Photo credit: Stuart Isett
When I first entered the United States as an immigrant, I received a stack of government documents sanctioned by an official-looking stamp across the top that read, "ALIEN."
Ironically, the documents I received then, and which were updated periodically, also identified me specifically as a nonimmigrant
, maybe because I had been granted a certain type of visa based on my new stepfather's job in what was then a rapidly expanding Silicon Valley:
The nonimmigrant status of the applicant(s) is based on the separate nonimmigrant status held by a principal alien based on authorized employment in the United States.
This document conferred a lot of confusing information to me, a Canadian Jewish girl who had been made to leave the land of her birth, her family, her known comforts, to take her chances on the mythology of California.
It told me that "alien" and "immigrant" were different things. That one could feel like an immigrant, but not be classified by the government that way — though, as I would learn many years later, only if one was white. It told me that my status, both legally and psychologically, was yoked to a man I barely knew, who worked in computer engineering and now controlled the authorization for my existence. And it told me that I was most certainly alien, which I already believed wholeheartedly because I felt it the moment I stepped foot in California.
I had always been attracted to the idea of the alien, but not in the sense of a state's or nation's borders. When I was 10 years old, my grandparents bought me a book called Into the Unknown
, a guide to UFOs, aliens, clairvoyance, telepathy, animal ESP, mind-over-matter, reincarnation, ghosts and poltergeists, earth shrines, Atlantis, witchcraft, and more. I read the book daily, wearing the pages soft, committing the facts and rumors to memory.
Later, after I became a girl who existed in the liminal spaces between nations, I became obsessed with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. My stepfather told us of this nearby lab, where American nuclear warheads had been designed and guarded since the Cold War. These places of hard science, where equations and formulas held the secrets of life, felt both unknowable and entrancing. In Mountain View, also near my new home, I knew that people paid to believe in extraterrestrial life babysat interstellar message machinery at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). For years the scientists waited patiently, watching for a sign that something was out there, beyond our known human sphere. Two decades later, I would read that, no longer satisfied with just waiting for a message to arrive from its years-long galactic journey, scientists had decided to mobilize into “active SETI,” beaming out intentional messages for aliens through radar and, they soon hoped, lasers. The scientists finally found their voice.
California, with her high schools bursting with bouncy cheerleaders and rock-hard jocks, her virus of shopping malls and Applebees, and "may the luckiest one win" mentality, seemed more alien than I could ever be. And yet, when I considered her forests-worth of beautiful palm trees, stockpiles of orchards, gentle fog-covered beaches, and boulevards of possibility, I decided maybe assimilation would be worth it. I always felt both alien and immigrant.
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While my permission to live in the United States was first linked to employer sponsorship — in its early days, Silicon Valley was famished for engineers from everywhere and anywhere — a different process eventually landed me a green card and permanent residency. While we were waiting for permanent acceptance through the sponsorship route, my family won the lottery instead. That's what the US government calls the system that randomly allots green cards to a certain number of eligible applicants from various countries. My messy stepfamily won the lottery the last year that Canada was included in the system.
When writing about immigration, imagination is as important as documentation.
As a 16-year-old leaving her known world, I struggled with the concept of the lottery. I knew even then that it wasn't fair that some people were much more likely than others to gain entry across the world's most coveted border. And the word "lottery" conflicted me. I was excited to trade the politeness of the white north, the sameness of my hometown, and the weight of a family that had frayed and torn for the promise of the Golden State and the broader opportunities of the US. But what place would I belong to now that I had left the land that welcomed my ancestors, who 100 years earlier had fled persecution and murder, the land that had become a part of our bodies and cells? How was this — the empty hole in the place where my sense of belonging had always existed — winning the lottery? The lottery was supposed to be something that came with no downside, the ultimate prize, the golden ticket. Wasn't it?
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When writing about immigration, imagination is as important as documentation. I couldn't understand the scope of my migration, the burden of it, and how it fit into a diorama of comings and goings until I thought about my great-grandparents, their sisters and brothers and children, who had also pushed west to the farthest edges of their imaginations.
I know precious little about these ancestors. There was a branch that barely made it out of the bleeding edge of Russia. There were branches that didn't, and perished. There was a great-great-aunt who ran off with a soldier during this hectic flight for life, never to be heard from again. There were people who landed in Canada's Maritime provinces, carving a new life out of a gaping wilderness. With few documents at my disposal, I have to imagine the full picture. Even our names were taken, chopped into something more Western and more manageable, forgotten. On a trip seven years ago with my husband and little girls to Ellis Island, I stared into the eyes of immigrants like my own relatives. The oversized black-and-white portraits hanging in the historic hall seemed to bore into me. Just imagine
, they said. So I did.
After several years living in California, I felt both Californian and other. My Canadianness kept me deferential, fair-minded. Quiet. My desire to assimilate drove me to every corner of a western state, peeking under monzogranite boulders and carving sand angels by the Pacific, whispering to California under my breath.
I also couldn't understand the relative ease of my own alien status, even as it continued to discomfit me, until I witnessed the agony of others who are deemed less desirable, less model "alien," to the all-powerful gatekeepers. As a journalist I met with and listened to the stories of struggling immigrants who would give me the last Pepsi in their fridge on a 110-degree day, whose own people were hunted and captured on their journeys north. I visited the unmarked graves of those who didn't survive the brutality of the desert. I took a tour with a federal border patrol guard. His intent was to show me and the photographer I was with how challenging it was for him to battle the porousness of the US border at what is now demarcated as California's southern edge — how complex it was to monitor the systems of walls, gates, canals, and open wilderness for migrants trying to slip through. How hard it was to track them, to keep out "aliens"; and also, the guard told me as an afterthought, to keep them alive. What I asked him was: "How is it hard to keep them alive?" What I wrote in my notebook was: Does he know it was theirs first?
I continue to feel alien and alienated, and am conflicted about the idea of assimilating even as I enjoy the luxury of passing, a white Jewish Canadian who looks on most days like any white American with their history of barging in, gathering and taking, and slamming the door greedily behind them. I write about my own migration even as I burn in shame for the treatment of those who've sought entry behind me. Even as I want to hold the door open.
And regardless of what my permission slips say, I am and always will be an immigrant.
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is the author of the memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation
. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Proximity, Hypertext, Literary Mama, Largehearted Boy, The Nervous Breakdown, Full Grown People
, the anthology Love and Profanity
(2015), and elsewhere. Her awards include the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction prize and the Alligator Juniper nonfiction prize. She has taught writing inside Washington State’s psychiatric facility for youth and inside Seattle’s juvenile detention center. Natalie holds an MFA from the University of Washington.