On Wednesday, I left the United States because of immigration fears. Here is the story of what happened.
Voter registration at a public library with the Nevada State Democrats
We start in the Southwest field office of the Nevada State Democrats, where I had been volunteering under community organizers who work 13-hour days knocking doors and registering voters in hundred-degree heat. I had just finished my Saturday shift and lazily slumped myself shotgun inside Jerry’s silver four-door sedan. We’re about to make the thirty-minute drive back to our host family. I’m preparing myself for our usual conversation. Maybe we’ll talk about someone who screamed at us in the shopping mall today when asked to register to vote. Maybe we’ll talk about long-term aspirations and how campaign fieldwork fits into his plans. Maybe we’ll wax on about our high school days.
No sooner has Jerry started the engine does my phone start buzzing in my pocket. I answer a video call from my mum. On the dinner table, bits and pieces of fruit and meat sit in a glass baking tray, leftovers of filling for Vietnamese summer rolls set to rest. Standing beside my mum, the smiling face of my dad. Behind him, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, and my grandparents are spread around the living room chatting. My mum takes me around the living room and I greet each one of my relatives. I’m still my grandpa and grandma’s “handsome Kewin”. The uncles and aunts are looking for advice for my cousins’ upcoming trip to the States. Everyone is talking about my new beard. Opinions are mixed.
When the phone makes it to my dad, he leaves to find a quiet room. This is the conversation I’d been dreading.
“Hsiao-Chih, you haven’t been answering my texts. I just want to know what you’ve done about your situation.”
So begins our conversation. If you’re on a student visa in the United States, you are allowed one year of employment in the United States after you graduate and three if you’re a STEM major. I had applied in March for this work authorization and as time flew by, I watched as my friends received their cards and jetted off to the next chapters of their lives, diploma-in-hand. My status on the immigration services website remained “in-progress”.
I waited in New York, a HackNY Fellow unable to work for the company of my dreams. By day, I read in Central Park and attempted to strum a guitar and hold a tune while other Fellows were working. My friend and I called this a life of ‘limbo’. This monotonous waiting continued until two weeks ago, when I received a letter from USCIS stating that they had cancelled my application because I had asked for it to be cancelled and that cancellations could not be appealed. I didn’t do any such thing and I remember receiving the letter and feeling like the sterile white walls of my NYU dorm would collapse in on top of me. I sat shaking in my chair uncontrollably for about an hour before realizing that I was in shock. I threw a blanket over myself and cried.
I filed an appeal with USCIS, who then told me it would take another 60 days to inquire whether my cancellation was a mistake. I knew that USCIS was responding slower to cases as a result of attitude changes coming from the current presidency’s attitude toward immigration (1). At that point, Jerry had reached out, asking if I wanted to come out to Nevada and volunteer for the Democrats as they work to flip the Senate in a crucial swing-state. Feeling the putrid breath of USCIS down my neck and knowing that I could make a difference to systems that were hurting me, and millions of other folks in this country, I flew out. That was how I ended up in a mall parking lot with the Nevada sun beating down on me by day asking folks to register to vote when I couldn’t. That was how I ended up on the door step of cookie-cutter suburban houses telling people about the voting rights platform of the Nevada State Democrats.
We’re speeding back towards our host family on the interstate now. I had expected my call with my dad to be a stilted, open-and-shut affair. Baba, I know what I’m doing. Yes, I’m talking to lawyers, ba. I’m doing everything I can, ba. No, my visa doesn’t expire for another year. There’s nothing you need to–
Then I stop.
The expiration date on a US student visa doesn’t necessarily represent the amount of time you’re allowed to remain in the country. A student who has just graduated has 60 days to leave the country, unless they have a pending work authorization application.
USCIS thinks I cancelled my work authorization application.
Siri, when will it have been 60 days since May 19, 2018?
My last sunset registering voters in a mall parking lot.
I barely slept that night. I had spent most of my night emailing the lawyers Chris (founder of HackNY) referred to me and then working on my HackNY Social Good Project. One gets back to me saying I should be fine, but that if USCIS denies my appeal that my application was never cancelled, I may have to litigate it.
By then, I had already created a decision-tree in my head. By staying past Wednesday, and past my sixty-day limit, I commit myself to litigation if USCIS denies my appeal. Not only would that be incredibly expensive (more than my HackNY internship would pay), by the time it is over, I will probably start working my full-time job, at a company who is willing to sponsor me for a different working visa making any litigation completely useless.
By leaving, I would probably not be allowed to re-enter unless USCIS processed my application or I cancelled it. I would be saying goodbye to this country for a little while.
If I were to avoid litigation, everything was telling me I had to leave. By this time, all of the lawyers I was talking to were saying that my case was too complicated to handle pro-bono and required a formal consultation. This could take place on weekdays when their offices opened. I had to be prepared for the possibility that on Wednesday I would have to leave the country. During that time, I would have to pack all my belongings together and figure out travel plans.
I booked a ticket back to New York for that night and traveled to the office for my day’s volunteer-work.
Because I had attached my situation to my volunteering, it took on a new sense of urgency that Sunday. As a volunteer, you are taught how to distill your life down to personal stories that built empathy between you and anyone you are talking to. While a powerful tool, the danger of making yourself vulnerable to strangers in the hundred-degree heat of a suburban mall parking lot is you set yourself up to be hurt and hurt and hurt again.
That Sunday, I sold my story. I told non-registered voters that my status was in-doubt and I was not sure if I would be allowed in the country on Thursday. I told them how important voting was for someone like me, without that voice. Every rejection felt like a piercing stab through my heart. They weren’t just rejecting ‘the system’ now. They were rejecting my right to exist here. With every ‘sorry, maybe not now’, or ‘if you have to leave, why is that a big deal?’, I sank lower and lower. I wondered why I was on the street, desperately fighting to change a country when I could feel in my heart its huge steel doors slowly sliding shut to close me out.
The last voter I registered that night was a young girl who had just turned 20. She had never voted in her life and was looking to do so. I told her about my story. I told her I might not be in the country after Wednesday. I explained to her closed primaries, tore out the registration form receipt and thanked her for her time.
She told me she was going to go vote. She had learned from me just how important the ballot was.
I took a redeye from Vegas to New York.
Monday & Tuesday: New York.
Jamaica Center transferring between the AirTrain and the subway.
I’m back in Palladium Hall at NYU. I call two lawyers for consultations. After thoroughly explaining my situation, both come to the conclusion that leaving is the best option. Furthermore, one lawyer points out a horrifying policy directive issued by the administration. Two policy directives on July 5th and July 11th state that any student found to have violated status for any duration of time would be subject to deportation proceedings. For no fault of my own, a clerical error on behalf of the government could see me deported. Whether I fully understand this text, it is backed by a president that has created a political climate that makes it believable.
So I made the decision to leave. On my bed is a travel backpack that opens flat. My belongings are strewn all around my room. This room must be empty by Wednesday morning. I have 24 hours to sort each item I own must be sorted into three categories: to storage, to travel and to the dumpster. I rummage through a plastic bag of letters and cards from friends at Haverford I’ve kept throughout the years. I can’t carry that bag with me when I leave the country so I scan each one with my phone so I can read them at any time. I’m going to need the love and warmth that the folks around me have provided for the last four years.
I call the Haverford College International Student Support Office, asking for help with documentation that I needed before I left the country. Denise Allison, the director, yells at me when I misinterpret her role, and tells me there’s nothing she can do for me.
Saying goodbye to HackNY.
My last night, the HackNY Fellows gather together and take a group photo after my last speaker series. We go to get ice cream and then I start a Mr. Robot marathon back in Palladium. When all is done, I say my goodbyes to the Fellows and check my pristine, sterile room for anything I could have missed. I finally fall asleep on my standard-issue, blue college mattress, at 4am, worrying about the uncertainty that tomorrow would bring.
Wednesday: What’s Next?
On my way to Peru.
As I’m writing this, the setting sun is to the right of my plane, lazily basking the clouds in a reddish-gold. We’re flying South towards Peru, which is my next stop. I figured if I was going to leave, I might as well make a journey out of it. I left HackNY in the morning at 7am. Some of the fellows and mentors woke up to say goodbye. I am upset that I did not get to finish my entire fellowship for no other reason than feeling robbed of precious time with some of the most phenomenal people I’ve met in my life. To the Fellows, thank you for an amazing summer.
To anyone who I made plans with and now have to flake on, I’m sorry. I promise I’ll make it up.
The United States is behind me for now. I don’t know when I’ll be back. This has been a stressful chapter in my life. For now, I’ve packed my backpack and I’ve set off on my next journey somewhere interesting. We’ll see where this takes me.
Some Parting Thoughts.
There is this notion out there that staying in-status and documented in this country is both easy, and a choice.
This could not be further from the truth.
Had my father not had the foresight to ask me when my visa expired, and had I not remembered the sixty-day limit to leave the country, Wednesday would have soared by and I would have stayed in the country obliviously. Even if I were waiting for an existing and pending USCIS application, my limited understanding of the law tells me that if that pending application were denied, my presence in the US between my sixty-day limit and the denial will have been retroactively unlawful. Under the current administration’s policies of no-tolerance around violations of immigration status, I would have been immediately put under deportation proceedings.
The fact of the matter is, US immigration law is unbelievably difficult to navigate. It is a complex system of pulleys tugging back-and-forth, telling you one moment that you are allowed to be there and the next minute, turning its back on you. Someone in-status today may lose it the next because of a series of reasons they may not even begin to understand. One refrain I heard while canvassing out there in Nevada was the common ‘Why don’t they just come legally?’ question. I understand why folks would ask that, but my situation fully demonstrates just how muddy the waters can become through no fault of your own which brings me to my next point.
I’m not in need of your pity. I’m in need of your action. When I explain my case to folks around me, the responses I’ve gotten are full of sympathy. People are heartbroken and ask if there’s anything they can do to help.
While I really appreciate all the warmth and love that I’ve received, the fact of the matter is, this situation could have gone far worse for me. I am, at the end of the day, a documented college graduate who had networks that granted me access to a plethora of legal help. (Thanks Chris. Thanks HackNY.) I had an emergency fund saved up to travel where I needed to go quickly. More importantly, I have a job with a company that is willing to do whatever it takes to bring me back here come December. Right now, the government is working to denaturalize citizens who were caught in ambiguities like mine, slowing immigration processes to a river of molasses, separating mothers from their children, and can we talk about how we just stop talking about the Muslim Ban?
The best time anyone (including myself) could have helped me was two years ago. I’m confident that if November 2016 had gone differently, I would still be in New York today. During the last election cycle, I sat on my ass in America’s most competitive swing state and blamed everyone else when the results didn’t turn the way I wanted it to. I understand folks who do not like the Democratic Party for various reasons. I myself lean much further left than many folks in the party. That being said, if you subscribe to the belief that the two major parties are all the same, that means you are so insulated from the real and palpable effects of what happens when Republicans are in office.
If you have been organizing under a political system that is flawed and imperfect, working to move the needle in some way, thank you. Up until last week, I was a slacktivist. I had been involved in local student politics at Haverford, but I had never stepped outside of the Haverbubble and done any work for federal or state politics. Those hours are long. Those conversations are hard. To anyone out there who is already volunteering their time, thank you. To the incredible folks I met working for the Nevada State Democrats last week, thank you.
However, on the flip side, if you choose not to involve yourself in politics and share edgy socialist memes about how Bernie could have crushed Trump with a callous disregard for the pragmatic political realities of the system that exists, I now question your judgment. If you possess the mental and physical ability to help out and get involved, as someone who has literally been forced to leave the country because of policies put in place by the current administration, I now question your decision whine about ideological purity while folks around you are suffering.
If you don’t believe that volunteering, canvassing, door-knocking and registering voters makes a difference, I have some powerful statistics for you I can share another time. During my years at Haverford, I was a skeptic, but I’ve now been convinced. These midterm elections are literally the last stand. They are the last opportunity to build a defence around an administration that is tearing your country apart. I’m now a drop in an ocean of people whose lives have been ripped apart and uprooted by an increasingly scary President, Congress, and increasingly, the Supreme Court. If you possess the mental and physical ability to make a difference and you don’t get out there and do something about it, your politics are flimsy and cheap. I’m not talking about sharing on Facebook. As powerful of an organizing tool as it is, nothing is a substitute for knocking doors, building communities, convincing people, and all that real, tiring work that needs to be done in-person.
If you’re looking for ways to get involved with the Nevada State Democrats (even remotely), contact me and I can introduce you to some incredible people.
I’ll be back in the United States soon. Get involved. Don’t let me down.
(1): This wasn’t the result of any direct policy directive, but it is well-documented in literature that the attitude of elected officials affects the action of employed bureaucrats. I can point you to literature if you’re interested.