Migrations When Your Country Calls You an Alien
Sometimes, the word “belonging” feels more apt when snapped into two: be longing.
I spent my twenty-second birthday in a police station in Athens. With Europe in the throes of an unprecedented heatwave, Greece felt, for a few disorienting moments, like India: The room my friends and I waited in was damp, swollen with humidity. Condensation dripped down the windows like sweat. We’d been planning and saving up for this post-graduation trip since our freshman year, but, just days after we landed, we were robbed in a tourist-packed metro station. My green card, the product of years of precarity and perseverance—gone.
The journey to that little plastic card spanned twenty-one years, three continents, and three generations. And, in seconds, the life it gave me access to could be ripped away. I could be refused re-entry into the US. I could be deported.
At the police station, officers milled around us like flies. The language barrier made communication tricky, despite my friends’ valiant efforts to mime the act of pickpocketing. In the end, the chief inspector banged his hand on the table and said, enunciating each word, “Where. Do. You. Belong?”
The question, in retrospect, was not a trap. He was asking me which embassy he needed to call. Still, I found myself unable to give him an answer. Sometimes, the word “belonging” feels more apt when snapped into two: be longing .
We have always been longing. Back in 1994, my mother fell for my father, in part, because he promised her America. When they met at Trivandrum Medical College, the promise of America was the promise of the world.
My mother still talks fondly about those early days of marriage, when my father would take her on motorcycle rides to the movie theater. They would watch Technicolor cowboys drawing guns on horseback, blonde women lounging by pools that stretched off the edges of the screen. They would fall asleep listening to Frank Sinatra, practicing words in American accents that squelched on their tongues: hard r’s, thwacked t’s.
Well before their wedding, my father passed the qualifying test for an American medical residency. He was still denied a visa, twice, because he was too hungry. The US consulate officers worried that, if they let him in, he’d never leave; they said so explicitly, attributing his rejection to a lack of motivation to return. So he settled for the next best thing: England. There, where my younger sister was born, where I developed a soft British-Indian hybrid accent, he ornamented his resumé with awards and added an alphabet soup of letters after his name. He wanted to be too good to turn away.
Six years later, he got the call. “We did it,” he said when he hung up, eyes shining. “We won.”
We landed in Seattle close to midnight. As the plane stuttered to a halt, a new day cracked open before us on the airport runway. Rain fogged the oval windows. The sky was velvet-black, pricked with stars that throbbed like heartbeats.
At Immigration, we got our documents stamped in red ink that branded us “resident aliens.” I was not quite eight, but I felt something fork in my chest even then. Something like pride, something like pain. After pushing three-wheeled trolleys piled high with suitcases out of the airport, we huddled at a deserted taxi stand. The sheer mist of rain turned into a storm. Cold, wet, new, we waited.
My first day of third grade, a teacher had to force my classmates to speak to me. Her command met with widespread giggles, but it worked: At recess, a girl informed me matter-of-factly that I couldn’t use the swings. “Go home,” she said, baring a mouthful of braces.
Later, in the lunch line, I spotted a girl who looked like me. Dark skin, darker hair, and I heard her ask for cheese ravioli, the only vegetarian option. I ran up to her and introduced myself breathlessly. “Where are you from?” I asked.
She looked at me, straightened bangs tickling the tops of her glasses. Behind the lenses, her eyes were flat. “Maryland,” she said. There was no invitation in her answer.
That afternoon, when my mother came to pick me up, she wore a green cotton churidar. Her long braid slipped down her back like water. When she asked me how my first day was, I didn’t answer. Instead, in a low, mean hiss, I told her not to wear those clothes to pick me up again.
Her face went red as a slap. Later that year, she swapped out her dupattas for jeans and cut her hair to a blunt bob, but I still picture my mother as she was then: long churidars, soft smile, fraying braid floating in the wind.
My mother is a physician. She worked as a family medicine doctor in India and England, but, when we came to the US, we became dependents on my father’s visa. Bound to him by the H-4 “housewife” visa, my mother couldn’t work or earn money. The cost of America was far greater than the thousands we shelled out for applications and attorneys. In the land of the free, my mother lost her freedom to be anything but a “housewife.”
Even now, when I help her in the kitchen, I am stunned by the ease with which she dices onions, juliennes carrots. She can do so while watching a pot simmering across the room, while singing along to old Bollywood songs playing on the TV. Her hands are so nimble because they were trained for higher stakes.
This is what they don’t tell you about migration: It is a trauma. It is a rupture, cracking our lives into a before and an after. It would be easy to say that America scabbed over the wound of our past, but that is not the full story. The truth of it is this: We are a haunted people.
It would be easy to say that America scabbed over the wound of our past, but that is not the full story. The truth of it is this: We are a haunted people.
In 2007, one year after my brother was born, my father began the green card application process. All his nights were sleepless that year, with baby cries like background music as he sat hunched over the kitchen table, poring over documents meant to prove his “extraordinary ability”—his material worth to the nation. The dossier thickened and thickened, until it slowly started to seem more supplication than application, a plea to a cold lover.
During one of many visits to the USCIS office to inch forward the application process, a man behind the glass counter traced the expiration date of our visa in yellow highlighter. He thumbed through our papers with Latex-gloved hands and said, “Nearly time to go home, huh?”
That application was rejected. My father’s colleague—another Indian doctor with equivalent publications, honors, and experience—learned that his was accepted the same day. Two men entered the green card game; one was deemed “extraordinary” and one was not, and that was the end of that.
We were placed in a different green card queue—not the fast track to citizenship for those with “extraordinary ability,” but a slower form of death, one that promised no end date, no salvation. We stood at the wrong end of a black box. For people condemned to this purgatory, green cards seemed to be shuffled like a poker deck, handed out by a fickle dealer. I know people who received theirs in two years, and others still empty-handed after twenty. Trapped in the fraught liminal space between borders, all we could do was wait.
My college counselor was sympathetic, but unhelpful. She pulled up the rules on her old white desktop, jabbing at the screen as she told me that, as an “international student,” I would be ineligible for college financial aid.
“So—what are my options?” I asked her, already knowing and dreading the answer.
She sucked her teeth, an apology of sorts. “You can get merit aid,” she said. “Otherwise, if your parents can’t pay, you’ll have to take out loans.”
My choices, then, were to burden my parents, take on debilitating loans, or somehow land a full ride scholarship. There was a fourth option, of course, one that I dared not voice but that sat heavy on my chest each time I pressed submit on the Common Application: that I wouldn’t go at all.
I lucked out; of the twenty schools I applied to, one invited me to interview for a scholarship. I bought my first suit, ironed my hair flat, and flew, by myself, for the first time, to Atlanta, Georgia. There, I pretended I’d been drinking sweet tea all my life and smiled as a white professor shook my hand and complimented my English. When an interviewer asked me what my favorite book was, I paused for a practiced moment, and said, “ To Kill a Mockingbird .”
I got the scholarship. My father’s voice broke when he called relatives in India to pass on the news. This country that refused to love us back chipped away at us all piece by piece, but it eroded my father the most, deeming him categorically mediocre in its rejection. That day, he said, made everything worthwhile, made everything possible.
But my twenty-first birthday loomed, casting a dark, sprawling shadow over my time in college. For my friends, turning twenty-one meant long-awaited legal drinks. For me, it meant I could no longer be a dependent on my father’s visa. It meant that, unless I was able to get a student visa—dicey, our lawyer said, since my father had by now swallowed his pride and filed another extraordinary ability green card application, signalling our intention to stay in the US—I would be legally “out of status,” forced to leave the country.
As the dreaded day crept closer, I found I didn’t know how to explain to people what was wrong. Why watching the election my sophomore year, the one that carried Donald Trump to the White House, prompted me to burst out in ugly, gasping sobs. They weren’t tears of ideological passion; I was far more selfish than that. I was simply scared for my life.
When I confided this to a friend, he was confused, but gallant. “We can get married,” he said, his eyes big and earnest. “If you need to.” I was only half joking when I said I might take him up on it.
In the end, I didn’t need to. The fall of senior year, my mother called on a Wednesday afternoon. It was uncharacteristic of her; she had my schedule memorized and never even texted while I was in class. I knew, when I saw the missed call, that something exceptionally good or bad had happened.
“ Mol , the I-140 was approved,” she said, on the voicemail I still haven’t deleted.
That short phrase, unintelligible to most people, contained an entire universe within it. It meant our green cards were on their way. It meant that, after thirteen years, we were finally free. Free from the precarity, free to make plans for the future, free from the dependence on my father that stripped my mother of her autonomy the moment we landed in this country. All my words peeled away. I clutched the phone like a lifeline and lay back in bed, a pulse drumming so loudly in my ears I didn’t even hear my roommate walk in.
I was saved. The relief was instant, almost painful. Like gulping in fresh, cold air. Like pulling out a splinter and watching blood blossom bright on your finger.
The cards came in the mail January of 2019. When I opened my sister’s text with a photo of the four cards, spread out on the table we had once covered with application documents, I laughed: They were actually green. Plastic fungus-colored rectangles, like mildewed drivers’ licenses. So small, but so enormous. They didn’t look real, but they were. They were real, and, for the first time, it felt like my world was real, too.
For the first time, I felt like I could keep this fragile little life I’d managed to assemble without knocking over some cosmic Jenga tower in the process.
The last time we went to India was two years ago, for my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. It was the first time my father’s side of the family had been under the same roof since his wedding. My memory of the week has softened into a warm blur, but a certain moment stands out to me: Over dinner one night, my father asked his father, “Fifty years down the road, do you have any regrets?”
My grandfather paused, a handful of fish curry halfway to his mouth. He took his time to speak. “Sometimes,” he said finally, his words slow as honey. “I wish I could have spent more time with you all when you were young.”
In his thirties, my grandfather left his wife and three small children behind and headed west, to Dubai. He worked long hours at a chemical plant, sending the biggest chunk of his paycheck back home each month. He only returned to India when my father was in college.
Something glinted in my grandfather’s eyes. Then he smiled and shook his head slightly. “It’s what we do,” he said. “We always have to do better for our children. Who knows, kutta”—he addressed me then, the oldest of the third generation—“now that you’re already in America, maybe your children will grow up on the moon.”
“We always have to do better for our children.”
People who survive near-death experiences often report seeing their lives flash before them. Maybe the reason all of this played out in my mind that day in the Greek police station comes down to this: The loss of my green card was a kind of death. A death of a dream, of a version of myself I no longer recognize—a person who believed, truly believed, in the glittering story of America.
As the Athens police officer asked me who he needed to call to get me home, I spiralled head-first into a crisis that had been building since a girl told me to go home on an elementary school playground. Home? The land of my birth, governed by a man dubbed the “Butcher of Gujarat,” who openly advocates the genocide of people like me? Or England, the land where I spent my childhood, whose people murdered and looted my ancestors? Or maybe the land I grew up in, the one that still deems me “alien,” that prohibits me from voting, that denies me access to the social safety net I pay into with my taxes?
For decades, we ached for that green card. We imbued it with a sort of magic, imagining it would finally prove our humanity, our belonging. That it would once and for all scrub the red stamp of “alien” from our skin. When we finally got it, we felt, as my father did that day he got the call from Seattle, like we’d won. Like, in this contest where the grand prize is America, we were in an elite echelon of finalists, and, perhaps, if we performed patriotism well enough, we’d be awarded the ultimate trophy: citizenship.
But here I was, once again staring down the barrel of deportation. Nothing had changed. Maybe nothing would ever change, no matter how many badges of recognition I got. It was an abrupt, brutal hemorrhage of clarity.
At the root of it, this is the greatest trick the magicians rigging the contest to win America managed to pull off: They made us all believe that a little green rectangle was synonymous with humanity. That, when handing out these cards, they were gifting us with nothing short of life itself.
I got out of Greece and back to the US, thanks to some sympathetic embassy agents and my generous parents, who helped cover the legal expenses. The particular alchemy of luck and privilege saved me, once again. Many are not so fortunate.
I’m lucky in many ways. Barring major upheaval, I will become a US citizen in three years. I will return, for the last time, to the velvet-roped Houston USCIS office. I will renounce my Indian citizenship and pledge, hand on heart, as I’ve done since middle school, my allegiance to the United States. When the last words of that oath leave my lips, the Homeland Security Officer—maybe the same one who once warned us it was “nearly time to go home”—will congratulate me.
I wonder if I will feel different. If I’ll let out a breath long coiled in my chest, if that elusive, ephemeral sense of belonging will finally settle in my stomach. But, like the day we received those plastic green cards in the mail, I have a suspicion that nothing will change. Perhaps that’s for the best. Our lives are precarious, yes, but there is a strange, stubborn beauty in that precarity. In our persistence, our resilience, in all the histories we carry and all futures we seek, in our old ghosts and new promises.
That gap between borders isn’t a void, but a space of possibility. It’s a place where we can take up residence without question, without documents. It’s a place where we forge our own conceptions of humanity, of citizenship, far outside the states that try to define it for us with stamps and serial numbers. It’s a place where we imagine a different world, a better world. A world where we aren’t caught between borders, because the borders themselves don’t exist; all that remains is the in-between.
Every now and then, that pang to belong somewhere still throbs, but it’s an old, largely forgotten pain now. I’ve come to trust that it may be better to live in this capacious in-between, like grass shoots poking through sidewalk cracks—plucked, flattened, but still twisting, relentlessly, towards the sun.