being an alien

I teach philosophy in the United States. I have been here on a visa for almost 10 years. My partner, my friends, my job opportunities, my house, are in this country. As a visa-holder, I am a “non-resident alien” in immigration terminology (although I count as a resident for tax purposes). Being here on a visa (whether doing the PhD on student visa, or working as a Lecturer or Postdoc with a J1 or a H1 visa) really makes you feel an alien. An alien whose status on this land is highly fragile and out of their own control. A small mistake on the visa renewal application (be it yours, or, as it happened to me once, the immigration office’s mistake) means deportation. A gap of even one single day between the end of a contract and the beginning of the next one, means deportation. The pressure to get a job, and not any job, but a job in which your employer is willing to sponsor your visa, is so high that I often lose track of the reasons why I am applying for a job: to keep doing philosophy? To be able to choose where I want to live? To be able to stay at my house with my partner, and not being forced to go back to a country where I do not belong anymore?

It is discouraging, and upsetting, that when I share my visa-related worries with colleagues and acquaintances, I often get a “don’t worry, it will be OK”. Many non-immigrants have no idea of how complicated and absurd immigration issues are, and they don’t see the risks that inhabit my nightmares. Many have no idea that any border officer can decide to ban me from entering into this country (where I have my house and my family, where I pay my taxes and teach my students) for no reason, no matter how many documents I have and how legal they are. They need no reason to deny me entrance, and I need a pile of updated documents from different institutions and paid fees, and a stupid unsuspicious smile capable of hiding my stress, so I don’t send the wrong signal that I am hiding something other than my stress. Many have no idea that even a speed violation jeopardizes my staying in this country, for it might lead to my visa not getting renewed. Many have no idea that having a contract offered and even signed with a university, does not warrantee everything is going to be ok, for you still depend on long bureaucratic processes, hopefully effective administrative staff, and arbitrary decisions made by people who see no personal story behind your alien status. I understand that many people ignore how complex all this is. That is why I don’t get mad at those who react with such lack of understanding when I share my last visa concern. It is not new: as a queer person, I have often encountered similar lack of understanding. Also as an activist against sexism and racism. I have often been portrayed as exaggerating, as making a drama out of nothing. Things are not that bad. Well, they are that bad. Deportation, in particular, is a real possibility for any “alien” on a visa.

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