While It Still Says Welcome

“. . . But let us never forget that one of the finest things about our country is that it does not force its people into a narrow mold of conformity.  America is a rich mosaic of many cultures and traditions, strong in its diversity.  Each new immigrant has added another piece to the mosaic of American life—a fresh perspective and a fresh appreciation of what it means to be American.”

—Richard Nixon, from a speech dedicating the American Museum of Immigration, quoted on a poster at the U.S. Homeland Security Building in Charlotte, North Carolina

Approaching Homeland Security, my hands tremble unexpectedly.  My husband tries to reassure me that there is no reason to worry, but my eyes grow wet, nonetheless.  Ten minutes early for an 8:50 A.M. appointment, we stand behind several families outside the entrance.  An immigration attorney hurries up the stairs behind us and greets his clients warmly in Spanish.  I relax, a little.

As one family after another successfully passes through security, we enter the concrete building.  Sandwiched between two sets of doors, a poster-sized Lady Liberty—about my own height—stands beside us.  Her silhouette invites us inside, framed by welcome printed in over 200 languages.  I whisper to my husband, “Should I take your picture in front of the sign, while it still says ‘Welcome’?”

It takes just minutes for each of us to show identification, remove shoes, scan shoulder bags, and walk through metal detectors.  The youngest among us hesitantly returns the extended fist bump of a friendly security guard that resembles a Caribbean Barack Obama.  Suddenly, our son gasps, “Mommy!  They have a picture of Donald Trump.”

When I glance at the portrait of—not the standard close-up of a presidential bust, but what seems an unusual zoomed-out view of a large office that somehow shrinks its inhabitant—a scowling businessman with eyes squinting, brow furrowed, lips pursed, I can’t help but laugh.  “They have to post the picture of the president,” I explain.  “See how funny his frowny face looks!”

At the registration window, we stand first in line, scanning a room full of families—Latinos, Asians, Europeans, Africans—from the Catholic with gold crucifixes to the Muslim with colorful hijabs, complementing the swirls of turquoise and maroon, green and orange that our son proudly wears on his Ghanaian tunic.  Every one of us in this waiting room has dressed in what we might respectively call our Sunday, Saturday, or Friday best.  A child that looks about eight years old—the same age as our son—reclines in a hot-pink wheelchair, her neck cradled by padded head rests.  She smiles widely at her mother, who leans towards her affectionately.  The little girl occasionally squeals with apparent delight, and her mom strokes her cheeks gently to calm her.  No one seems bothered by the girl’s loud, happy cries.  My eyes water again, taking in this scene—a room full of my family’s peers.  This is America! I say to myself.

After check-in, we move to the next waiting room, with a TV, just like the last room, set to CNN.  Reassuring, I think to myself, though even the delicious irony of this morning’s headlines—“Trump Jr.’s Emails”—or the smart indignation in my young child’s exclamation—“Trump Palace!  What’s that?”—can’t seem to ease my nerves completely.  It all just seems too ridiculous and noisy.

I turn to a poster on the wall for comfort.  It reads:  “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil.  We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens.  Every child must be taught these principles.  Every citizen must uphold them.  And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.”  It’s signed, President George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States.  Though George W. used to run this country, at best, with what seemed like the common sense of someone’s mediocre uncle, he suddenly seems about as loveable as my own uncles.

I scan all of the posters in the room.  W’s is entitled “Celebrate Citizenship, Celebrate America!”  Jimmy Carter’s is “Hope for a Better Life”; and Ford’s, “Unity from Diversity.”  On the other side of the room, I can’t yet make out the authors or the quotations, but the titles read:  “Mosaic of American Life,” “A Bridge to America’s Future,” and “Our Promise of Freedom.”

Exactly one hour after our arrival, an official calls through the open door, “P-4.”

“Bingo!” my son and I quietly tease one another in unison.  “Jinks!”

My husband jumps to attention, wearing the same suit in which he married me more than a decade ago.  The black jacket opens to a beautiful sky-blue shirt, which I brought down from our home in the mountains and had laundered and starched in the swampy flatlands of Florida, where he is working an extra summer job.  Our son gives him a thumbs-up and sort of whisper shouts, “Do well, Daddy!”  I say a little prayer and echo in my heart, bom trabalho.  A blond woman with bright red lipstick and an enormous gold ring adorned with a large pearl that matches her earrings turns to me and smiles.

A young woman returns from her interview.  She looks radiant, as if she’s just stepped out of a commercial with flawless hair and makeup; she wears a soft pink one-piece pantsuit-kind-of-outfit, form-fitting from shoulders to ankles.  The family waiting for her looks stunning, too.  They fill an entire row of seven seats plus one, her father sitting behind several generations in a tailored black jacket embroidered with gold thread.  He jumps up to embrace his beaming daughter, and the entire entourage joins in a group hug.  To their muffled questions, she responds excitedly, “¡Sí, mañana!

The woman in red lipstick and pearls turns to me.  We hold a smile together, our eyes brimming again with tears, for and with this family that could be our own.  When the woman in pearls is called, I wish her good luck.  If she spoke Portuguese, bom trabalho would be my wish for her, too, as I don’t feel as if luck should have anything to do with this.  She smiles silently, picks up a yellow folder labeled in a language that I cannot recognize, and walks elegantly to the door, her high heels clicking on the shiny squares of linoleum.

We wait.  We watch TV—highlights from the All-Star game that we saw live on television last night.  We chuckle with those around us at an already well-known clip of the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina with the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz.  Molina sports flashy gold catching gear that reflects the incredible career of an eight-time All-Star from Puerto Rico and yet pauses graciously to take a photograph, not of himself, but of his opponent.  Although Cruz, a five-time All-Star from the Dominican Republic, should be entering the batter’s box for his first pitch, he embraces the veteran umpire instead, posing for the picture that Yadi now famously takes.  If this is what it means to be a “bad hombre,” then it must mean superstar.

Thirty minutes pass; my son needs to use the restroom.  Though it’s illegal in this state for me to take him to the women’s room, I don’t yet feel comfortable with the alternative.  No one, here, seems bothered by the overprotective mother in me, which feels something like freedom.

We return to the waiting room, taking new seats from which I can examine more presidential thoughts on immigration from Homeland Security posters.  I’m noting a final quotation from another unlikely source of encouragement, Richard M. Nixon, 37th President of the United States, when I’m interrupted:  “The skyscrapers that dot the sky of New York City, the railroads that connect the continent, the industrial might of modern America—all of these are the work of immigrants and of the descendants of immigrants.  All of these are monuments to the strong hearts and hands of men and women from all nations, all races, and all religions, who came here and became proud Americans. . . .”  Before I can finish jotting down Nixon’s final words on the matter, my son bounces out of his seat and into his daddy’s arms.  My husband is smiling at our baby and me, holding another official document to add to our files.

“I passed,” he says in a quick exhale.

And after sixteen years of loving this man, I just might dare to exhale, too.

–Ms. Z., 2017


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