The ‘we will be landing soon’ announcement crackled over the plane’s PA system. The baby stirred a little as I picked her up from where she’d been sleeping next to me. I had no idea how she’d do in this new country of hers. They’d told me that she might find it hard to get used to the water here. And I knew I wouldn’t be able to get the same kind of formula she’d been used to drinking. I had no idea what that might do to her digestion.
Getting used to the climate would be a challenge for her, too. It was February – short-sleeve weather where she was born, but sometimes bitterly cold where we were going. And all she had was one small suitcase. In it was the only toy of her own that she’d brought with her – a small stuffed bear. At least she was healthy – they’d told me that, too, and she certainly seemed to be. And I was determined to give her the best life I could in her new world.
When the plane finally taxied to the gate, I stood up, still holding the baby, and stretched. My clothes and nerves were rumpled from the long flight, and now I was going to have to face getting myself, a baby, and two suitcases from this plane to the plane that would take us to our final destination.
There was one major hurdle: Customs and Immigration. The thing was, the baby wasn’t a US citizen. I am, but I had no idea what I was going to do about getting us both through Passport Control. There were only two options: the ‘US Citizens’ lane, and the ‘Non-US Citizens’ lane. I worried that, if I chose the wrong one, they’d take her away. I couldn’t imagine being separated from my child. I took a deep breath, settled the baby into her child carrier, tightened my grip on the suitcases, and moved towards the ‘US Citizens’ lane.
When it was my turn, I showed the Passport Control officer my own passport, which he stamped perfunctorily. Then, I asked him about the baby, who had a different passport. His expression changed slightly, and he looked at her, then more closely at me. ‘You’ll have to go to the Immigration waiting room,’ he said.
After we’d gotten through Passport Control, I started looking for the Immigration waiting room. I didn’t know where it was, as there weren’t any signs pointing to it. Within about five minutes, I was completely disoriented. I was also exhausted, hungry, and concerned about the baby, who was just as hungry and tired of it all as I was.
Finally, I saw a door marked ‘Exit.’ That door, I knew, would lead me out of the airport, and I couldn’t do that. They’d told me I would need to apply for an entry visa – what used to be called a ‘Green Card’ – for my daughter, and that I’d have to get a stamp at our port of entry.
Completely befuddled, and getting more and more concerned, I finally flagged down an airline representative. He took one look at us, disheveled, weary, and confused, and very kindly helped us find the room we needed.
Then came the next step: the visa. The Immigration waiting room was large and utilitarian, filled with long rows of government-building plastic seats – the kind you see at Department of Motor Vehicles offices, and places like that. I had no idea what I was supposed to do once I got to the room. There were no signs, and no-one right there to answer questions. There wasn’t very much pleasantness, either. The other people who were waiting were talking quietly among themselves in dozens of different languages. They had their own issues and weren’t paying any attention to me. The officials behind the long front counter were busily staring at their computers.
I wasn’t sure what my next step should be, but I knew one thing: I was going to get my daughter and me through this mess and onto our next flight. So, I went up to the front counter. There were no ‘take a number’ signs, so I approached one of the officials.
He looked up at me with one of those impassive, ‘government employee’ expressions. I was not encouraged. Everything changed, though, when I explained my situation in American English. With a ‘Can I help you?’ smile, he asked me for the baby’s passport, my passport, and the adoption paperwork. My stomach churned for a moment as I fumbled for everything. What if I’d forgotten something? What if they wouldn’t let me keep her? I let out a slow breath when I found the stash of papers.
The Immigration official looked at everything, then at us. Then he stamped the baby’s passport and explained to me that we would receive an official ‘Green Card’ in a few weeks. In the meantime, he said, the passport stamp would serve as her visa. ‘Don’t lose it,’ he warned me. If I did, he said, we would have no proof that she was legally in the country.
Fortunately, my story ended well. My baby and I got onto our connecting flight with no problem, landed at our destination, and got on with our lives. The adoption paperwork was completed both in the US and in my daughter’s country of birth, and she is now a US citizen – has been almost all of her life. We went through that process, too. But throughout it all, I worried that things would go horribly wrong. Mostly, I worried that I might lose my child. And I had a lot of advantages (I speak the dominant language, I’m a US citizen, and, while no-one would confuse me with a rich person, my husband and I had the means for a safe trip). I cannot imagine how frightening entering this country must be for someone with a small child or children, but who doesn’t have those advantages.
People who are fleeing, sometimes for their own lives, have enough troubles, especially if they are bringing children with them. When they get to their destination, a humane society will provide them with a safe place to stay, help from someone who speaks their language, and a humane, dignified system for settling their official status, so that they can start over. A humane society will not separate them from their children. A humane society will not punish children while their parents work through the system. A humane society will not make the immigration system so complicated, expensive and difficult that it can’t be negotiated unless one has money and a good lawyer.
As I look at what’s going on in the news, I cannot help but think how inhumane and unnecessary it is to tear families apart. There are other ways to settle official status without forcibly taking children from their parents. Research and common humanity show us that children who are taken from their families are more apt to suffer from all sorts of consequences. So are their parents. To me, this forced removal of children is cruel and unethical, and it’s wrong on many levels. Many of the people affected by this policy have no voice. But I do. And I choose to use it.