James Baldwin once said, “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a [Negro] in the first place, because I’m not a [Negro], I’m a man, but if you think I’m a [Negro] it means you need it.” I understand the context of this quote in the Black struggle, but it also had meaning for me as an undocumented immigrant. I have noticed that when people try to be nice, they often call immigrants “undocumented laborers.” I think it’s a funny little thing to be hated for your essence and loved for the dialectical small of your back and the apparent jointlessness of your hands.
Over the past four years, undocumented immigrants have been vilified by the right in boring and classically genocidal ways. Donald Trump used immigrants to drum up support, telling people we were coming in caravans to sell them drugs, take their jobs and inspire their children to tattoo their faces. Under his administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounded up law-abiding immigrants who’d lived here for years. They lost migrant children. Does that make an impression on you? Small children have, in effect, been disappeared. Women in detention facilities say they have been forcibly sterilized.
As I wrote this, and the votes came in, and it looked more and more likely that President Trump would lose, I still plucked my own feathers out, like every domesticated parrot, because I feel lonely in this country. Because there is a belief, even on the left, that because we chose to come here, we had agency in our own desecration. That we carried our own crosses to the hill of Golgotha, wrists bound by nothing but promises of a full night’s sleep, a cut of meat, freshly sharpened pencils for our children, and so we have smaller claims to justice.
Latinx kids of immigrants always want to do this thing where we bond by talking about our ancestors and about not being from here, and aside from thinking this is a false binary and also not very interesting, I just never got it. We could be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. When I lie down in my bed, having taken a beta blocker for my panic attacks, I feel my heart slow down, I can hear it beat with some effort in my neck, and I feel so ardently in New Haven, so fully a weight on the bed in the home I have built with my partner, a home where the young people in our life who are queer, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, undocumented or mentally ill know they are loved. I don’t think about the First World. I don’t think about America. I know where I am and to whom I belong.
But I also feel nowhere. The past four years have turned me into a writer of immigration, into a symbol of the undocumented migrant. And now I am not that. America really liked me as an undocumented immigrant. James Baldwin would say it needed me. I’m not the sort of writer who gets many death threats. I get a lot of mail from men who hoped I’d see salvation implied by their Anglophone surname and women who wanted a blood transfusion from me, for all that cortisol and adrenaline. Who will I be to America now, a green card holder under a Joe Biden presidency? Will I start feeling safe while jaywalking? Will I ever stop feeling terror at the thought of joining a protest? Will I ever smoke a joint?