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immigration

Birthdays and Count Up Time

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Birthdays and Count Up Time

I want to start with two thoughts. One, happy birthday, Ammi! Two, I'm sorry I can't be there to celebrate with you.

Seeing as how I am more than 9,500 miles away from you on this birthday, I cannot help but think about your last one when those miles were surmountable. When I was able to wish you in person very close to the day of your actual birthday. And the year before that. And the year before that. In fact, every year I've been alive, I think I have spent your birthday with you. Until this year. And it got me thinking about time. I thought how strange it is that since the two of us have been separated by borders, I have kept track of time differently. Normally, I would count down to various events -- birthdays, graduations, holidays. I would cross days off in a calendar. But since I saw you last May, I no longer cross off. I no longer count down.

I count up.

It has been 358 days since I last saw you in person. It will likely be as many and more before I see you again. When the sun rises tomorrow, the number will go up. And I will keep counting. I don't think this is unique to me. I've heard it before -- when I visit people in detention, they have often told me exactly how many days they have been in lock up. I don't mean to compare experiences. Just that sometimes distance and time may feel the same. They don't know when they will get out. But they know how long it has been since they last saw their family. They count up in days, weeks, months, and years. I suppose then there is count down time and count up time. Count down for those who know when. Count up for those who do not.

But for now, a virtual hug from me with a phone call.

Someday soon, in time, a real hug.

Happy Birthday, Ammi.

I love you.

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"No one case is worth your license."

The day began as a day of firsts. My first time as an attorney in a courtroom. My first time as an attorney in an immigration courtroom. My first time representing a client in said courtroom. My first time stating my full name and then the words "for the respondent." Needless to say, it was the first time I ever felt that nervous.

What should have been a short hearing on a procedural matter turned out to be a terribly tragic drama. After the judge entered the courtroom, she sized me up, warned me about being careful about what I say into the record, and stated (off the record), "No one case is worth your license." I was perplexed. What on earth was she talking about? Why would I lose my license to practice law for showing up to represent someone in immigrant detention as a pro bono attorney?

After dismissing the procedural matter that I was there to represent the client for, she immediately moved on to the second matter at hand. Long story short, there was no way I could ethically take on representation for the second matter as I had little to no preparation. After I admitted this to the judge and asked for more time, she rejected the request, excused me, and proceeded with the second matter.

I watched helplessly as my client was grilled for three hours and then ordered removed from the country. There was nothing I could do. Despite the three years of law school, despite acing Immigration Law, despite passing the CA bar, I sat helplessly as a person in a black robe sitting in front of a sign that read "Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur" brought an immigrant to tears. My client, better known as the "case" at hand, became one of the thousands thrown into the pile of refuse, the rejects "justice" deems unworthy of living among us in this great nation of immigrants. There were six people in that courtroom. All have undoubtedly made mistakes in their lives. Yet, only one was handpicked by "justice" to suffer and pay for her mistakes by being removed from a country she has lived in for nearly 20 years.

On the way home and for days later, the statement still rings in my head. I keep going over what happened and wonder whether I could have done something differently. Realistically I know that I could not have possibly represented her in the second matter. But the sting of what happened remains with me. And the echo of those words remain hanging in the air. I wonder if there would be a "case" that was worth a license. Maybe she is right and no one "case" is. But maybe because they all are so no one "case" can be. Because behind every "case" is a person. And every person, regardless of who they are, would be worth it, right? 

It seems regardless of the work or the effort or the skills or the time or the pure dumb luck it took for me to earn that license, it is not the most important thing in the world. Far from it. As I try to move on from the echo of those words, it seems to me that there would be no greater privilege than losing a license if it happened in defense of the most vulnerable among us. Because at least then I would know I tried.

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Classroom Confessions

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Classroom Confessions

"I used to be a racist."

Four days into my summer history class, I began my lecture with these words against a dark backdrop of a Powerpoint slide reading, "My Confession." The class is about immigration. We cannot talk about immigration without talking about race. So, I was trying to talk about race.

In some detail, I recalled my segregated elementary school days in Sri Lanka. I attended class with Sinhalese kids while never even interacting with the Tamil ones. I had friends who were Catholic, Buddhist, and Islamic but none who were Hindu. Even after I was taught Tamil as a second language, I never bothered to make any Tamil-speaking friends. Because at the heart of it was a fear. Whenever there was a suicide bombing or some other act of violence related to the civil war, I would come to school and mentally blame the kids in the segregated classroom I never entered. I never learned their names. I never even saw their faces. I blamed and feared an entire group of children for the actions of a few people simply based on race. I used to be a racist.

I did not tell this story to be controversial. I told this story because the fact that I learned to unlearn my childhood racist ideas meant that I was open-minded when it came to race. It turns out, I'm also open-minded when it comes to gender. However, I contrasted this with religion. I told the class that when it comes to religion, for better or for worse, I'm not open-minded about it. I neither want to debate nor discuss it with anyone. That I had to learn about myself.

Why did this matter? I believe open-mindedness opens the door for sympathy. Sympathy can lead to empathy. Empathy can lead to understanding. Understanding can lead to learning. Along the way, there is no guarantee of each step leading to the next but there is potential. In order to learn about immigration, the students would have to question where they stood when it came to race. Without having that conversation with themselves, they may learn precious little in conversations with others or in the class.

Last week a friend insisted that while I could admit to being a former racist in an undergraduate history class at ASU, he, as a white man, could not. I have no doubt that whatever prejudices he may have had in the past (assuming he had any at all), he no longer does. That is an absolute certainty. Yet, somehow he could not admit that.

But can this be different? Can we openly discuss our inherent biases and prejudices? Can we understand where our ideas about other people come from? Can we openly confess our pasts? Can we explore why we see certain lives as more important than others? Can we ask these questions both individually and collectively regardless of our own backgrounds? Or are we doomed to continue to discuss and learn about topics without possible root causes? 

Toward the end of class, a white, male student from the South admitted to being a “recovering racist.” I stood there and took in the moment. Two people who had vastly different childhoods, born on two continents, yet raised in similar bigotry, had publicly confessed to what few would dare say out-loud.

Maybe we can have conversations about race after all. And maybe then, we can talk about immigration.

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The Fifteenth Year

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The Fifteenth Year

Today marks a significant day. Significant not because of anything that happened on this somewhat ordinary Tuesday but rather what happened fifteen years ago. On February 16, 2001, I broke metaphorical ties with a homeland I never quite felt any attachment to and moved half way around the world seeking permanence.

In the decade and a half since that day, the search for permanence has proved elusive. It seems hardly a day has passed by when I have not been reminded of my outsider status, the inherent impermanence of strangerhood. Hardly a day has gone by when I have not felt the pressure of being a first-generation immigrant, shouldering the responsibility of both honoring a superficial family name evidenced by parental sacrifice and countering anti-immigrant sentiment looking to fuel the flame of nativist fires. And yet in that state of impermanence, I have learned to appreciate the everyday. For each day I wake up in this undoubtedly spectacular place of shelter and refuge, I am grateful.

I am grateful for the time and the lessons. I am grateful for being able to embrace the uncertainty both of my immigrant (or more accurately, nonimmigrant) status and of life. I am grateful for understanding where I came from and how that has shaped my perspective. I am grateful for friends who have welcomed me. I am grateful for family that has stood by me. I am grateful for the shelter of a country finding its way.

Fifteen years. For fifteen years, I had the luxury of living among some of the kindest people I have ever known. For fifteen years, I had the good fortune of being educated by some of the smartest people in the world. For fifteen years, I learned from teachers, from coaches, from friends, from neighbors, and from strangers. For fifteen years, I had the chance to laugh, to cry, to be afraid, to hold on, to smile.

Whatever the next fifteen years will bring, and wherever the road may lead, I know that it is because of the last fifteen that I will have the strength, courage, determination, and fortitude to face the future. For that, above all else, I am grateful in this fifteenth year.

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Between Wednesdays

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Between Wednesdays

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.

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