On January 31, Paul Frame awoke to his husband, Iván Nuñez Martínez, posing for a selfie in the bathroom mirror. “He’s fanatical about his appearance,” Frame said later, savoring the memory. Nuñez Martínez had woken up early, showered, and gotten dressed in a sharp blazer and tie. In the Facebook post that accompanies the photo, he had written: “My grandmother liked to tell me, never let anyone or anything in this life intimidate you. Always raise your head high and be proud, fight for what you want in life and never look back.”
The couple said goodbye to Buffy, their Chihuahua-pug mix, and made their way along the country roads that lead out of tiny Bucktown, Pennsylvania, to the interstate, leaving with plenty of time for their 11:00 a.m. appointment at the Philadelphia US Citizenship and Immigration Services field office. They planned to go out for a celebratory lunch afterward, and as they hit the tail end of the morning rush hour traffic along the Schuylkill River, Nuñez Martínez was masking his nervousness. He had woken up thinking of his grandmother. “I feel her presence sometimes,” Nuñez Martínez told me later. “I’m not sure if it’s just my imagination, but whenever I need her, she’s there.”
They would be early for their appointment at USCIS, a large brick-and-glass building in the quiet Powelton neighborhood of West Philadelphia. There, they met their lawyer, Audrey Allen, and an interpreter inside the building, and then walked through the metal detectors and up the stairs to the second-floor waiting area. Frame was carrying a stack of files: tax returns, utility bills, their marriage certificate, even the divorce settlement from his previous marriage—all the supporting materials they had submitted to demonstrate that their relationship was legally valid. Nuñez Martínez was carrying a large red scrapbook, full of photos marking the progress of their relationship since they had started dating in 2014. “He probably spent five hours on this book,” Frame told me later, leafing through the archive of their trips to Myrtle Beach, Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, San Juan. Assuming the interview went well, they would be issued an I-130, a document affirming the validity of their marriage—a crucial step toward Nuñez Martínez receiving permanent residency, and eventually his citizenship.
Their appointment time came and went. At 11:35, an immigration services officer came into the room and called out their names. She told them she was just finishing up with someone else and that she would be back in a few minutes. Allen, their lawyer, reassured them—she had met with the officer before. The officer soon returned, leading them down a long hallway full of small offices.
The officer swore them in and began asking Nuñez Martínez questions about his entries to the United States. Allen was surprised. An I-130 only determines whether a marriage is legitimate or not—questions of inadmissibility were not supposed to come up until the second phase of the residency application. In fact, every I-130 she’d filed this way in the past—through a procedure called consular processing—had been approved by mail, rather than requiring an in-person interview procedure. “My radar wasn’t up,” she told me later. “It was unusual, but I just thought that in this new administration, this was how it was going to be, going forward.”
The officer politely asked Frame to leave the room and walked him back to the waiting room. Allen had told the couple that the government might ask to interview them separately. “I didn’t think anything of it,” said Frame. “We had so much documentation with us, there was no lying about our marriage.”
Instead of being asked what color toothbrush Frame used—or any other intimate details that only a spouse would have known—Nuñez Martínez watched as three ICE agents entered and informed him that he was in violation of a “removal order”—the official terminology for a deportation—issued in 2010. “One officer actually said ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Allen remembers. She asked for a copy of the order, but they didn’t have one. Nuñez Martínez closed his eyes. After giving Allen a brief moment alone with her client, the officers handcuffed him and walked him into an elevator that led to a back door. The whole thing took 10 minutes.
A visibly shaken Allen walked out to the waiting room and told Frame what had happened. Neither of them had known about the 2010 removal. “I had all of Iván’s stuff—his scarf, their wedding photos,” Allen said. Frame left the USCIS building in tears. “I was hysterical,” he said. “I was completely hysterical. I should have never driven. I came home and shut my shades and lay in my bed and for a week I didn’t say anything to anybody. I was in so much shock—I was just . . . lost,” he recalls.
A week after Nuñez Martínez was detained, Frame looked at the growing pile of mail on the floor. There was a letter from the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of both USCIS and ICE. “Case Type: I130—PETITION FOR ALIEN RELATIVE, Husband or Wife of U.S. Citizen, 201(b) INA,” the letter read. “The above petition has been approved.”
In June, I visited the Philadelphia USCIS office. I parked outside the building and walked through the metal detectors, up the stairs to the waiting room, down the narrow hallway. I walked past cavernous rooms stacked with mailboxes in bright primary colors, cataloging and collecting a sea of paperwork: taxes filed as a couple, bills in both names, driver’s licenses, expired visas, passports (nonexpired and expired), divorce arrangements, proof of residency, mailing address, permanent address, proof of financial solvency, I-485, I-612, G-325A, I-797, birth certificate (notarized), I-693, I-20 or IAP-66, G-28, on and on and on. I thought of how people use these documents. To “prove themselves.” To prove their worth—often literally; to prove their “equities,” as the lawyers put it. To “adjust their status”—from unwanted, unknown, unvaluable.
I watched as immigration officers combed through those files, keyed in names, dates, numbers. I watched as they picked up the phone, sent emails. Nowhere did I see handcuffs, or dogs, or bulletproof vests.
My tour guide, the office’s press liaison, was a naturalized citizen, originally from Canada. She’s a longtime civil servant—State Department, Park Service, now this. She introduced me to an official whom I could interview “on background.” In an air-conditioned conference room with the shades drawn, I asked whether it made them uncomfortable that Nuñez Martínez’s paperwork led to his arrest; if it troubled them that the quiet, bureaucratic space of their office was made briefly indistinguishable from the militarized presence of ICE. They responded that ICE is a “sister agency” of USCIS. They promised to send me a statement. I was sweating. I asked a few perfunctory questions about the office and their caseload. They smiled; they were so nice to me. I couldn’t help myself. I asked what it felt like to work for a president who refers to immigrants as “animals.” The official raised her eyebrows before declining to respond.
Growing up, I didn’t know any undocumented immigrants. But they were an ever-present specter in my imagination, these dark-skinned women and men huddled under the harsh glare of Homeland Security’s bright lights. It reassured me to know that we were “legal,” as I told anyone who asked about my parents’ accented English, or about where we were from. We were the good ones.
When I ask my parents about their decision to move to the United States from Peru—How? Why?—they shake their heads. That wasn’t it; I didn’t understand. They didn’t “move to” the United States; it wasn’t a single decision made once. It happened slowly, one decision—one document—at a time. First there was the series of lucky breaks—and money, and babysitting, and introductions from family, friends, and friends of friends—that led to the J visa (exchange visitor nonimmigrant visa). Then there was the waiver that granted permanent residency—the much-coveted “green card”—to “aliens of extraordinary ability” or, in my father’s case, with a medical degree willing to take a job in a medically underserved area. After the green cards came in 1994, they and my siblings became citizens six years later, at a short ceremony in Dayton.
I didn’t need to prove myself to anyone. I was born while my parents were living in North Carolina, 122 years after the state—under military occupation by Reconstruction forces—ratified the 14th Amendment, when the notion of “citizen” was expanded, not limited. I was “natural born in the United States.”
I thought of all this as I drove out to the impeccable farmhouse-style tract house Frame bought 16 years ago. Bucktown sits on the northern edge of Chester County, just a few miles from the Berks and Montgomery county lines, where the densely populated Philadelphia suburbs begin to give way to the state’s vast rural interior.
As I drove, I thought about how good and bad immigrants are made. I thought about how Nuñez Martínez became a criminal, a “bad” immigrant, in the same period of time when my parents were becoming “good.” I thought about how in writing about him, I want to turn him into a good immigrant again.
We’re used to the stories of dislocation, of dispossession, of violence threatened or enacted, that make fleeing one’s country for another a necessity, stories that make the other place cruel, dark, dangerous so that America can be the land of opportunity. In this way, we make room for another “good immigrant,” one who espouses “real American values” without complaint, one who cleans up after you. I can’t fault reporters for telling these comforting stories of grit and resistance. Reporters—they—we—have their eyes open to the galling inhumanity of the whole thing, of parents separated from children, of workers rounded up, of harassment at school, at the hospital, at court. This is where we are when we find ourselves writing about undocumented immigrants, and so, in an awkward dance that parallels the one made by the state, we too comb through their documents, ask deeply personal questions, look for evidence and data; we too look for the “good” cases, the ones whose stories we can sell, the ones who deserve to be here; we try to avoid reinforcing the narrative of criminals and job-stealers.
The area’s topography—farmland cut up into subdivided developments—reminds me of where I grew up, in central Pennsylvania and southwestern Ohio. They’re the kinds of places where the newspapers sent reporters to find out what happened after the 2016 election; the kinds of places seemingly populated only by the national newspapers’ favorite clichés: heartland, red-blooded, evangelical, working-class, Walmart-shopping Americans. Real Americans, who simply don’t understand the—us—we?—feckless cosmopolitans, who feel so comfortable slipping between cultures, between languages, beneath sheets.
Frame and Buffy—the Chihuahua—greeted me at the door. He was dressed casually, in khaki shorts, white socks, and a grey “Las Vegas” T-shirt. A for-sale sign hung outside; in the immaculate living room, a red candle gave off what I can only describe as a new-house smell. “I bought a place closer to work,” he said. “Look, I’m older. All these young people moving in, they all hang in the driveway, drinking, the kids are running all over, I’m tired of it.”
It seems hard to believe—his cul-de-sac had been eerily quiet when I drove up. But then again, it seems hard to believe that this man—This White Man—in front of me had been transformed into a representative example of the cruel xenophobia of the Trump age. Another benefit of the new place, he noted after a beat, was that he would be a few minutes closer to York County Prison, where Nuñez Martínez was being held.
Frame grew up in nearby Chester County, heir with his siblings to a cattle auction house purchased by their parents in 1976. In addition to his work at the auction house, Frame works as a server at a local restaurant a few days a week. “It’s a good excuse to get out of the house, talk to people,” he said. “It helps clear my head.”
Frame and Nuñez Martínez had been introduced at a mutual friend’s wedding. Frame wasn’t sure he was ready for anything serious. “I had a partner who died of brain cancer,” he told me. “When he passed away, I thought I would never find somebody else.” But he was pleasantly surprised when Nuñez Martínez texted him the next day. Soon, they were texting regularly. Frame invited Nuñez Martínez for a weekend in Atlantic City. They began seeing more and more of each other. The next year, in a hotel room in Las Vegas, Frame proposed. “We have a relationship like no other,” he told me as he sat quietly in a reclining armchair. “Sure, we had our differences at first, but if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Once they started dating, Frame learned that Nuñez Martínez didn’t have his papers. As they got more serious, he became determined to change that. But Nuñez Martínez wasn’t sure. He had lived in the US since 2001 without incident. Why risk coming forward now? “He had some qualms,” Frame told me; “I was like, ‘Look, I want you to become legal, so you don’t have to look over your back.’ ”
There had been some nerve-wracking moments. One winter night, Nuñez Martínez lost control of his car, sliding off the road and into the embankment. Fearing a run-in with local police, he abandoned the vehicle and walked home. “He just left the car along the road. You can’t do that,” Frame said, closing his eyes and shaking his head at the memory. “When I got to it, the cop was there, he said to me: ‘You go a little fast off the road?’ He didn’t ask whose car it was.”
They hired Allen and began the paperwork for Nuñez Martínez to receive his green card. After cartifying their marriage through USCIS (I-130), the next step would be for Nuñez Martínez to apply for a special waiver (I-601A) and then return to Mexico to finalize the process through the American consulate there.
At the time, neither Frame nor the lawyers knew that Nuñez Martínez had gone home in 2010 to Michoacán to visit his mother, who he had feared was on her deathbed. On his way back into the States, he was stopped by Border Patrol agents in Texas and sent back to Mexico that same day. Nuñez Martínez himself hadn’t realized he had been legally “deported,” in fact; it had all happened so fast. He thought people who had been deported went through long, drawn-out procedures that involved going to court and spending weeks in detention. He never even saw a judge. A week later, he was back in his New Jersey apartment, the run-in with Border Patrol a swiftly receding memory.
“We were going to do what was right, you know?” Frame continued. “He works, we have a joint account, we pay taxes, we file tax returns. He does everything he’s supposed to be doing. And look at what happened.” He blinked back tears. “We were trying to do the right thing and they’re gonna set us up? I would’ve never went. I understand that they could have come knocking on the door, but I’m hurt by it. I have a lot of anger about what we went through. I have a little bit of guilt, too, because I was the one pushing him, I said, ‘Let’s do it, don’t you want to become legal?’ And he ends up in prison. He’s sitting there, and I have that guilt in me.”
When I made the nearly two-hour drive out to visit Nuñez Martínez, I expected to pass through some sort of threshold, some signal that I was entering into another world. Instead, York County Prison sits on one of those huge suburban intersections where highways meet county roads. Only a thin strip of pines separates the prison from the Concord Executive Center, a bland corporate office park; Walton and Co., a metal-fabrication plant, lies on the other side of the intersection. Corporatism, manufacturing, prison—Make America Great Again.
Nuñez Martínez and I had planned the visit over a few weeks. He had had to call me in 20-minute intervals—short, frustrating interactions mediated by Global Tel Link, a private-equity-backed company whose near-monopoly on prison calls allows them to charge nearly 30 cents per minute. There was no way to get in touch with him if I accidentally missed a call. Eventually, we started to write each other letters.
Frame is forceful and dynamic, but Nuñez Martínez is cool and quiet. He grew up in the small town of Nueva Italia in Michoacán, a state just west of Mexico City that has been ravaged by traffickers; drugs go north into the United States while guns and cash flow in the opposite direction. His grandmother raised him, but she died when he was 12; he became aimless and eventually dropped out of school. “It hit me hard,” he told me, in Spanish. “She was everything for me.”
Eventually he went back to school, having given himself the name Iván. (His given name is José.) “I decided to use the name to present myself as a new person taking on a new life,” he told me, “a life which I could also leave, emigrate from if I wanted.” He soon would. Part of his “reinvention” was his growing awareness that he was gay, a difficult proposition in Nueva Italia. In 2000, a closeted gay man was kidnapped and murdered by his girlfriend’s family and journalists were paid off to keep the story out of the newspapers, Nuñez Martínez’s sister Andrea later told me.
When rumors about Nuñez Martínez’s sexuality began to swirl, he moved to Tijuana with a few friends. They worked odd jobs, enough to save the money they would need to cross into the United States, and in December 2001, they did. At first he stayed with family in California; when he joined his brother in Lakewood, New Jersey, he found work cleaning office buildings after-hours. Soon, he had saved enough to get an apartment and start to settle down.
He was on the outs with a boyfriend when he was introduced to Frame, whose name he still pronounces “pa-ool” (just as Frame pronounces Iván as “eye-vin”). In the weeks after they met, Nuñez Martínez recalled, they just kept “talking and talking and talking,” no matter the time of day. When Frame proposed in Las Vegas, Nuñez Martínez was surprised. “I’m someone who is not afraid of making big changes to my life,” he explained. “If I make a decision, I want some time to think about it—and then I do it. So eventually, I said yes.”
At York, the main prison building is squat and worn, smooth grey cinder blocks with a ’60s-style modernist typeface announcing the different wings. I passed the prison graveyard—a series of thin tombstones leaning wildly this way and that, just outside the razor-wire fence and overshadowed by a rusted watchtower and a weeping willow. After being fingerprinted at the ICE office in downtown Philadelphia, Nuñez-Martínez was driven into York’s immigration wing, where ICE has an intergovernmental service agreement to house roughly 900 immigration detainees, each of whom it pays the county $96.75 a day to house and feed. Added in 1998, the immigration wing’s split-faced concrete exterior is closer to white than grey and its window-sills are painted lilac. A bizarre polygonal structure at the entrance reminded me of a shopping mall, and the interior only reinforced that uncanny juxtaposition: guards’ desks and a metal detector underneath an enormous skylight above the atrium-like waiting area. Just outside, white buses emblazoned with the Homeland Security logo, their windows blacked out, are lined up in a row.
Inside, I told a guard that I was there to visit someone in detention. He pointed me to the metal detector. As I gathered my things, he called out: “Why is he in detention? Did he forget to do his homework or something?”
I froze. The man was smiling at his little joke. “I’m not sure,” I finally managed. Two people sat silently, nearby, in the red plastic chairs.
After “bed 26,” as he is known to the guards, arrived in the visitation room, I was summoned to join him. Inside, nine metal stools are cantilever-bolted into the wall. Thick glass separated us both from the inmates and from the other visitors. Nuñez Martínez and I looked at each other, meeting for the first time. He punched in a code and gestured for me to pick up the phone. Once we were connected, I heard the same robot voice from the phone calls, then a roar of interference crackling and chirping on the line—I crammed the phone to my ear, covering my other ear with my hand so I could hear him.
It had been a hard week. The Sunday before—three months to the day after Nuñez Martínez’s arrest—he, Frame, and their lawyers had walked into the immigration court attached to the prison for a long-awaited hearing with a judge. After he was detained, the lawyers had filed a form of relief similar to asylum known as “withholding of removal,” (I-589), which would establish that Nuñez Martínez can’t be returned to Mexico, since, as a gay man, he had been persecuted and would risk future persecution if forced to return. But at the hearing, the judge simply set a future date for a final hearing: August 15, six and a half months after Nuñez Martínez had first been driven to York. It was both bad news and normal protocol.
According to data compiled by TRAC Reports, between 2012 and 2017, immigration judges at York heard roughly half the number of asylum cases compared to the nationwide average; across the country, asylum is granted 34 percent of the time, compared to just 15 percent of the time at York. According to TRAC, the outcome of an asylum case increasingly depends on whom the case is assigned to.
Nuñez Martínez was freshly shaved when we met, his hair neatly combed and arranged. He looked a little paler than in the Facebook selfie; skinnier, too. (Later I would find out he had lost 40 pounds since his arrest.) The day before, he’d woken up at six a.m., as he always does, to use one of the shaving kits handed out by guards in the morning. When he was handed the safety razor that morning, the guard had looked down at his clipboard and then back up at him. “When you get back, pack up your things,” Nuñez Martínez said, recalling the guard’s words.
Nuñez Martínez’s blood pressure dropped. He knew the deportation procedure well. Guards with clipboards would rouse detainees for a shower and a shave, then a trip in a blacked-out bus to a regional airport would follow. “Are you sure?” Nuñez Martínez asked the guard, in English; “I’m bed 26.” He held up the plastic red-striped wristband containing all of his information. The guard nodded. “Please check again,” Nuñez Martínez asked. The guard said nothing.
And then, as he was walking to the showers, the guard called out. “Hold up.” Nuñez Martínez turned. “You were right. I’m here for bed 27.”
“Things like that happen all the time,” Nuñez Martínez told me. “Imagine what it’s like for those who don’t speak English.” Once a detainee boards one of the buses, there’s no coming back; even a clerical error is irreconcilable. (I reached out to ICE for comment on this and other questions about York and Nuñez Martínez’s detention. Emilio Dabul, an ICE spokesman who has ties to Islamophobic organizations, responded to some of the queries but not all, citing “security reasons.”)
Frame had told me that ICE agents regularly ask Nuñez Martínez whether he wants to voluntarily turn himself over for removal. Wouldn’t it be easier to stop fighting? I wanted to ask him, but Frame had asked me not to say anything about the case over the recorded line.
Instead I told him about the weather outside—the temperature had jumped nearly 40 degrees Fahrenheit into the 90s—and asked if it was hot inside. No, he said, “it’s cálido,” warm, “but not too bad.”
Immigration detainees at York aren’t able to go outside. (ICE disputes this: Dabul said “all detainees receive [a minimum of one hour of] outdoor recreation a day.”) For two hours a day, the guards open two large windows inside a kind of recreation room, but that’s as close as they get; otherwise, they remain in the cellblock, which looks like an orphanage from the movies, he told me, rows of bunk beds lined up along an open corridor. At night, they dim the lights, but it’s always bright enough to read by. Everyone is friendly in his block. He’s heard it’s the best one. But it’s mind-numbingly boring. At most you can play cards or write letters, or sit and think, think, think about your case. Spending so much time away from his phone made him realize how addicted he was to it. We laughed about that, but the lightheartedness turned sour a moment later. “We’re completely cut off from society,” he noted, quietly.
(A few weeks later, he got a “job”—unpaid, of course, as part of ICE’s “voluntary work program”—to paint the cellblock. “It gives me something to do,” he wrote in a letter. “I’m so tired by the end of the night I don’t stay up thinking about the case anymore.”)
When he can, he fills out paperwork. Every request has to be filed in writing, and something as simple as getting a haircut, he explained, requires filling out a request, waiting for an answer (which takes around a week), then filling out another request in order to schedule the haircut (which takes around three weeks). By the time he meets the barber, it’s time to start making another request. Shortly after he was sent to York, his brother Luís sent him a card with 11 photos from a recent birthday party, but prison rules, which allow only 10 images per correspondence, meant that he never received the card or the photos. He’s filed requests to get the images—or ten of them, anyway—but hasn’t yet received an answer.
This, it occurs to me, is the grotesque inverse of the world of “good” immigrants like my parents: their immigration story—like any other successful immigration story—involves a blizzard of paperwork, lawyers, and notaries. Yet here was Nuñez Martínez participating in that game, too; he was arrested while filling out forms, and he was continuing to do so even behind bars.
“We have a saying in Michoacán,” Nuñez Martínez said near the end of our 30-minute talk. “Si no estuvo en la cárcel, no conoció a América.” If you weren’t in prison, you didn’t get to know America.
A voice came onto the line, telling us that we had one minute left. I thanked him and told him to call me or write if anything came up. He stood up. I watched as he walked out of the room. I had forgotten that he was wearing a jumpsuit.
Ever since the election, but especially recently, I have been thinking about José Inés García Zárate. An undocumented immigrant, García Zárate was accused of killing Kate Steinle in San Francisco in 2015. Trump could not have dreamed up a better case than the story told by headlines and photographs in the aftermath of the killing: on one side, a white, blonde-haired citizen, laughing and smiling—on the other, a jumpsuit-clad dark-skinned man with a half smirk. On the one hand: “Suspect in killing of San Francisco woman had been deported five times”; on the other: “S.F. shooting victim Kate Steinle: ‘She was about loving people.’”
Trump milked the case for all it was worth. It was proof positive that immigrants were killers, that “sanctuary cities” only abetted their crimes, and that a wall was needed to keep immigrants out. Liberals, for the most part, agreed to these terms; “Here’s a case where we’ve deported, deported, deported, he ends back up in our country,” then-candidate Hillary Clinton said when asked about the case a few days after the news broke. “I think the city made a mistake not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported.”
But when the case went to trial, a curious thing happened. García Zárate’s attorney argued that his client was not a bloodthirsty criminal but a confused, homeless man who found the gun underneath a park bench. He showed evidence that the gun—a Sig Sauer P239, a model known for its light trigger pull—had not been pointed at Steinle when it was fired. The prosecution’s argument—and that of the president and the country—of cold-blooded, premeditated murder became, suddenly, implausible. After six days of deliberations, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict that virtually no one had anticipated.
As deportations pile up, they accumulate weight, they scream out guilty; as his removals were repeated, García Zárate was pushed deeper into a netherworld from which he could never really escape. Of course he was a murderer; after all, was he not illegal? Then-ICE deputy director Tom Homan’s response was characteristically obtuse: “This tragedy could have been prevented if San Francisco had simply turned the alien over to ICE, as we requested, instead of releasing him back onto the streets.” (The alien.) “Following the conclusion of this case, ICE will work to take custody of Mr. Garcia Zarate and ultimately remove him from the country.”
Homan, a long-time immigration officer, had become a senior ICE official for Enforcement and Removal Operations in the Obama administration. In 2015, he was awarded the Presidential Rank Award for achieving “extraordinary results” in his position. His “success” in orchestrating over 300,000 deportations in 2014, ICE’s press release notes, “directly impacted public safety.”
As I reread these articles from the past few years, I think about the word status. Our status is who we are, who we become. This is why there had been so much pushback—rightly so—against the term illegal immigrant. (Where to even begin with unauthorized alien?)
But undocumented immigrant is an unsatisfying response. It suggests a lack, a nothing, an empty space. It is unsatisfying because deportation will always rush in to fill that space, because without documentation, other information will complete the sentence. In the TV clips and articles and campaign speeches about García Zárate’s case, the state’s vision becomes our own: García Zárate’s “status” tells us, we reason, everything we need to know. After all, mightn’t there be another immigrant ready to take his place? One who works hard, who doesn’t complain, who cleans up our messes? One who doesn’t murder “our” women?
It’s a shining example of American ingenuity: keep them out, but keep them coming. Seen in this way, it doesn’t feel so good to applaud the willingness to work so hard for so little, to provide for a family, to avoid criminality. The problem I have with these stories—and I have written them; I am writing one—is that they see the response to structural conditions as a virtue rather than an adaptation for survival.
Family detention isn’t new. Caging children isn’t new. Deporting people like Nuñez Martínez, whose only “crime” is an immigration offense—a civil offense, by the way, not a criminal one—isn’t new. Demonizing immigrants isn’t new. Building that wall, slashing jugs of water, screaming “SPEAK ENGLISH,” pushing migrants into the desert to die. None of it is new. Trump hasn’t had to pass any new laws.
Instead, Trump and his people have driven a knife though the absurdities and caveats built into the lumbering immigration machinery. It’s a system whose basis has long been fundamentally exclusionary, but whose worst cruelties were—somewhat, sometimes, some places—tempered or relieved by exceptions, by “enforcement directives,” by “waivers,” even by “amnesty”—a common occurrence through the Reagan administration. By all the personal touches that granted the law enforcement apparatus the godlike ability to wave a wand and allow families like mine to stay together, to “become American,” while denying that same right to people like Nuñez Martínez.
In June, I strike up a correspondence with a retired ICE agent. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and ICE, he writes, are the “two hands” of immigration policy in America. One hand offers immigrants “benefits”; the other, “enforcement.” The two hands, he wrote, “don’t have to work together, they really just do their own thing, and in some cases, enforcement wins out.”
I appreciate the blunt clarity of this metaphor. It collapses the distinction between the “good” immigrants and “bad.” Some of us slipped through. Some of us didn’t. Nuñez Martínez was a good immigrant, until he wasn’t. And so are any of us.
I could tell the story where no one is illegal. I could tell the story where Nuñez Martínez is a good immigrant; ever conscious of his appearance, I could work to clean him up. If he broke the rules, he’s still an exception, I could say. He’s good! Look at his job! His home! His tax bills!
But USCIS—these nonpartisan public servants who are just doing their jobs—now has a “denaturalization” task force, one that explicitly aims to strip citizenship from naturalized citizens. That’s my family. That’s any “good immigrants.” NumbersUSA, part of the newly empowered web of seemingly reasonable policy shops that launder white supremacy in Washington, wants to “reform” birthright citizenship, and that’s me. You hardly have to squint to write this story another way, to turn me into an “anchor baby,” my father into a “job stealer,” my mother, my siblings, and I unfair recipients of the largesse of public institutions. Isn’t that what some significant portion of our neighbors, our fellow citizens, think? Trump won 75 percent of the vote in the Pennsylvania county where we lived. He won the Ohio county where I grew up and went to school, the place where my parents still live—the first time a Republican presidential candidate had done so since 1988.
As the power in our passports, birth certificates, and social security cards begins to wane—as all immigrants become bad—it’s hard not to think of the country’s long legacy of exclusion. My family’s story starts to feel like the exception, not the rule. If my family and I were deported, would those “extraordinary results” help the career of some enforcement officer, someone whose success in orchestrating our deportations would be lauded, in some press release, as having “directly impacted public safety”?
In July, I flew to Peru via Montreal, where my US passport not only got me waved through immigration, but a 24-hour visa to visit the city. I didn’t go, but it’s comforting to know that I could have walked out, taken the bus, rented a bike, eaten some poutine, and returned. No questions would have been asked. In Lima, I flashed my Peruvian passport and was waved through the shorter “citizens” line at customs. I did the same trip three weeks later, in reverse: first the Peruvian passport, then the US one. I was free to come and go; free to return in either direction.
I returned in time to attend the hearing on August 15, but Allen told me it would be better if I didn’t come. The judge, Kuyomars Golparvar, she said, was reluctant to allow even Frame to attend the proceedings.
I was making lunch on the fifteenth when Paul texted me: “Ivan was denied.”
On the phone the next day, he sounded despondent. The judge and the government’s attorney, he said, had found “holes” in the case over the course of the three-hour hearing. Nuñez Martínez’s sister Andrea had written a letter describing how dangerous their hometown in Michoacán was for gay men. Yet the government attorney fixated on the fact that Andrea lives in that same town, openly, as a gay woman. They pointed to the three months that Nuñez Martínez had spent in Mexico, in 2010, visiting his mother: “They’re living there—why can’t Iván live there?”
(Allen brought in an expert witness, Nielan Barnes, an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach, to testify on violence against gay men in Mexico and a backlash against recent progressive legislation.)
“It was hard,” Frame said. “They kept asking him the same questions. I just cried all day yesterday, this morning—I’m ready to get Ivan out of there. I’m ready to let him go to Mexico.”
I was surprised to hear him say it, and fearful. Didn’t giving up like that invalidate their entire claim? Asylum cases require that you conceive of deportation as a form of death. But the reality of it had come. And for Frame and Nuñez Martínez that reality required practical thinking. What city would he be deported to? What would happen to the leftover money in his commissary account? Would he have access to his cell phone? Would he return to Nueva Italia, or move to Mexico City? Maybe Cancún, or another tourist city? Would Frame sell his business and move to Mexico? How long would they have to wait before applying for asylum somewhere else? “We spent these past six months looking at Plan A,” Frame said. “We never looked at Plan B.”
Nuñez Martínez called me the next day. “It’s been so long it’s almost as though I’m not from there anymore,” he told me. He sounded resigned to his fate, frustrated that he couldn’t help Frame prepare, couldn’t even take a few days to get ready for his return. “It’s ironic,” he said. “There are people in here who have nothing, no money even for a lawyer, and yet they get issued bond. And we, who have so much help, so much support, enough money—none of those things helped. The law simply wasn’t on our side.”
I asked him if there was a date set for his deportation yet. “If all goes well,” he replied, “I’ll be in Mexico by next month.” If all goes well, I thought. If all goes well.
I drive out to see Nuñez Martínez the following Monday. He is in considerably better spirits. “We decided to appeal,” he tells me with clear relief. Another overloaded docket, another hearing, another six months of shitty, overpriced food and too-bright lights: What made him change his mind? “Anything can happen,” he replies. “But I don’t want to go back. I just spent the past few days thinking about Mexico, about the situation there.” We’re quiet for a while. “Plus, the paperwork is already filled out.”
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