Two Wednesdays ago I sat in the lobby of a foreign consulate office in San Francisco and waited for my name to be called. I was early for my 11:45 am appointment. At around 11:40, the officer at the window with a sign that read "Visas Only" motioned for me to approach. I walked past the two other windows with the signs "Citizens Only" and stood in front of her. I was there to apply for a visa to visit family abroad. On a good day, the visa would be granted. On a not-so-good-day, it would be denied. The odds were fifty-fifty considering the power and discretion of consulate officials. Ten minutes later, it turned out to be a good day. Another stamp on my passport that would arrive in the mail a week later.
One Wednesday ago I sat in the lobby of a privately-owned immigrant detention center under contract with the federal government and waited for the clock to strike 7:30 am. We were early for our appointment. At about five past the half hour, we walked in, handed them our IDs, removed our shoes and placed them in a gray tray before proceeding through a metal detector. The scene was eerily reminiscent of a TSA checkpoint. I was there with a group who visited immigrant detainees cycling through a system that can best be described as absurd. On the best days, immigrants are locked up with no access to a lawyer, fighting against continual delays in their hearings and highly inflated bond amounts. On the worst days, immigrants are found dead in their cells.
This was Eloy Detention Center, a place notorious for their inability to keep their charges alive. After visiting with several detainees and hearing the grueling journeys they endured to get to the border, I wondered about how two people could share a common space across a desk in a waiting room smelling like ammonia yet be perpetually separated by extraordinary circumstances beyond either of their control. Circumstances that a twenty minute conversation and a handshake could never bridge. When I returned home, I found my passport with a new stamp waiting for me.
I want to understand this strange occurrence. How is it that I get to walk into an air-conditioned consulate office and walk out with permission to visit a foreign country? How is it that my journey to the U.S. did not involve traveling thousands of miles on foot, paying fees to countries along the way that detained me, paying more fees to smugglers to guide a part of the journey, and ultimately making it to the border only to be summarily arrested and detained for months or years at a time? How is it that some people never have nor ever will have the chance to do things "the right way," yet we still expect everyone to play by the blanket, strict, unforgiving rules?
I waited for a week hoping some insights would dawn on me. But I have none. I am no less curious, no less concerned, no less confused. All I have are stories of lives separated by space and time, separated by legality and illegality, separated by arbitrary rules and unforgiving punishments, separated between Wednesdays.