Back before the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon was attacked by plane, before there was a US Department of Homeland Security, way back when ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was known as the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service,) – a lifetime ago and yet still less than fifteen years have passed – I served as a Legal Tech for an immigration law firm in Washington, DC. I was a twenty-something white woman, with southern working class roots and a damned fine Midwestern liberal arts college education, figuring out if I wanted to go to law school.
In addition to filing forms at the law firm, I was a narrative gatekeeper. In search of asylum, an HIV-waiver, a work visa? Sit down in that chair and tell your story to me, in all its intimate and gory details. My job was to take your story and craft a narrative that would compel government officials to consider your case favorably (or at all, in some cases).
It was extraordinary work. I met families from Iran, the Philippines, Malaysia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka – from all over the world. Each had an extraordinary story – some that were exciting, some that made my stomach turn, some that broke my heart open. After just a few months of working with the firm, I added Tums® to my requested office supply list and I went through them by the bottle.
I was angry that any human being had to share the excruciating details of their torture and their trauma to a recent college graduate and pray that she told their story well enough for an officer or a judge to grant them grace. I was angry at how much harm was inflicted by my country on people who had already suffered much harm in their country. Soon I figured out that I did not want to grow up to be a lawyer. I did not want to risk growing immune to the power of these stories or becoming complicit in the process. What I wanted to do was work for systems change.
Many years later down the winding road of my life, I found myself standing in an ICE office for hours. I was bonding an immigrant – the friend of a friend of a friend, ripped away from his family and hauled out to detention in rural Louisiana.
Memories of dozens of stories from the cases I had worked on flooded over me as I waited in the reception space during the long stretches between each step of the ICE process.
I remembered the proud father terrified that his extremely Westernized daughter would be stoned to death if deport to their home country.
I remembered the gay man who had seen his friends killed for daring to hold hands and who had fled his homeland in fear of his own life.
I remembered the woman raped by an elder of her church and denied the letter of good standing that would have allowed her to become a citizen.
I remembered the sweet faced Latino youth who was infected with HIV while in detention in the US and then denied status because he was HIV-positive.
I remembered their stories and the stories of so many others who struggled to create a better life for themselves and their families here in these United States.
Because I know their stories, immigration will always be a moral issue for me. Because I know their stories, I will not buy into the dehumanizing stereotypes being peddled to me and my fellow patriots. Because I know their stories, I will stand – in an ICE office, in the pulpit, in the voting booth, in the interwebs – on the side of love. I invite you to stand on the side of love, too.