Saturday, January 28, 2017

Immigration EO and PTSD

Copyright: siamphotos / 123RF Stock Photo
This weekend's (January 28-29, 2017) stories in the aftermath of the Executive Order issued and signed by President Trump, placing (ostensibly) temporary restrictions on non-citizens from certain parts of the world from entering the United States has awoken anxieties and fears that I've personally experienced. Even though Japan is not one of the restricted nations, and I don't have any cause to believe I would be a target of the EO, the experience is all too familiar.

During my high school years, I attended a boarding school. During my first year there, I was a victim of theft, having a number of valuables stolen from my dorm room. Among them was my passport. I reported the theft to the police, filled out a report, contacted the Japanese Consulate and had my passport reissued. And I thought that was the end of it.

Would I be surprised and dismayed. Because I became the victim of identity theft, long before it became common parlance. The thief (high school student) apparently had gang ties, and my passport ended up in the hands of an international terrorist group (again, long before this was a popular concern). 

Even though I had a replacement passport and valid visa, from that point on and for many years, I was taken to secondary screening every time I had to re-enter the United States. The process could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. There is not feeling quite like that, when you know you've done nothing wrong, you know you've followed all the proper procedures, you know you have all the right documentation, yet one person can determine the entire fate of your life in those few minutes. There is nothing like anxiety and fear that arises from that. I came to dread traveling itself, because of this.

In my case, the final episode occurred in 1990 when I obtained my permanent residency visa at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and traveled to Los Angeles. I figured that because I had gone through all the background checks, health checks, and held the permit, I shouldn't experience any major problems. But that was not the case. 

The INS (remember, this is before Dept. of Homeland Security's consolidation of agencies, forming CBP and ICE) agent rejected the visa and sent me to secondary. There I waited. Different nightmare scenarios flashed through my mind. After quite some time INS officers and a LAPD detective entered. There they questioned me - what was I doing, where am I going, and then asked about ties to extremist and terrorist groups. This was the first time I understood why all the previous times I had difficulties on entry. The responses and my demeanor apparently satisfied them, because the detective told me that he could not believe I could ever have been or be a terrorist. Then he explained briefly that a passport with my name was on a red flag list, associated with a Japanese terrorist group. He said he would make sure things would get properly cleared and cleaned up. INS issued me Permanent Resident status, and for twenty-five years now, I haven't had a problem.

But reading about the EO yesterday and how it has already effected so much havoc at ports of entry and with people and families, I feel like I'm having to push away those past feelings of anxiety and fear. I do believe I have some PTSD (or something similar) associated with those past experiences. I've been able to slowly allow myself to be okay with travel, but I feel like I might not be okay again after hearing afresh the experiences that I've personally known. 

I know what it feels like to face the prospect of your life being completely upended by a decision of one person. I know what it feels like to have to consider returning to a country in which you hold citizenship, but is not your home. I know what it feels like to face being torn away from family and friends on the other side of that agent. 

If you don't know what this feels like, maybe it's time you shut up and listen and learn empathy.  

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