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Stop asking immigrants to justify their presence

Equity in the Arts

A few weeks ago, while applying for a prestigious playwriting residency, I was asked to check a box that said "I'm a US Citizen or have been granted a permanent work authorization from USCIS." Well, I am not, and I have not. I am, however, a legal immigrant on a non-resident visa that does allow me to work unrestricted in my field in the US, not to mention an award-winning writer who just days earlier had been selected as a finalist for a different program run by the same institution. But that didn't matter. As far as this residency was concerned, if I didn't have an American passport or a green card, I wasn't allowed to apply. No further questions. Or rather, one further question: "what are you doing in this country?"

It's a question I've grown used to answering. It's asked every time I come back from the holidays, by an immigration agent that betrays no emotion as they evaluate whether to let me back in. It's been asked every time I've applied for a visa, by an interviewer that won't look at me but does type everything I say into a computer that will decide my fate. It's been asked, in some shape or form, by every single person I've met here– friends, colleagues, mentors– when they hear my accent and try to wrap their heads around a reality that, as citizens of a country that arguably rules the modern world, they've never had to consider. It's a question I've grown used to answering, and it makes me more nervous every time I answer it. What am I doing here?

I grew up in Argentina, and while a lot of my childhood was spent taking in the local culture, the presence of the United States in my life was overpowering and impossible to ignore. American music whose lyrics I couldn't understand and yet still hummed along to, American movies I had to watch with subtitles because the Spanish dubbing sounded silly, American toys in American settings and special American culture tie-ins (a beautiful Lego X-Wing was one of my most prized possessions). American fashion sold by American celebrities that turned us into typical American boys and girls. American Christmas ornaments in a country where the holidays happen during the summer and fake snow is required to recreate a scenario completely alien to us. American hopes and dreams being fed to me before I was old enough to understand that a lot of the time, they didn't make any sense to our Argentinian lives. Before I was old enough to understand that, like the characters in Jordan Peele’s Us, the same hopes and dreams that made these faraway American people so real to us didn't make us in any way real to them.

Decades later, I finally decided to take a trip to Utopia. I discovered that, unlike other countries I'd visited, I couldn't go in without a visa. I went to the embassy. I had to pay to get in. Not unexpected – the movies had already indoctrinated me in the importance of money in American culture. My cell phone wasn't allowed in, I had to leave it outside with someone. This was unexpected – Americans were the ones who popularized cell phone obsession, and now they were telling me I couldn't have one if I wanted to visit their country? I checked it, and proceeded to get in  a line I ended up waiting in for three hours, one with many checkpoints, at which I would be addressed with increasing severity ("Over there, Sir! I said THERE! Do not approach before you're called. Do NOT step over the line. Do NOT lean over the counter! SIR, STAND BACK!). I talked to an agent who asked seemingly innocuous questions but made it very clear that there were wrong answers, and my visa depended on avoiding them. I wanted to visit America, spend money there, wasn't that a good thing? Why was this all so aggressive? The answer is that the whole process is meant to discourage people from migrating to the country, and visas will be denied to anyone who shows signs of intending to do so. This struck me as VERY odd: I had spent my entire life being told America was the BEST country in the world. I always considered it an invitation – why else would a country advertise itself so fervently, if it didn't want people to buy into the message?

Landing in New York, it became very clear why: the US is like an actor on a stage, unable to see the audience beyond the lights. It has come to believe that only itself exists. Walking around Times Square, I felt a certain dread: I knew these brands. I had seen those celebrities. I had heard those songs. But unlike back home, they weren't mixed in with local ones. They weren't part of the culture, they were the culture. Americans consume themselves. The movies don't show other countries unless American characters are visiting them. The radio doesn't play music in other languages unless American singers are featured singing English verses. As far as the average American is concerned, nothing exists outside the confines of America. So, yes, the notion that someone would come in from the outside world and take up space is unthinkable. Unfair. Unacceptable. It's not weighed against the space that America takes up in the rest of the world, because as far as the average American is concerned, there is no rest of the world. There is just America.

So what am I doing here? What most immigrants are – studying, working, pursuing happiness. Even though tuition at most US universities is more expensive for international students (about twice as high), while the education they receive is the same as their American classmates. Even though most international students are not eligible for financial aid or loans. Even though, after a year of begging, I finally got an MFA program to fund me, and realized that I still couldn't come, because I wasn't able to obtain a visa without proving that I could pay for all my living expenses during the full duration of the program without working in the US. Even though, after using my parents savings to prove it (and hoping to God I found work before depriving them of a retirement), I arrived and found that, while my student visa allowed me to work on campus, most places wouldn't hire me, because me being an international student, they would not receive any federal aid for employing me – I cost "twice as much" as an American student. Even though, after finally getting a job and working through the two years of my program while most of my classmates focused solely on their studies, I graduated and hoped to use my student visa's Optical Practical Training, only to be turned away by most employers, who wanted a candidate who "can stay at the company for more than a year" – never mind the fact that by hiring me, they might be giving me a better chance of being able to stay longer than a year. Even though, after I did find a job, and pursued my writing, and made a home for myself, I was told I needed to pay an exorbitant amount of money to get my artist's visa (which is not a green card, but would allow me to stay and pursue my projects on a temporary, renewable basis). Even though, after paying it and going through an excruciating process to prove I deserve to be here, I still come across opportunities that tell me that, unless "I'm a US Citizen or have been granted a permanent work authorization from USCIS," I cannot apply.

I did apply. Maybe it was wrong to lie, but I did it because I hope to get to the final round and be interviewed and be able to tell someone face to face that I deserve to be considered as much as any other candidate. That my path to get to that interview has been arduous, and I while I'm not angry at them, I am tired. The other day, while undergoing compassion training for parent-artists at the theater I work for, the coach said "when my baby is crying in public, I am more uncomfortable than anyone else, because it's my child, it's my responsibility. In that moment, I need to take care of my child – don't make me take care of you as well." I am tired because, like a parent with a crying toddler, my visa situation demands an exhausting amount of energy, and yet I am constantly forced to take care of other people as well, to assuage their fears about immigrants, to correct their misconceptions about how visas work, to answer, again and again, the same question: what are you doing here? I don't quite know anymore. All I know is I am tired, and if I, a white man with enough privilege to still be in this country legally, am tired, can you imagine how tired every other immigrant is? The ones who don't have a college degree? The ones who didn't come by plane? The ones who didn't cross the border chasing some dream, but fleeing for their lives?

Stop asking immigrants to justify their presence. We're here because you called us here. You took up space on our movie screens and our malls and bodies and you told us there was nothing more we could hope for than to be a part of America. We're here because you interfered in our governments and destabilized our economies to protect your interests, and now our countries are hurting. We're here for the same reason you are. American citizenship is a myth, an arbitrary line created over a stolen land to defend the interests of a few at the expense of the many. Anyone who has crossed that line is bound to be conflicted, scared, TIRED. So don't make them take care of you. Don't alienate them. Don't make them feel like their visa status is a nuisance to everyone around them. 

I am so terribly grateful to every person who made me feel welcome, who took care of
me – the teacher who fought for my scholarship, the administrator who hired me at extra cost to work in their school, the producing director who decided to bring me on their team even though I might not be able to stay "for more than a year," the Off-Broadway theater that reached out when they found out about my visa status and asked how they could help me stay, every single person who signed a visa letter for my application. They make me feel less tired. They make me feel like happiness is not dependent on being in this land, but on finding people who'll receive you. That Utopia is not a place, but a feeling – the feeling of home.