"We will continue to attract the best and brightest" says Prime Minister Teresa May, as she makes limiting migration the centre of her policy plans for the next five years. Her Brexit speech made clear she is willing to sacrifice everything (the economy, international cooperation, the UK's moral standing) in order to prevent those dratted foreigners from entering the country. Then yesterday happened. The American president passed an executive order blocking all entry to the country, regardless of paperwork, for all refugees and nationals from seven countries. They detained even green card holders *. And Mrs May, who'd been in Washington earlier that day to curry favor with the president, has issued only the most tepid of repudiations.
I am an immigrant to the US. For reasons of history and geography and luck of birth, I am a fortunate immigrant. I am not routinely stopped at the border. I have never had extra burdens placed on me to get either my visa or my green card. But I have never once re-entered the US without some trepidation since I first got my F1 student visa. After yesterday, that trepidation is increased.
As the events at airports around the country have reminded people overnight, in the US it is the border agency that has final say about who can and cannot enter the country. The visa you spent money and time obtaining (every time I had to get my visa renewed or issued was a day off work, and I was fortunate that I lived in London) is only part of the evidence. It is the person at the desk at immigration, at the end of the line labelled "aliens", who has final say.
One of the criteria by which a border agent can deny you entry is if they have a suspicion you carry any of a certain number of infectious diseases. When I first moved to America, HIV/AIDS was on that list. Border protection need no proof you have the disease, a suspicion is sufficient. As a gay man, you see where I'm going with this. Yes, guidebooks and immigration manuals warned me that "looking too gay" could, feasibly, get my entry denied.
When I left America at the end of my Ph.D., leaving my then partner of four years behind, I could not return to America based on that relationship. DOMA was still in force. So I found a job. Luckily, as an academic, visas for jobs are easier to come by. But the easiest one (the J1) is a non immigrant visa with a firm requirement you leave the country after two years for at least a further year. It is difficult to get an exemption from that. The H1-B (skilled workers) visa doesn't have that limitation. But some universities will not sponsor postdocs for H1-Bs, and they cost PIs money. I was lucky, I got one. But even the H1-B has catches. It is non transferable, tied to your employment, and unlike the F1 visa has no grace period: as soon as your employment ends, your H1-B expires and you are automatically residing in the country illegally. Yes, that is correct. If you're on a H1-B and you get fired, you can technically be reported for overstaying your visa that evening. This is why H1-B visa holders tend to be quiet about problems at work.
Through good fortune, a progressive presidential administration, and a liberal supreme court, I became eligible for a spousal green card while on my H1-B. None of those things were guaranteed. Under the Bush Administration, they would have been unthinkable. Under a Trump administration? Well, we can guess how likely anything that makes immigration easier will be at this point. But even then, the green card is not guaranteed (unlike what my in laws thought). It costs $1500 to apply, and the process is complex, opaque, and open ended. I was hugely fortunate in that we had extensive documentation of our relationship, and a very friendly interviewer for the final interview in Cleveland. Will that still be likely in the coming years? Will be guidance be issued? If the so called "first amendment defense act" passes, same sex couples may end up in limbo when faced with unhelpful UCSIS employees. And it may not even take that much to suddenly make spousal green cards much harder to obtain. And mine must be renewed in two years. In the UK, for example, Teresa May now only allows British citizen to bring a non EU foreign born spouse into the country if they are earning above a certain threshold. Nothing is safe in the pursuit of reducing immigration.
So, no. I don't feel safe or OK after yesterday, despite being from the "right" sort of country, having the "right" skin colour, and being among "the best and brightest". Regardless of claims to the contrary, I know my supposed usefulness to people like May and Trump is secondary to the political capital they get from being "tough on immigration". If you doubt it, watch May's willingness to bargain with the life of my mother, who has lived in the UK legally for 40 years, but has the misfortune of being a French citizen after Brexit.
To be an immigrant, even a fortunate immigrant, is, if you keep your eyes even slightly open, to know you live at the good will of your host nation. And when that good will appears to be running short, no one, not even "good immigrants", is safe. It was not so long ago that the very permanent resident status I have now was explicitly denied to me by federal law. It is not so long ago my sexuality would make me suspect at the border. And, as a former H1-B holder paid out of a federal grant, "American Jobs for American People" is a chilling phrase. Permanent residency is usually treated much like citizenship for job eligibility purposes. Now, with this administration, I begin to wonder how safe that is.
People's lives were ruined yesterday, make no mistake. Some people will die as a direct consequence of that decision. But every green card or visa holder in the country woke up this morning, and wondered just how much the little bits of card we carry in our wallets are worth, and what might have them become as worthless as those held by Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, Sudanese, Yemeni, and Somali citizens who called America home.
I am an immigrant, I am angry, and I am more afraid than I was before.
* I'm aware that as of today, Priebus has claimed to walk that back. But I'll believe it when I see it.