Letter 1

With the right passport, sometimes the world is your oyster and sometimes it isn’t.

I’m thinking about the Trump administration’s plan to undo a 2015 Obama-era regulation that allowed the spouses of specialized workers on the H-1b visa to obtain a job in this country. Many on the H-1b are high-tech talent––Silicon Valley lives and breathes them––and many of their spouses are the same. Without this regulation, these women can’t work: 20 years ago, the spouse of an H-1b techie could wait a few years and get a green card, but now the wait for permanent residency persists for several decades. The H-4 visa, which these spouses hold, has been nicknamed “the involuntary housewife visa” for good reason. Sometimes our papers choose our lives for us.

With the right passport, sometimes the freedom to choose is yours and sometimes it isn’t.

I’m reminded of French-Indian actress Kalki Koechlin, who was born and raised in Pondicherry, India and has frequently discussed the racial prejudice she experienced as a child, claiming that she was stereotyped as a “white-girl” and was continuously forced to defend her “Indian-ness.” “My skin is white, but my heart is brown,” she declared in a 2012 interview, even as she upheld her use of a French passport, stating that she chose it over an Indian passport since it is much easier to travel with the former. Koechlin’s more chameleon than many of us, and I envy her: she gets to choose her skin color based on cultural, societal, and political context. She reminds us that, depending on your passport, the world can either treat you as brown or it can treat you as white. The irony is sharp, but not enough to prick her skin.

stone, rock, etching

With the right passport, sometimes your body is yours and sometimes it isn’t.

I’m imagining the infamous first “Muslim ban” and the thousands of Visa and green cardholders trapped in linoleum-floored airports, the pro bono ACLU lawyers hunched in metal chairs, the kids, the students, the refugees just waiting. But for some reason I can only envisage their empty silhouettes. In fact, the only thing I can palpably conjure up is Koechlin, the focal point of it all, whizzing by with her French passport and designer tote in hand, head held up high.

Who deserves it? Who doesn’t?

Our documents are not our families, our friends, our culture, or our hobbies, yet they determine how the world coats us––is it a blanket, a brittle shell, a bulletproof vest? And all those little things that pinch and prod us on the outside determine our insides—so much so that sometimes we just have to let them meld into a murky eddy and carry our brains away. It’s somewhat like epigenetics: the “other” and the “self” interact so intimately that it’s impossible to tell one from the other. Legal status is political and thereby personal. It’s numerical and thereby narrative.

What I’m trying to do is examine that intersection. My project, which is assessing the relationship between legal status and identity development, is as much a reckoning with the stories I’ve come across and my own upbringing as a second-generation Pakistani-American as it is a straightforward, cut-and-dry psychological study. It seeks to unite the quantitative–––via a standardized statistical measure that categorizes individuals into four stages of identity coherence–––and the qualitative such that the numbers take on emotion and the stories I gather are enriched by data.

While working as a legal assistant at an immigration law firm, I came into contact with the nitty-gritty of a variety of immigrant stories: the husband who diligently documented his relationship so that his spouse might attain an IR1 immigrant visa, the men and women who had to relive the abuse and torture they faced in order to attain refugee status, and the DACA applicants who hoped to obtain a work permit and climb the economic ladder. My personal experience with DACA stories as well as the recent prominence of the program in the media prompted me to research the relationship between legal status and psychological wellbeing. I wrote a 19-page paper on the topic for my psychology class and found that attaining legal status is significantly related to positive mental and physical health outcomes.

At the core of all my experiences was bureaucracy, which managed to sheathe in unyielding but invisible material the individuals I came to know through case files and online forms. The papers I processed felt as though they came from an unfeeling sci-fi deity with final say: the USCIS. The qualitative studies that I examined implicitly crocheted together the regulatory difficulties of being undocumented–– whether it be lack of access to education, a drivers’ license, or health insurance––with admissions of first love, of becoming an adult, of figuring out what you want to do with your one wild and precious life.

Can we tease out the personal from the political? Or is it all the same? Who does and does not deserve their plight?

To ascertain some answers to the questions, I’ve been driving across Atlanta and Durham to distribute surveys to immigration law firms and non-profits as well as conduct interviews with clients. I’ll share what I’ve learned in upcoming posts.

Alizeh Sheikh is a T’21 Undergraduate and has participated in Project Change, Team Kenan, and a 2018 Kenan Summer Research Fellow 

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