By: Katie Fisher
We walk down the narrow hallway mindlessly, and I feel the blood recirculate to my legs. The world feels fuzzy. My ringing ears process the stomp of feet and rolling of wheels on wax floors.
The air is stagnant despite the crowd of people, yet infinitely more pleasant than the staleness of the cabin that had been my prison cell for the last nine hours. In the palms of my hands, I hold the blue booklet that measures my worth in my hands, and it bites into the soft flesh.
Blinking slowly to counteract the blurriness, I notice monitors hanging from the ceiling of the hallway; their screens cycle between an animated Star-Spangled Banner rippling as if it were blowing in the wind and a blue page with the words “Welcome to the United States of America.”
One of the monitors isn’t connected, displaying a Windows 7 error page. I have a fleeting thought of the oddity, of the disconnect that one system is still using outdated software that has ceased updates, but it passes quickly as I stifle a yawn. For some reason, I point out the error screen to my teenage brother, and we chuckle.
I think it’s from the combination of dehydration and sleep deprivation, but as I’m watching another of the screens, the flag bursts through its digital confines before swiftly retreating as fast as it appeared. The corners of my mouth pinch into a frown, parading my confusion, yet the crowd pushes on, unimpressed.
I follow my family like we’re little ducklings in a row. Turning the corner, the corridor opens to a massive hall, the Customs area. My mom scans the room, searching for an unused kiosk, and whisks us off in the general direction. We take turns scanning our faces and mixture of blue and red passports. I go last.
My heart flutters as I watch the ticket print with a giant X. At five in the morning on a Sunday, I’m too tired for this.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“There’s always one,” my mom jokes.
Tucking the ticket between the pages of my passport, I weave my way through to the border agent who’s calling for the next person to come forward. My family members and I hold our own passports in front of us as we approach the navy-uniformed man. With a flat face, he eyes each one of us with our mismatched passports before questioning “So, what’s the story here?”
My dad, the most charismatic man in my life, responds. “The girls were born here, but we returned home to bring them up around family, and then our youngest was born there. Now, we’ve moved back to the States.”
The agent’s eyes flick between us again, and I’m surprised that he doesn’t succumb to my dad’s charm as everyone always does. It’s the deep voice and accent they say. Skeptically, the border agent stamps through each of my family’s tickets until I am left last, again.
I am beckoned with a blue latex-gloved hand. Shuffling forward, I place my passport in the man’s grasp, and he flips it open to the photograph, holding it up at eye level so he can see.
I stand awkwardly, feeling embarrassed about my disheveled appearance in the photo that was taken around seven a.m. on a Saturday morning after a Friday night basketball game I was cheerleading for.
“You’ll look that after you get off the plane anyway,” my mom quipped when she first saw the image.
As any teenage daughter would be, I was mortified—not to mention that it won’t expire for ten years.
“Take off your glasses,” the border agent commands nonchalantly.
I silently comply, taking off the prescription glasses.
“Undo your hair.”
Again, I silently comply, pulling loose the soft braids.
The agent shakes his head. “This doesn’t look like you.”
My mouth is frozen, but my empty head is now filled with thoughts, worse-case-scenarios. I turned eighteen two weeks ago. He can legally separate me from my parents. I could be detained. I have school tomorrow. I don’t want to miss class.
I fumble for words, “It’s just a bad picture—”
“This doesn’t look like you,” he punctuates in a staccato rhythm, waving the passport as a taunt.
I don’t know what to do. We’re young, my siblings and I, sheltered in a protective bubble of naivety that borders on ignorance. We’ve been raised in small town America, where homogeny runs rampant.
I’ve fended these questions since the tender age of eight, but my existence has never been doubted.
There’s a lump in my throat, it could be the dehydration, but probably the nerves too, and I tense as my eyes get prickly. I don’t want to be separated. He stamps my ticket and reluctantly thrusts the passport back into my possession.
My small hand reaches up to pinch the passport between my fingers and out of his grasp. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding as he lets go, and a golden bald eagle leaps from the booklet. One talon grasps an olive branch and the other arrows as it soars about the massive hall before perching on the Customs sign. Even in the artificial lighting, it glitters as brilliant as the sun.
And suddenly in that moment, I know what it feels like to be an immigrant in America. I don’t laugh anymore at the memory of a broken screen.
Katie Fisher is an undergraduate at Illinois State University, studying English in the Publishing Studies sequence and working as an academic peer advisor for first-year students. She enjoys spending time with her two lovely cats and listening to BTS.