Today I had an experience that every adult U.S. citizen should be made to undergo.
Gathered in a university cafeteria with a large group of students and community members, I was paired up with a young social work student and given a folder. It contained our names – Lucía and Juana Delgadillo – and information about us: I was Juana, a 16-year-old U.S. citizen trying to help my 20-year-old sister Juana, who had been brought by our parents to the U.S. at the age of four, get legal status. We then entered a Kafka-esque network of people representing various aspects of the US immigration system: immigration officials, attorneys, judges, translators, smugglers and con artists. Our goal was to obtain US citizenship within eighteen years (in the simulation, each year was represented by six minutes).
Beginning the simulation, I studied the background information on the characters we were playing. It suggested two options. The first was for my ¨sister¨ to apply for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). This would not lead to permanent residency or citizenship, but it would allow her to gain a renewable work permit (valid for two years) and social security number. The second was to wait until turning 21 to petition for her (with a form called I-130, Petition for Alien Relative), a process that would take at least eighteen years before getting permanent residency and an an additional five after that for getting citizenship. Thus, given that the simulation only represented eighteen years in total, there was no way for the two of us to win this game.
I started the simulation with a certain amount of optimism. Like Sarah in the cult classic Jim Henson film Labyrinth, I studied the maze before me and hoped for a Hollywood ending. ¨It can’t be that hard,¨ I thought. I immediately accompanied ¨Juana¨ to a nonprofit lawyer, who charged us a $30 to fill the documents out for us. We then got in line for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. After a wait in which at least one year passed, we were informed that we were missing documents – I needed Juana’s birth certificate – and sent off to get them. And thus began a wild journey of going from one office or agency to another, constantly receiving incomplete information, being attended to by overworked, disengaged officials, and constantly fearing a run-in with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
Eventually, my ¨sister¨ was indeed deported, and I was left feeling a deep sense of despair. ¨She hasn’t been to Guatemala since she was four,¨ I thought. ¨She doesn’t even speak Spanish…How will she survive?¨ Initially, I tried to petition for her, but the game was nearly finished, and in my desperation I ended up hiring a coyote to smuggle her back – an act that I later learned amounted to a felony.
Even though it was only a game, the sorrow and desperation I felt was real – which was, of course, the whole point of this activity. As the immigration debate rages in the U.S., we hear many voices condemning ¨illegals¨ and declaring ¨they should just get in line.¨ I am quite certain that the vast majority of Americans have no idea how the U.S. immigration system works, how long the process takes, how hard it is to navigate, and how tempting it is to give up (the student playing my sister said that if she’d been going through the process without me, she would have stopped playing after the first time her DACA request was denied)
My sense of bewilderment only increased when, upon finishing the game, those few of us who’d managed to pass the citizenship test were sworn in as U.S. citizens. I shuddered as I heard the oath they were made to take:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
A chill ran through me, as I’d actually never heard this oath spoken. ¨Renounce and abjure all allegiance to any foreign state?¨ Really? Does this mean that newly naturalized US citizens must give up all emotional ties to their country of origin? What if their families still live there? What does it mean to ¨bear true faith and allegiance¨ to the US? What does such a statement mean for me, a U.S. born citizen? What about my ethnic heritage? I felt vaguely queasy and briefly wondered if my anarchist friends -who declare governmental authority to be a lie we’ve bought into – might actually be right after all.
I seriously wish that every U.S. citizen I know – regardless of ideology, profession, socioeconomic status, or background – could engage in the simulation I was so fortunate to participate in today. If we all knew just how harsh, convoluted and dysfunctional our immigration system is, we’d have a different collective attitude, and most likely a different country.