Walking on ICE: Addressing the ICE Posters on Campus
I vaguely remember a knock on the front door in the middle of the night. I was still in elementary school, so I didn’t think much of it. My mom slowly walked to the door that led to the atrium, but one of our tenants opened the door instead. The person on the other side of the door was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer. He was looking for one of our friends, who had overstayed his visa by two weeks, and was coming to detain him. That friend was not home, but it didn’t matter.
When I was walking to Biology a few days ago, I saw a poster behind a stop sign: all illegal aliens are criminals, it said, do your part, and it included the number to call ICE. I couldn’t help but think about that morning, me, living in blissful ignorance while our safety was shattered. My mom had never been so fearful in her life.
My house was one of immigrants: I was the only citizen, and everyone else lived in the shadows. Worked off the books, but paid their taxes. Couldn’t have health insurance, so they hoped their bodies would stay strong. My mom didn’t have her license, so we walked to the bank every week to deposit the little money we had, to pay a mortgage for a house that couldn’t legally be under her name. The deed was still under my father, who had been dead for years. When he was still alive, he spent his days fixing the walls in a courthouse whose offices held the same people that came to our door. He died an “illegal alien”. It’s funny how he passed away on the soil that didn’t recognize his existence, that some people didn’t think he deserved to be in this country.
The ICE officer didn’t care that the man who opened the door wasn’t the man he was looking for. The officer arrested him, where he was detained in jail for almost a week, let go because of pure chance.
Had my mom opened the door, my life could have been profoundly different.
When my dad passed away, my mom had a decision to make: pack our bags and go back to Turkey, where we could be with family and live a decently comfortable life, or grit our teeth and hope for some sort of magical law that would lead to citizenship. Had she chosen the former, she wouldn’t have been able to come back to the States for at least a decade, if not more. We would be leaving a home we spent so long building, an education that I had just started, a land of opportunity that my mom profoundly believed in. And so, she chose the latter, and we tunnelled through a terrifying path of uncertainty, where one person’s word could completely destroy our lives.
When I saw the posters, I immediately went back to the time when my family-friend community huddled around the television, watching Obama’s inauguration, hopeful that the change would apply to us. How I would overhear conversations about possible loopholes that we could use to qualify for a Green Card. Our dinner table conversations revolved how after 9/11, everything changed, and maybe if it didn’t happen, the immigration laws wouldn’t be so harsh. My mom was one of the first in our community to receive the beautiful, thin letter, giving her a date to come in and give her fingerprint, the first step towards legality. Slowly but surely, after years of apprehension, we could say that we were all documented. We looked at each other, the emotions too strong to verbalize. After a collective sigh, someone spoke up, saying, “Wow, we are all finally legal residents in this country. Imagine that.” We smiled, and thought about how we could all go home to finally see our families, breathe in the air of the land we had left so long ago, forgetting the small things.
My mom went home for the first time in nearly fifteen years when I was in middle school. It was my first time going to Turkey, and for her, it felt like the first time, too. My mom didn’t want to tell me that the reason it had taken so long for me to visit my family was that she was waiting to go with me. Every year, she would say This summer, you’ll go until that summer actually arrived. Nearly five years later, she prepared for her naturalization exam. Constantly playing the CD that asked every question that could possibly appear on the exam, she would repeat each phrase in her accent that I heard become more assimilated over the years. Even though her accent is still strong, sometimes I wish she would pronounce her Amsterdams as “Uhm-ster-dam”, that she didn’t have to stray away from her mother tongue to such an extent to alienate the thick roots her words came from. A few months later, she was naturalized as a citizen. She came home, laughing at herself for spelling “Lincoln” incorrectly on the written portion of the exam.
Looking back now, I still don’t know how we did it. Although I am not an immigrant myself (I am incredibly privileged to have been born in America), I lived the so-called immigrant experience, and I can’t help but think about all of the families who are in the same position now. How, like my mom, they are careful: say the wrong thing to one person, and that could be the end of it. How everything they’ve worked so hard for could be thrown away with the dial of a phone.
To the person who put up those signs: You will never understand the power that sign holds, both to families who are waiting for that magical “we finally made it” moment that I have been lucky to experience, but also to people like me, who spend their days trying not to think about the utter hell we went through to get where we are now. That sign may be simple in nature, just some waxy paper and adhesive, but it’s still hard to remove. The repercussions of a simple phone call can and will impact families in ways that you can never imagine, and at the end of the day, the people who you’re trying to get rid of are the same people who are helping to run this country. My only hope is that one day, you will understand what it’s like to be in the shadows, constantly fearing the unknown, and that you will realize the power you hold.