth is, lives are not national: they are local. And I am happy here. We arrived here two years ago at a time in our lives when we were sad and uncertain and exhausted, chasing pots of gold: we have found rainbows. I look out the window and see blue sky and cherry blossom; I see my neighbours drinking coffee. Old ladies smile at my son on the bus; in the evening creeping fingers of fog will roll down the hill. The San Francisco in the media is all rising rents and anger and gentrification and homelessness. There is all this, yes: but what I have also found is community. Sitting in a bar with friends, talk turns to the future. None of us are “natives” although few of us are immigrants. But we all know why we want to stay here. That word again: “community”. This has nothing to do with fingerprints and legal status and plastic green cards: but it has everything to do with identity and home.
I am doubly lucky. We have not only been granted the right to stay here, we have made the choice to do so. We are not fleeing war, or poverty, or injustice. But choices still have consequences. In choosing to remain — even if we eventually return – there are losses to mourn. However much Facebook and FaceTime might connect us, friendships and family are diffused by distance. We miss weddings, birthdays, births. Other people’s lives continue. We have come to realize that successful immigration requires in part that you master the art of letting go. There is a different life we could have lived, and knowing that this is the right choice does not mean it isn’t a bittersweet one. I have new friends: I miss the old ones. I miss daffodils and old churches and last orders in timber-framed pubs. Then I laugh at myself, because that is the kind of England that Americans imagine from afar.
The “Permanent” part of Permanent Residency scares me a little. I am not good at rooting myself to places, not good at staying still. I still prefer to say we are here “indefinitely”: the future is usually surprising. After all, this was never where we intended to be. But for now, we are here: and for now, we are home.