Letter 2

In thinking about immigration and the intersection of the personal and the political, I’ve often ended up finding myself immersed in story:

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a poetry reading by Warsan Shire, whose feature on Beyoncé’s Lemonade launched her into small-scale stardom. Though Shire is renowned for her chronicles of womanhood and feminine sexuality, I believe she’s at her best when she dips into her immigrant and refugee background. She achieves greatest profundity by engaging the area of ambiguity that exists when you’re a refugee attempting to build a home out of your own bones because no nation will call you its own. Shire herself is a Kenyan-born Somali who has spent much of her life in London, and her poetry reflects her untethered background as she recounts the stories of immigrant family and friends who know much more about the journey they have endured than who they actually are.

In “Conversations About Home (at a Deportation Centre),” for example, Shire depicts the preposterous capacity of bureaucracy and immigration policy to flatten people into nothing more than slips of paper:

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I cannot afford to forget.

It’s a heavy passage. Says Rafia Zakaria of The Guardian, “A question posed: Is reducing a person’s right to refuge to a piece of paper more or less bizarre than the act of eating one?… In verse, Shire recalibrates the distance between the documentary details of belonging and the human experience of it, revealing them to be two vastly different things, fragile and futile foundations for justice.”

As Zakaria suggests, Shire’s poetry manages to document all, functioning much like a camera trained on immigrant life that not only captures the photo but also the emotions that swirl within its margins. But one thing Shire can’t help but zoom in on is this: sometimes the law isn’t right. Sometimes it’s immoral. Often times it’s shortsighted. And many a time it’s limited.

And I agree with her. In fact, it’s a belief I’ve implicitly held for longer than I can remember, and I believe it’s what undergirds my desire for story. Why else do I cite Shire’s poetry or M.I.A.’s “Borders” as work that hustles me forward, finally allowing me to well up with anger, if only for the briefest of moments? Why is “because I get to learn about other peoples’ stories” my answer when someone asks me why I want to enter the field of immigration law? Why else, when writing this letter home, did I immediately pull up the TIME cover story from a couple of months ago detailing families whose lives had been ripped apart by Trump’s harsh enforcement of deportation policy?

However, though narrative is enough for me, it’s not enough for everyone. I’ve come to find that an emphasis on story, though compelling and poignant, is limited in its underlying philosophy that at times the law is morally incorrect. When we first and foremost underscore humanity and individuality when discussing issues of immigration, it is to elucidate the narrow nature of the law. It’s a people-first strategy for convincing others to one’s side, and one would assume that that approach would work, right? Because when it’s personal, the politics should presumably unravel.

But our varying views of right and wrong, especially when it comes to immigration, are not mere permutations of one another with the fundamental core still intact. At times they are the inverse, flipped inside out; for some, it’s not the law that melds to the people, it’s the people that conform to the law: when I was interviewing a citizen couple last week, one spouse stated that he was willing to give amnesty to children but not to adults because the latter “chose to come here anyway.” And in regards to amnesty for children, he considered programs like the uninitiated Dream Act or DAPA to be “too much,” since “people will come to the United States and have ten kids” just to get legal status. “There’s a right way to come to the United States,” he asserted, and if you’re coming in the “wrong” way, well, then you just have to face the consequences, as Mark Krikorian of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies argued in the TIME article I mentioned earlier: “They’re illegal, they’re breaking the law, why shouldn’t they be living in the shadows?” he’d argued.

That seemed a little harsh to me. Aren’t we talking about real people, real stories? Maybe not. After TIME self-purportedly “pressed [him] on specific cases” of families being shorn apart by hardline immigration enforcement, he said, “Look, when it does happen, it’s not a great situation… But it’s not our problem. These immigrants are adults; they have to be responsible for their actions. Kids sometimes suffer from the bad decisions their parents make. If Mom and Dad stop paying their mortgage and get evicted, the kids don’t get to stay in the house.”

Krikorian’s viewpoint is fundamentally law-first. It’s the law that is right, and it’s the people that break it who are wrong. Not the other way around, like Warsan Shire or M.I.A. or even the undocumented “rule-breakers” would suggest: in a 2014 study, USC sociologist Emily Ryo found that undocumented immigrants not only believe that they’re moral people, but that they’re helping the United States, stating:

They view the violation as resulting in something that’s good for the U.S. economy. They recognize that engaging in work without authorization is illegal, but they focus on the nature of the work they’re doing, which to them is admirable. Our refusal to grant them legal status to work legally they see as a pretty hypocritical stand, that we’re benefiting from the fruits of their labor at the same time we’re saying, “We don’t want you.”

What lies underneath is this idea that immigration law occupies a fundamentally different moral sphere from other kinds of laws. They see themselves as law-abiding despite their violation of our immigration laws.

Why is this? Why do many––including myself––want the law to the flexible, at least to some degree? Why do others want the people to be malleable at whatever cost? How can viewpoints differ so essentially?

Perhaps it’s where we come from: Let’s say I’m Warsan Shire, and I’m coming from Somalia. Or I’m Sara, the young woman profiled in the TIME article who came from a Honduran pueblo with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Or perhaps I’m M.I.A., and I’m coming from Sri Lanka, where my father is wanted as a member of the Tamil Tigers. If I were any one of these people, maybe I’d be more suspicious of the law because it had failed to protect me in the past. Maybe I’d be less likely to see it as legitimate simply because it’s deemed “the law”.

Or perhaps my hypothesis is entirely wrong, and it’s not this at all. Hopefully we’ll see as I conduct more interviews in the upcoming weeks.

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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