I’ve always found it difficult to know what to say and when to say it. I have plenty of knowledge and lots of opinions, but I still hesitate and prevaricate even when—actually, especially when—it’s important that I speak up.
In the movie Amélie, the hero is a maddeningly shy French woman. She gets flummoxed by cruelty and retreats when she sees it. She dreams of prompters with smart mouths hiding in doorways who call out ideal retorts to a bully’s jibe. Only she can hear these helpful prompts, and when she witnesses the grocer belittling his assistant, she listens for and repeats put-downs, thereby rescuing the grateful assistant, shaming the grocer into silence, and earning the admiration of the gathered crowd.
Apart from a tiny number of privileged people, myself included, it’s extremely difficult to get into the United States.
I dream of the same clarity, the same righteousness, and, on my most egomaniacal days, the same admiration. Not just for small instances, but for big conversations, where words are all we have to explain how we see the world, how it’s broken, and how it’s fixable.
On my recent flight back to the United States from Ireland, I had the misfortune of being seated in the four-across middle aisle. I commiserated with the man beside me, a sixty-something white American, who was also annoyed at the prospect of a six-hour trip jammed between two strangers. He complained to the stewardess that his job had paid for a window seat for him, and she apologized but said the flight was full. We grumbled together, and it was all good-natured.
Our departure time came and went as we sat on the tarmac at Dublin Airport. The pilot announced there was a delay at immigration and the passengers collectively sighed. Ireland is one of only six countries with “pre-clearance” facilities, meaning U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers conduct the same immigration and customs inspections of international air travelers that would typically be performed upon arrival in the United States.
I told my neighbor that the Customs and Border Protection officer had commented on my hair, expressing a preference for tying it back rather than leaving it loose, as it was in my last photo. “Maybe that’s the guy causing a holdup, giving out hair advice,” I said. It was an offhand comment—a slight, yes, but more of a joke than a slamming indictment of that officer.
The man bristled. “We’re lucky to have those guys, it’s far too easy to get into the country,” he told me. Reflexively I disagreed. “No, it’s not, it’s really hard to get into America.”
Icy air filled the small space between us and my heart began to race. “Just watch the news,” he told me, smiling tightly. Moments earlier, he had explained that the U.S. financial services firm he worked for had moved him from the United Kingdom to Ireland because of uncertainty around Brexit.
So he was free to move around the world, as was the money he served and steered, but he had a problem with how easy it is for others to breeze past borders?
Besides, as I told him, it’s not easy, at all. I’ve been researching and writing about immigration for a few years now, and the truth is that, apart from a tiny number of privileged people, myself included, it’s extremely difficult to get into the United States.
I thought about how easily my neighbor shared his views with me, how my whiteness matched his, so he assumed complicity. I thought about which “news” he’s watching, compared to the actual news about ever-shrinking refugee resettlement numbers, little children yanked out of their parents’ arms at the border, and terrified Afghan men who’d worked for the U.S. military and are now being denied visas and left to their fates.
Did I have a frank and bracing exchange with this man? Did I school him? I did not. I said nothing more. We fell into an uncomfortable silence, broken only by the pilot saying we would take off soon, that everyone was on board except for one passenger whose luggage was being removed.
That passenger had not made it past U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He or she was not getting into the United States. I got up and walked up the aisle, looking around desperately for that empty seat.
The flight attendant told me to go back to my seat, we were preparing for takeoff. I ignored her, scanning the plane, until I finally spotted a window seat in the fifth row. I told her I couldn’t stay where I was, I had to move, and I moved.
That part was easy.