"Deportable Alien" (excerpted from THE BODY PAPERS) by Grace Talusan
by Grace Talusan
To celebrate having passed the boards for foreign medical graduates, my father bought a new Chevy Caprice station wagon, turtle green with matching interior. The flatbed in the back folded into a bench seat that faced the rear. In the summers, we rode the highways of America in our green station wagon. I would perch on the armrest between my parents’ seats while my father asked me to read the highway signs. My parents avoided spending money on fast food; instead, my mother brought freshly cooked rice and chicken adobo. I was embarrassed as I watched other families eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips at rest-stop picnic tables.
We visited the nation’s monuments and national parks, but my father’s true interest was finding out how things were made. He loved a factory tour. There was no entrance fee, and you often walked away with a free sample. We watched cereal get made at the Kellogg’s factory in Michigan—the air was perfumed with hot corn syrup, and I suddenly became ravenous, wanting to reach my hands into the scalding vats and stuff myself. We visited the Chevy assembly plant in Delaware, and at the U.S. Mint, we saw money being printed and fantasized about what we could do if all that money was ours. In Richmond, Virginia, we watched tobacco become cigarettes: beautiful white paper cylinders packed gently into boxes. Everyone in the family, including us kids, walked away from that tour with a carton of cigarettes.
My parents didn’t like to stop often—a waste of time—even on very long car rides. They taught us to deny our bodies. My mother fashioned a car toilet out of my younger siblings’ training potty to avoid bathroom stops. When it came time for her to take over driving, they danced a complicated ballet of switching drivers without ever braking: my father kept his foot on the gas and started to edge his body over to the passenger side while my mother held onto the steering wheel and kept the top of her body trained forward. When they successfully completed the maneuver, all five of us kids would cheer and clap.
When my mother wasn’t driving, she was holding one of the babies in her lap in the front passenger seat. This was back when you didn’t wear seatbelts or strap children into car seats. If you needed to throw something away, you rolled down your window and forgot about it. We went along with the ambitious itineraries my father put together from his AAA tour books. He believed in quantity over quality. We went along with his relent- less appetite for tourist destinations without complaint until a trip to the Grand Canyon. After hours of driving, we had been freed from the hot car and were in awe over the natural wonder, none of us speaking as we stood against the guardrails. My father surveyed the expanse for about five minutes, clapped his hands, and exclaimed, “Ready to go?”
One trip we set off in the green station wagon to visit my father’s relatives in Canada. The border agent studied our Filipino passports and our U.S. visas, which were about to expire. He saw our family’s luggage and assumed we were fleeing to Canada, so he sent us away. I had never seen my par- ents so intimidated. Back then, anytime we encountered men in uniform—immigration officials, the DMV, traffic cops, even postal workers—my parents transformed into meek people who didn’t ask questions and did what they were told.
My parents said nothing about it at the time, but when my father’s student visa expired, we became what today would be called “undocumented.” There was plenty of documentation that we existed—my father had bought a house, started his own business, and paid taxes. But despite that and the immigration lawyer our father hired, our paperwork took many years to process, and my parents, my older sister, and I were soon out of status, in administrative violation of the nation’s immigration laws. We were advised not to leave the country if we wanted to be allowed back in.
In the Filipino community there’s a term called TNT, short for tago ng tago. It’s a Tagalog term translated literally as “hiding and hiding”—from immigration. My father tells me today that he was not scared of deportation, even though he would have lost his business, his home, and our education. Our lives would have been diverted from their paths, perhaps permanently. My mother adds that we weren’t actually hiding because “immigration knew where to find us.”
I was a teenager when my parents told me why I couldn’t visit my cousins in Canada during the summer, or study abroad, or vacation in the Caribbean. The realization hit me: I was an illegal alien. I had heard what people said about “illegals,” and how they blamed us for society’s problems. My younger siblings, who had been born here, had a right to be in the country, but I didn’t. The future suddenly went dark. My older sister Tessie and I could be deported to the Philippines, a place I barely remembered. I couldn’t fathom starting over in a foreign nation, even though I knew that’s exactly what my parents had done when they came to America.
My parents hid our immigration troubles from us until they had to tell my sister Tessie and me why we were being taken out of school for medical exams and blood tests, fingerprinting, background checks, and interviews. Our parents wanted to spare us the worry, but once I was so physically involved with immigration, I realized how precarious our status was. The whole time, I was terrified. I had never thought about how meaningful U.S. citizenship was until I was told I didn’t have it. With a shuffle of papers, life as I knew it could be lost. I am still astounded by how meaningful these papers are, how they are pasted onto our bodies and determine where and how we can move through the world.
Years later, after we had become U.S. citizens, my father gave me a folder with “Grace Amnesty” scrawled across it in blue pen. It was full of papers verifying that I had been living continuously in the U.S., including a letter from my church priest testifying to my good qualities. There was also a memo from the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service asking me to voluntarily return to my country of origin with my parents.
The documents tell their own story. I entered the U.S. on the last day of July in 1974 through San Francisco. Pasted in my Philippine passport is a J2 visa, which I was granted as a dependent of my father, who then had a student-exchange visa. Our authorization to stay in the U.S. expired in 1978, though my father had been promised a new visa by his employer. (He worked as a physician at the local prison, where he examined alco- holics brought in from the street by the police to “dry out” overnight and tended to the wounds of those physically assaulted while in custody. One man had swallowed razor blades to get a hospital break away from the prison.)
In 1981, there is paperwork related to deportation, but then in 1988, there is a waiver granted for the foreign-residence requirement of the Immigration and Nationality Act. President Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act had given us a pathway, along with 2.9 million other people. At sixteen, I got my driver’s license as soon as I was eligible, and I used this to hide the other card I was supposed to carry on my person at all times: my temporary resident alien card. I was mortified by it and didn’t tell my friends that I was a green-card holder. I was afraid they would make fun of me for being an illegal alien. In 1995, I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen and my college friends threw me a party. I blew out candles on an American flag cake striped in red strawberries, white cream, and blueberries. For the first time in years, I felt safe.
Under Reagan, the government did not force us to return to the Philippines before proceeding on the pathway to U.S. citizenship. I think about this now, while families are being separated at the southern border, while thousands of the most vulnerable people are subject to deportation, while thousands march in protest. Is this the same government that decades ago kept my family together? Soon after Trump’s inauguration and the first Muslim ban, even though I had lived in America since I was two years old, I felt the tectonic plates of identity shift. I started carrying my U.S. passport with me whenever I left the house. I was not really welcome in America. At a moment’s notice, I might be forced to prove that I had the right to walk these streets and teach in my classroom.
Curious about what I might find, I submitted a FOIA request. Six months later, the government sent back almost a hundred pages of immigration-related documents with my name on them. In the summary letter, I was informed that one and a half pages were withheld by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services along with an additional eight pages withheld by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I read that the withheld material might contain information related to the enforcement of criminal laws and the protection of law enforcement processes. The dozens of pages I had in hand seemed weightless compared to the heavy burden those missing pages placed on my mind.
When I finally received some of those redacted pages, “child” written boldly over the parts that were not covered up, I asked my high school friend, Jeffrey Rubin, now an immigration lawyer in Boston, what they were. Jeff explained that the documents were planning paperwork and detailed how they would have gone about arresting my family for overstaying our visas. I showed my father the papers and waited for his reaction. He said, “Those aren’t a big deal.” I returned to Jeff and asked again what these papers meant. Jeff responded, “You were told to leave the US. This is heartless and exactly what they’re doing to many, many people right now. They are saying, ‘Get lost, you are expelled.’”
Perhaps my father’s way of approaching the world, a “no worries,” cavalier attitude, is the better way to be. I am careful; I worry; I research; I go over everything before I act, from making hotel and restaurant reservations to making medical decisions. I am a cautious person who does not get very much done. Perhaps my father’s nature is what drove him to emigrate. He is that special kind of person who would leave everything he knew to brave the unknown with the certainty that he was moving toward a better life. My father believes everything will work out. And, after all, didn’t it?
We never had an accident in the green station wagon, but we had a few near misses. We almost had a head-on collision with a long-haul truck, a memory that is only light and sound, my parents screaming, the truck’s throbbing horn, lights flooding our car like a lightning storm, illuminating our terrified faces. My father swerved and the truck flew past us like a hot, belching dragon. The other near-accident happened during an ice storm in the middle of the night on a deserted highway. Us kids were sleeping untethered on the seat that folded into a flatbed when the car spun on black ice. My mother did not know to steer into the skid; this was it, she thought, our luck had run out. She turned from the driver’s seat to look at her chil- dren, certain she was about to watch us fly through the window glass onto the highway, but instead there was Lolo, her dead father, hovering over her sleeping babies, his ethereal body a blanket that held them in place.
My father continued to drive the green station wagon even after he was established as a surgeon and was parking in the doctor’s lot amidst luxury Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis. It held so much value for us, even if others couldn’t see its potential. Finally, after fifteen years, it became time to get rid of the beloved car. He parked it on our front lawn with a cardboard “For Sale” sign. Each week, he discounted the price until eventually he had to pay a man $200 to tow it away. The car was hitched up, and at first the end dragged on the tar, sparking orange. As the tow truck eased its way out of our long driveway, I was surprised to see my father step into the middle of the street, where he stood quietly on the yellow median until our green station wagon disappeared from sight.
Grace Talusan is author of the memoir, The Body Papers (April 2019), which “Deportable Alien” is excerpted from. The book won the 2017 Rest- less Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for Nonfiction. She will be the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University, starting fall 2019.