"The wall served as a jarring reminder of my vulnerability to the state." // iStockPhoto, Samuel Howell

Navigating the Path to Legal Status: An Undocumented Immigrant’s Story, Part 3

Part 3: “How Would I Get Past the Wall?”

May 24, 2022

The much-anticipated day had finally arrived: it was time for my immigration interview. In the past, the interview used to be completed in a single day, but now, purportedly due to COVID-19, it was spread over two days. Standing alone in line to submit the required documents, I felt a profound sense of loneliness. Immigration regulations prohibit anyone other than the petitioner from entering the building—a policy that felt like one more tactic to isolate and disempower immigrants.

I handed over my packet to the immigration officer who informed me, “Come back on May 26, 2022, for your final interview.” Confusion washed over me, and I asked, “I thought the interviews were conducted consecutively?” Without looking up, the officer curtly replied, “We are closed on the last Wednesday of every month.” Returning to my hotel, which now felt like a prison, I waited anxiously.

May 26, 2022

Alone, I again entered the imposing immigration building, fully aware that my fate would be decided by someone who would only interact with me for a few fleeting minutes. Cell phones were prohibited within the embassy, forcing me to bear the weight of the impending decision alone until I could reach the Starbucks across the street, where my husband anxiously awaited.

We were herded like cattle, shuffled from one section of the building to another. After three agonizing hours, I finally reached the interview queue. The interview area resembled a bank, with plexiglass windows serving as the barrier between the immigration officers and the petitioners—a far cry from the private room I had anticipated. Standing in line, I overheard snippets of conversations—palpable relief from those who were approved and anguish among those denied. I felt an overwhelming urge to weep, flee, and hide. Yet, I managed to remain composed.

“Next,” the officer’s voice bellowed, summoning me. This was it.

Holding my breath, I stepped forward. The mere six steps to the window felt like traversing an endless expanse. As I neared the window, I caught sight of the immigration officer who would determine my fate—a young woman with raven-black hair cascading straight down her back. Gathering courage from somewhere deep within, I offered a cheerful, “Hello, how are you?” My voice wavered slightly despite my attempts to conceal the fear and anxiety that lurked behind my smile.

Her gaze shifted away from the computer screen, first meeting my eyes, then to the documents in my hand, and back up again. A flicker of confusion crossed her face. Perhaps it was my unexpected appearance—a seeming contradiction between my identity as an immigrant and a complexion that others have often deemed “white passing.”

She did not return my greeting, and instead replied with, “Would you prefer the interview in Spanish or English?” I responded without hesitation, “I prefer English, thank you.”

After what felt like an eternity of probing, I watched the immigration officer press a stamp of approval onto my immigration packet, signifying my new status: I was finally a permanent resident of the United States.

The tension I had been carrying slowly dissipated. I was elated, my heart beating to the rhythm of newfound hope. Tears streamed down my face as I stood before the immigration officer, who, in a rare display of humanity, offered me a warm smile. Filled with joy and unable to contain my excitement, I impulsively rushed toward the exit. A security officer shouted, “No running!” and I pleaded silently, “Please don’t change your minds.”

But how could I walk? Ignoring the scorching heat and the oncoming traffic, I sprinted across the six-lane street and burst into the Starbucks where my husband had been waiting. He looked up as I entered, his complexion drained of color, a stark contrast to his usually warm caramel tone. I nodded, and we embraced tightly. He had countless questions, but I whispered, “Not here.”

Returning to our hotel room, which now felt like a sanctuary, I sank to the floor, my body giving way to exhaustion. In that moment, I wept as if releasing years of pent-up pain from my life in the shadows of “illegality.” Once I could speak again, I shared every intricate detail of the process with my husband. A question echoed in my husband’s voice as he asked, “What’s next?” The answer was simple, yet charged with its own set of emotions—we had to wait for the arrival of my visa so I could legally cross back to the United States via the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border.

June 2, 2022

The email notification read “U.S. DoS Visa Travel Documented Ready for Pick-up.” Within minutes of receiving the email, we found ourselves at another office. Before us stretched a long line of hopeful faces, each awaiting their turn to receive their visa. After an hour of waiting, the moment arrived—I had my visa in hand. We hurried back to our hotel, where our bags seemed to pack themselves in our haste. Within what felt like mere moments, we were checked out of the hotel, ready for the familiar embrace of home.

Awaiting us on the journey back was a sight that would leave an indelible mark on my life—the first glimpse of “The Wall.” We hired a taxi to guide us through the border. As the vehicle idled in line, a looming structure caught my eye. Mere feet away from the passenger window stood a fence of intimidating proportions. The barrier was approximately 20 feet in height, forged from copper metal panels and garnished with layers of vicious barbed wire. A tiny gap between each panel provided the only glimpse of El Paso on the other side. The sight of “The Wall” filled me with a gut-wrenching dread. If something went wrong during this final inspection, how would I get past that wall? How would I ever find my way back home?

As I reflect back on this moment, I am forced to confront a harsh reality: I would not be able to. Despite my visa, the state could reconsider my worthiness at any moment. The wall served as a jarring reminder of my vulnerability to the state. This dehumanizing experience at the port of entry is illustrative of the broader processes of adjusting legal status through the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which serves to reinforce the immigrant’s sense of “otherness” through forced repatriation, invasive and degrading medical examinations, and closely scrutinized reentry. In doing so, the state reaffirms its authority to regulate and delineate the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. This is not merely a bureaucratic process but a powerful testament to the state’s control.

Although I gained legal status that day, the invisible wounds inflicted in the process will endure as a reminder that I, an immigrant, will never be welcome in the country I have always known as home.

Jozef C. Robles is a Ph.D. student in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Irvine. His work explores the transformative impacts of immigration law on immigrants’ lives.

Read Parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series.


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