The way society looks at undocumented people like me is full of presumptions, stereotypes and judgements. Survival becomes a matter of morality: America looks towards the person and holds their very life in her blood-drenched hands; examines not motive, not chances, not abuse nor danger or violence upon them, and considers whether or not she finds them useful. The best possible outcome is that America decides She needs you enough to ignore you. Does America need you to do menial tasks for little pay and no protection from unscrupulous employers? Does America consider you worthy of living, of her particular kind of freedom with its preset unfair limitations? America guards Her wide open expanses, huge vast unused swathes of land and great geographical riches with a jealous hand.
There is an excess in this beautiful country, but not a fairly divided excess. It is an excess which is bunched up and generously divided amongst the white, rich, male descendants of America’s conquerors. All the power, all the volume, all the freedom, all the protection is liberally scattered amongst her favorite sons, and her most compliant of daughters, while the rest of us scrabble around for scraps they let fall from the overflowing table. America is a glutton.
My husband was a glutton. He had all the legality, all the power of being from both Here and from There. I was from nowhere at all. I had no protections. I held no cards. He wielded his power like a club or a mace, smashing paths and bridges that lay between me and safety and freedom. Various more socially acceptable and court-friendly choices were unacceptable to me. Leave my children where he had stashed us all abroad in a country that had no protections for women who were being hurt by their husbands was simply not a sacrifice I was prepared to make. I was going to save both me and the children. When I first was being abused it simply was not a crime to hit your wife in the jurisdiction I found myself in. He was within his rights as a man, as a husband, and as a father. In time it only became a civil matter, and one that the patriarchal courts would never let me win. He was in less trouble for beating and raping me than I was in for fleeing for my and my children’s lives.
I had the very rare and valuable experience of being in an extreme minority. I was in a country that was basically monoracial, and the privilege my white skin once sickeningly gave me was wiped away. I became outside. Foreign. Other. Worthless. Silenced. Thrown into a cell for my husband to pick up when I tried to beg cops to save my life, my young children crying for food and water and being given none, nor allowed to leave until he arrived to claim us. I am deeply grateful for that experience. It has taught me what privilege is, what it means to be fighting on a downhill slope, crawling up while everyone else insists on pushing you down. It taught me humility.
Humility and fear are two lessons I do not wish upon my worst enemies. Trapped by a law that says that children cannot be removed from their habitual residence (the country where they reside and were born) in an international marriage, without permission of the other parent meant that I was tied by my heart strings. I could neither leave my children behind, partly because of the sheer danger of this highly violent man, and partly because they were my children. My babies. I had lost almost everything, including my health, my autonomy, my rights not to be raped and beaten to within an inch of my life on a daily basis, year in and year out. I could not lose them too. So I ran for my life, and to save my children.
Fate let me run to a place I could disappear. America. Despite my accent, despite my birthplace, despite America’s many faults and problems, this is where safety and freedom lay for me. This is where I had a chance to survive away from him. So, when he brought us here, using my visa as leverage, I leapt off a cliff of impossibility. I ran. I gave up documents and I grabbed on to life. Life on the road, but a life nevertheless.
When America hears ‘undocumented’ it rarely knows or asks the story behind the word. The story becomes an ‘excuse’, mostly superfluous to America’s needs. The whys and wherefores of the end result, the final state of being alien to that which you love and that you work for the betterment of becomes a closely guarded secret. The struggles are necessarily obscured because to be fully open with the status of being undocumented is dangerous. It can mean being returned to a situation which is unsurvivable, it mean losing your home, friends, family and moreover, your future. It means potentially losing everything that has been so hard fought for.
My story is not typical in a lot of ways, but in a wider sense it is utterly normal: to flee for America in fear, and then the provisions made at the other side to try and secure ‘legality’ falling through or barriers put in the way to that path appearing out of nowhere, and then simply trying to survive, living an otherwise quiet decent life is the norm. The stories behind the desperation need to be told, so the vast majority of reasonable, decent, kind people that surround the undocumented population can understand that they too were a mere act of Fate and Chance away from being that person, desperate for kindness, understanding and safety.
One word cannot describe thousands of miles of fear. One word cannot act as defense against the masses who want nothing more than to purge the country of those people who lack what they have. Behind that one dangerous word, undocumented, lies a lifetime of fear, and enough justification to fill libraries.