Minding my Immigration Business: The Price of the Ticket – Erica R. Meiners

I have lived in the U.S. for over ten years, and now, unlike the 15 million or more undocumented people living and working in the U.S., I am eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. Debating this application pushes me to remember many of my border crossings into the U.S., if not obsess about the business of immigration.

One example: In 2007 I needed to leave Toronto quickly. Growing up in small-town British Columbia taught me that the bus is the cheapest and the most reliable last-minute way out of town. So I walked to the Bay Street bus station, paid my dollars, and got on a bus that—compared to those of my younger days—seemed luxurious. Velvety seats that reclined, the hum of some kind of a fresh air system, a ride with shock absorbers, and no cigarette smoke. The bus traveled through the bucolic Niagara peninsula and arrived in fewer than three hours at the Canada/U.S. border, located near the city of Buffalo.

At the border, we emptied out into a long room, almost sterile except for the U.S. customs and immigration officers and the silver tables for a “baggage check.” As we waited for our turn to be questioned, and perhaps searched in a public line-up, other officers with a dog boarded the bus. Everyone was quiet.

Even with the power of a permanent residency “green card” (“May Be Revoked by the Department of Homeland Security” written on the back), my interactions with the border have taught me well:

Never talk back.
Never ask questions.
Try to look less freaky.
Never say you are a professor, say “teacher” as it less threatening to (white) men who work the border.
Cover the tattoos.
Keep yourself in check.

With these corrections, I have the opportunity to pass into the U.S.

But I need to interrupt my typical story with a contextual snapshot of the immigration situation in the U.S. With the 2001 merger of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) into the then new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) became the largest enforcement agency in the U.S. With a workforce of over 17,000, a 2008 budget that exceeded 5 billion, The Washington Post (2007) identified that:

With roughly 1.6 million immigrants in some stage of immigration proceedings, the government holds more detainees a night than Clarion Hotels have guests, operates nearly as many vehicles as Greyhound has buses and flies more people each day than do many small U.S. airlines.[1]

These numbers have increased under the Obama administration, which deports approximately 1,100 people a day, an increase of almost 25% since 2001.[2] Detention is toxic: holding people—some indefinitely—in unlicensed facilities, often with poor ventilation, poor nutrition, inadequate health services, and twenty-four-hour fluorescent lights is extremely hazardous and can kill. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has identified that 107 immigrants have died while imprisoned by U.S. immigration since 2003 as a result of confinement conditions, poor access to medical treatment, and other physical and emotional stressors.[3]

Yet, immigration policies and practices have always actively punished and criminalized particular non-conforming and non-white bodies and communities in addition to creating aliens and disposable non-citizens. This often seems difficult to remember in the current moment, when recent state legislation such as the Arizona SB 1070 Bill, innocuously titled, Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (requiring all “aliens” to carry proof of legal status in Arizona at all times) has received international attention for seemingly ushering in a new era of policing that actively targets communities of colour. But SB 1070 is no anomaly; this is a nation where the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that made Chinese ineligible for U.S. citizenship was not repealed until 1943 and wider immigration from China was not available until 1965.[4]

In The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, historian Margot Canaday documents past cases of people rejected at the U.S. border for bodies or comportments that demonstrated non-conformity. These things included: beardless men, men with defective penises (“a bad economic risk”), those with “oddity of dress or unusual decoration on clothing”, or facial expressions that predict sexual degeneracy. And, let us not forget the useful classification of “public charge” that disqualified unattached women based on “a lack of economic resources” which, according to Canaday’s research, always indicated a susceptibility to perversion underlying economic poverty.[5]

Building on this evidence of historic exclusion and stigmatization, with over 400 private and public immigration detention facilities nationwide, and a southern border that resembles a large militarized prison zone, immigration is an intimate partner with the penal system in the world’s largest prison nation, where 1 in every 100 U.S. citizens is behind bars.[6]

Many Federal initiatives work to detain and deport non-citizens. In the last decade, the Federal 287(g) program enabled local and state police to act as Federal immigration authorities, tying local law enforcement to Federal agencies to raid worksites and homes. In another program, “no match letters” were sent to employers when employee social security numbers (the U.S. equivalent of Canadian social insurance numbers) did not match the documents held by the Federal government, resulting in the harassment and subsequent termination of employment for those workers. And, while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that those in possession of fake social security numbers could not be charged with “aggravated identity theft” (with a mandatory two-year prison sentence) this fear continues to circulate.[7] While almost all of these programs target migrants from the south (not Canadians), this national context of aggressive border enforcement schools us all, and well.

Back in Buffalo, when it is my turn, I am questioned. I am white and my hair hangs a little below my ears, I look reasonably like my passport identified gender, I have on a relatively clean-looking shirt and not much luggage, I have a card that signifies full-time employment in a recognizable profession, and I have a permanent address in Chicago, if not a useful way to get there at the moment.

The rest of the bus is lined up and I watch the last few Latinos and their luggage get pulled apart.

Visiting a cousin? Who? What is their address? What is his job? Where are your return tickets? Who are you visiting? I thought he was your cousin? What is your job?

Uniformed men and women bark these questions—staccato, direct, repetitive—with no generosity in the tone or in the stance. The questions are asked over open suitcases, and like bright fish guts, shirts and underwear and belts dangle over the table. The men are not clear in their responses, and I recognize the particular confusion triggered by fear, authority, translation problems, and public humiliation. Instead of taking a stand and risking my own border crossing or yelling don’t fucking scream at them, I stay mute.

While this unfolds, the rest of the passengers from the bus wait in silence. Some seem to be trying not to “witness”, while others watch the inquisition openly. The interrogation is public and it is ordinary. After almost an hour of waiting, people do more than mutter and shift feet. Some go outside to have cigarettes or lean against the glass, others move outside to make phone calls. When it became clear that the bus would not move until all the passengers were cleared, I follow the lead of an older white woman: I grab my bag and walk to Buffalo, abandoning the bus, and those on it. I do not defend the men detained, despite their detention seeming unreasonable to me. I am also fairly certain that no one will stop me as I walk into the city.

I relate this story, in part because it is so ordinary and such a typical example of the kind of structural violence performed by borders, but also as a marker of my acquiescence, or, to misuse the beautiful words of James Baldwin, this is the price of the ticket for those of us lucky to get access.[8]

Getting in, making it across the border, exacts a price. This particular trip into Buffalo, and probably others, leached something out of me. Not that I was ever a romantic outlaw, but I did have a few years of minor border drama because I didn’t know the rules of behavior and I thought I wouldn’t have to conform. The consequences—a missed airplane, stopped by internal border checkpoints when I did not have papers, public humiliation, grilled about who I live with and what I do, waiting in secondary rooms and different line-ups—taught me well. I think about what to wear. I carry copies of all kinds of documentation and my business cards. I learned how to use the particular privileges available to me, how to pass across the borders, and I am quiet. I mind my own business.

While there can be no comparison, I have worked and organized for almost ten years alongside men and women in Chicago who are undocumented, including many who fight for legalization. Conservative estimates suggest that 15 million people live in the U.S. without papers. As the majority of those I work with are from poorer nations south of the U.S., these men and women relate stories of border crossing and employment that repeatedly include structural and interpersonal violence, economic exploitation, and resistance. These make my experiences insignificant.

I was locked in a van. I spent weeks crammed in the basement of a house. We walked for days. I could not afford to eat. I clean for 14 hour shifts and am paid fifty dollars. I was raped. I lost my mother. I left everything and everyone I know behind. I live in a room in the basement with no light. I hid my money in my underwear and I was still robbed. I do not make minimum wage. There were fifteen of us in the truck and I was the only woman. I was alone for three months. Why should I finish high school? I have not seen my family or my friends for twelve years. My sister and I were just left alone. I have been sent home three times. I am afraid to go to the doctor. I never go to the airport or the train station.

Immigration-produced conflict, depression and anxiety are also a persistent reality at my day job. I work at the most affordable and accessible four-year university in the state of Illinois (as of 2010, one of ten states across the U.S. with policies that permit “in state” tuition and enrollment regardless of immigration status), a recognized “Hispanic Serving Institution” (a Federally designated category that refers to institutions that enroll over 25% Latino students). Yet students (Latino and not Latino) continue to disclose to me that they are undocumented, working under the table at much less than minimum wage, to support mothers, brothers and sisters, and to pay cash on the table for tuition. Many also actively politically organize. Along with many million others, they have no future of legal status in the U.S., because no viable pathway for legalization has been made available since 1986, excepting the DREAM Act.

On December 18, 2010 the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act, popularly called the DREAM Act, was rejected, again. The many permutations of this Act have essentially offered two promised pathways to legalization for select youth of “good character,” who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 15 and have completed two years of military service or two years of community college. There are many criticisms of the DREAM Act from those of us invested in legalization. In addition to being a de facto draft, the DREAM Act chisels out the most sympathetic population of “students” and “youth” from the larger body of undocumented people living and working in the U.S. Circulating the false trope of innocence may purchase a possible pathway for young people, but not for their “criminal” parents or day labourers or domestic workers or queers. But even with these criticisms, only the heartless would not be moved by the young people across the U.S. who are outing themselves as undocumented, organizing, going on hunger strikes, fighting their deportation and much more.

Yet, as versions of the DREAM Act have been introduced over the previous ten years, clearly enough citizens are heartless. The backlash against immigrants, specifically communities of colour, has escalated in the recent economic downturn, spawning Tea Party conservatives that scapegoat “illegals” as the cause of everything from escalating crime to declining property values. Amnesty, a component of previous comprehensive immigration reform bills, is an impossible word or practice today. In particular, those undocumented were targeted through the recent healthcare debates and persistently blamed for the supposed rising cost of health services in the U.S. In 2009, when Obama outlined his healthcare plan in a live speech, broadcast nation-wide, he stated that it would not provide coverage to “illegals”, to which Joe Wilson (Republican Congressman from South Carolina) yelled in response, You lie!

The rage of the Tea Party—an overwhelmingly white, heteronormative, nativist movement that successfully fielded candidates across the U.S. in the 2010 elections and attracts thousands to its rallies—is fiercely directed towards the undocumented. From organizing in solidarity with Arizona’s SB 1070, to supporting vigilantism on the U.S. border, Tea Party participants are pushing back on immigration, closing borders, and even advocating to strip citizenship from those born in the U.S. to undocumented parents. Tea Party organizers effectively trigger broader public feelings or anxieties around a potential loss (of whiteness, economic status, heterosexuality, patriarchy and other privileges), and channel this into effective political organizing. Feelings are always political and social, individual and collective, and intimately related to public policies. George W. Bush and his administration appropriated mourning—loss, fear, anger—in declaring a “War on Terror,” and further privatized the last vestiges of the U.S. social welfare state through his “compassionate conservatism.” The Obama campaign unstintingly deployed “hope”. The Tea Party similarly works within this framework of harnessing public feelings.

Our quietness—perhaps sadness and depression, has no measure in the face of the Tea Party mobilization. Yes, people are still organizing for pathways to legalization and to stop deportations. But, while Dreamers (the name given to young people advocating for the DREAM Act by mainstream media) hunger strike, march, and out themselves as undocumented in mainstream media and in public forums, there are no nation-wide immigration rights rallies like the 2006 “May Day” that turned out millions in urban centers across the U.S. Most pundits now speculate that with the changes in the House and Senate in the 2010 elections, immigration reform that includes an amnesty component has no possibility until at least after 2012.

Applying for U.S. citizenship seems akin to participating in (gay) marriage in the U.S.: endorsing a system that that offers benefits for the very privileged few, at the cost of demonizing many. Even for those able to legally access naturalization in the U.S. (perhaps like myself), grounds for inadmissibility still include a laundry list of “vagaries”: being a member of communist party or other totalitarian party, having a criminal background, a physical or mental disorder associated harmful behavior, being a prostitute or practicing another commercialized vice, the ever-popular engaging in acts of moral turpitude (enacted as a bar to entry in 1891 and never enumerated), endangering U.S. foreign policy, likely to become a public charge, and on and on. The ban for entry for those HIV-positive, in place since 1986, was only lifted on January 4, 2010. The message—past, present and future—is still queers, aliens, ex-cons, diseased bodies, perverts, dissidents, and non-conformers are not welcome. And these are my people, except when it is not convenient to stand up for them, such as at the border.

So, with the burden of privilege, always cloying, I debate citizenship. The borders are not stable, my immigration pal lawyer tells me, following up with the reminder that I have no rights in the U.S. without citizenship. So what if you have to swear allegiance, what else do you swear about every day? In response to her, I think: Sure, agree to bear arms, screw the decade of counter-recruitment and anti-militarization work to which you have committed yourself. But she is a friend, kind, looking out for me, minding my business.


American Friend’s Service Committee http://afsc.org/
Critical Resistance http://www.criticalresistance.org/
GenderJust http://www.genderjust.org/
Immigrant Youth Justice League http://www.iyjl.org/
Queers for Economic Justice http://q4ej.org/
No One Is Illegal:

Image by: diluvi from Flickr CC pool.


[1] Spencer S. Hsu and Sylvia Moreno. Border Policy’s Success Strains Resources
Tent City in Texas Among Immigrant Holding Sites Drawing Criticism
. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/01/AR200702…

[2] Paloma Esquivel. Deportations of illegal immigrants hit record high, officials announce. The Los Angeles Times. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/10/record-number-of-deportati…

[3] The New York Times. In-Custody Deaths http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/i/immigrati…

[4] Mae Ngai. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

[5] Margot Canaday. The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

[6] One in 100: Behind Bars in America, 2008. http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/One%20in%20100.pdf.

[7] Graglia, Diego. Alternet. Supremes Overrule Gov’t: Can’t Charge Unknowing Immigrants with ID Theft. http://www.alternet.org/rights/139818/supremes_overrule_gov%27t:_can%27t…

[8] James Baldwin. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-fiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.

Erica R. Meiners is involved with a number of local and national initiatives linked to justice, specifically prison abolition and reform movements, and queer and immigrant rights organizing. Most recently, she is the author of Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons and the Making of Public Enemies and Flaunt it! Queers Organizing for Public Education and Justice (with Therese Quinn) in addition to articles in a range of publications such as AREA Chicago, Rethinking Schools, Meridians, and Upping the Anti. A Professor of Education and Women’s Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, a public, unionized, urban institution in Chicago, she is into her backyard beehive and making jam. She can be reached at e-meiners@neiu.edu and track her work at http://www.neiu.edu/~ermeiner/