On the wall of the Manhattan branch of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services hangs an ad. It features an unpopulated and cheaply decorated wedding hall, showing rows of chairs divided into two distinct blocks by a red carpet. Around the chairs stand tall cocktail tables adorned with red bows. Yet the eye is drawn to the large letters that form the message of the ad: “Don’t walk down the aisle for the wrong reasons. Marriage fraud is a federal crime.” Smaller letters indicate: “Up to five years in prison. Fines up to $250,000. Loss of benefits.”
I’m staring at the ad while waiting for an appointment with an immigration officer. It manages to frighten me even though I am married to a person with whom I’ve shared a life for seven years. I’m surrounded by people whose gaze, like mine, is moving constantly from the wall to their phone and back to the stack of papers each of us is carrying. It has been an hour and fifteen minutes since I arrived in the building with the hope of getting an update on my application for a Green Card. Even before I looked at the ad, a kafkaesque fear had taken over me, making me feel guilty of a crime I never committed. I had spent weeks waiting for this meeting and was bound to wait a little longer before one of the four working immigration officers in the room became available.
The writer Valeria Luiselli defines all immigrants as people who wait. In her book-length essay Tell Me How It Ends and her recent novel Lost Children Archive, she tells varied immigration stories, asking simultaneously how and why such stories should be told. Witness bearing and self-reflection bring Luiselli to the conclusion that some immigration stories are good because they involve no trauma, dispossession, or confrontation with the law, while others are good because they consist of all of these elements. Wary of becoming a generator of yet another heartbreaking immigration story for mass media consumption, Luiselli searches for ways to go beyond the invocation of liberal pity on the one hand and the populist criminalization of immigrants on the other. She recounts parts of her own immigration story at the outset of Tell Me How It Ends.
After a few years of working as a writer and educator in the United States, Luiselli applied for a Green Card, waited, and was granted it. In the process, her temporary work authorization expired; and she was no longer allowed to get paid for any type of labor. On hold, Luiselli started volunteering for a non-profit organization providing legal aid for unaccompanied minors, who entered the United States mainly through the Southern border. While interviewing these minors for the purpose of filling out a mandatory questionnaire that would secure their right to be seen by a judge, Luiselli faced the difference between her own status as someone awaiting authorization and that of the children. The questionnaire for unaccompanied minors looked nothing like the Green Card questionnaire. Hinging on straightforward questions such as “where is your mother or father?”, it demanded facts rather than confessions of sin. A typical question from the Green Card questionnaire reads: “Have you ever knowingly committed a crime of moral turpitude?”
Not only a degree of simplicity separated the Green Card questionnaire from the one for unaccompanied minors. The subtext of each questionnaire assumed a different immigration story in the making. To apply for a Green Card, one must already have a connection to the United States in the form of legal employment, an American family member, or an approved request for asylum. Green Card applicants are often potential “expats” in the jargon of global migration, or “resident aliens” in the jargon of American bureaucracy. Either way, Green Card applicants are in the middle of an immigration story of which an unaccompanied minor can only dream. Luiselli is nevertheless right to point out that all immigrants are united by the imperative of waiting. They must stand by patiently as understaffed immigration services make decisions about their future. They must attune themselves to changing rules, shifting opinions, and new immigration plans.
As the crisis in the Southern border deepens and debates around the right use of the term “concentration camp” continue to unfold, President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner recently presented his own new immigration plan: a “merit-based” immigration reform. This proposed reform attempts to address both matters of border security and the overall system of legal immigration to the United States. It relies on a twofold objective: to complicate applications for asylum, while increasing the number of Green Card applications based on education or job prospects. The latter part of the proposal aims to rebrand Trump as pro-legal migration, casting asylum requests, by implication, as illegal. The vision is one of “meritocracy,” presuming that the United States could open itself up only to the “talented.”
A “resident alien” and “expat,” I’ve watched Trump and his family rise to power while knowing I have no voting rights. Like others in my position, I’ve been desperate to learn more about the social and political systems that have enabled this family to gain its status, and that might permit Kushner’s plan to be partly or fully enacted. Should I have been happy to discover, reading American newspapers, that no one likes Kushner’s plan? National Review began covering it by noting that one had to “get past the hilarious juxtaposition of the words ‘merit-based’ and ‘Jared Kushner’” to take a good look into the proposed reform. The New Yorker deemed it, simply, “empty.”
I received my Green Card through family relations, though I could potentially meet Kushner’s proposed “merit” criteria. Waiting for the coveted card, I learned, however, that immigration to the United States had little to do with merit and everything to do with luck, privilege, and money. As Luiselli suggests, the starting point of any immigration story is a person’s country of citizenship, its domestic affairs and international alliances. Some countries offer more to their citizens in terms of education, financial resources, and safety, while others — struck by war, hunger, corruption, or poverty — do not. The scholar Ayelet Shachar adds to this line of argument her own question: Why is it that we rarely think of the institution of citizenship through the prism of institutional inequality? We rightly assume that except for the stateless — a growing group today, whose members have no rights beyond their universal human rights — every person is a citizen somewhere. Yet the “where” in “somewhere,” as Shachar insists, matters. Shouldn’t citizenship be understood as a form of inherited property, an arbitrary benefit bestowed on us by our parents or by the soil on which we were born?
The fact that my country of citizenship has an amicable relationship with the United States undoubtedly had an impact on my Green Card application. As I sat waiting, time and again, in governmental offices to be screened and interviewed, I witnessed the fate of those who had the “wrong” kind of citizenship. In an overheated room in one of New York’s airports, an elderly couple seemed to have been held up for countless hours. The woman wore a headscarf, and the man a wide skullcap. They whispered to one another in Arabic, closing their eyes whenever they needed respite from the fluorescent lights and scary ads on the wall. In a similar space, months later, a group of men became agitated when an immigration officer told them, in Spanish, to cease speaking to one another. I always left the room before these people, with a new stamp on my passport or a status update. My citizenship allowed me, somehow, a degree of freedom that others did not enjoy. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian demonstrates in The Cosmopolites, the “value” of one’s citizenship is not measured only by the benefits one has in her home country. A citizenship is also judged by its bearing on one’s ability to travel and work abroad. Good citizenships yield good passports, and good passports enable people to access multiple countries without applying and paying for visas. Critically, good citizenships serve as a basis for good Green Card applications, turning rapidly into commodities.
“It is possible,” Abrahamian writes, “to become, through completely legal and legitimate means, a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Malta, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Austria. The documents can be bought for $200,000 (Dominica) or millions of Euros (Austria, Malta). Since the 2008 financial crisis, a new country has been added to the list every year.”
While this is not the case in the United States, it is obvious that here too, money plays a key role in securing non-citizens’ rights to apply for travel, work, and residence visas. In addition to the fees associated with submitting a Green Card application, my spouse and I paid hundreds of dollars to lawyers, who helped us understand the dozens of forms we needed to fill out. To the application forms themselves, we had to attach pay slips, bank statements, and tax documents to prove our ability to support ourselves financially. Had I applied through an employer — or based on my “merit” — I would have had to provide the very same documents. My employer would have had to pay most fees, after proving that I was the only one fit for the job by buying newspaper ads — tailored according to my skills — that announced the alleged opening of the job to all possible candidates. Could “merit” stand for “money” in Kushner’s proposed immigration reform?
Luiselli, Shachar, and Abrahamian all consult others to navigate the issue of global immigration today. They tell past and present stories to expose the uneven distribution across the globe of what Hannah Arendt has famously dubbed “the right to have rights.” Accounting for the perils of statelessness, Arendt described the paradox of living not in “uncivilized” world but in a world so “civilized” that few territories in it are left unmarked by national and bureaucratic stamps. We tend to take for granted, or are forced to abide by, the laws that tie nation and territory together, although we know that both are historically contingent. The unwavering belief that territories belong to nations and that countries belong to their citizens yield hypocritical descriptions of “merit.” These shape, in turn, immigration policies that present financial considerations as “moral” decisions based on a principle of prioritizing citizens over any other person in or out of this country. And such policies reach new sanctimonious peaks when they seek to address the well-being of those who “belong” here by encouraging “quality” labor from abroad.
The Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said once pointed out that “belonging” can only seem like a privilege to those who have been uprooted from their countries, or have left them for one reason or another. He had no patience, as he stated, for “the position that ‘we’ should only or mainly be concerned with what is ‘ours.’”
Yet, patience is what one must exercise in order to gain “the right to have rights” in the United States. The day I went to the Manhattan branch of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, I finally saw an immigration officer after two hours of waiting. The officer told me I had to wait longer. The processing times of most Green Card applications, regardless of their kind, have increased steadily since Trump took office. Waiting for my Green Card, I kept asking myself why my partner and I insisted on spending our time and money on establishing the right to live and work in this country. It was too late to answer this question. Like most Green Card applicants, I was already in the middle of my immigration story when I applied for permanent residence. When I finally obtained the physical, light green, magnetic card that granted those rights to me, it did not feel like some happy ending. In two years, I will need to apply for its renewal. Permanence, like merit, is a fantasy.