Crossing Borders: Why A Little Trip North Mattered

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Winter term has begun, and I’m back in the frigid north. I’ve had syllabi to pour over, and Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” is on my desk, waiting to be read for a class discussion in a couple of days. My mind and spirit are totally invested in the coming term’s works. Except for the part of me that I left behind, which isn’t just at home. It looks like I left a bit of myself in Canada, in the sense that I still think about having been there just this past Friday. I spent a road trip with my family traveling north, crossing over the Thousand Islands to Ontario, and visiting my father’s distant relatives. My mother questioned the timing of the trip, given the onset of winter at a place definitely colder than home. But it seemed fitting, at least in a rough sense of what we now have the right to do as a family.

The mere fact that we just got a chance to leave the country, and then come back to it was something we’ve been waiting for since a decade ago when my family moved to the United States. When we emigrated from the Philippines – my parents in ’03, and then my siblings and I in ’05 – we arrived with the papers and status that weren’t “multiple-entry”, a clinical way of saying that if you leave the U.S., you can’t re-enter the country. At the time, this was irrelevant. My parents wanted to begin their lives here, to raise me and my siblings with whatever our new country had to offer, and it was much more than what we had back then. My uncle Gale would remind me of this often when it came to education, job prospects when I grew up, pollution, safety.  So we’ll rough it out. Return would happen, just not right now. Finances aside, we couldn’t legally leave the U. S.

As time went on, we applied for permanent residency in 2007. This was the inevitable decision to let us continue our lives here indefinitely. And as expected, we waited – many who’ve experienced paperwork with immigration can tell you all about the time spent waiting. For us, waiting was, well… a trying time for everyone. Relatives had died back in the Philippines while waiting, and even if we did get the finances, we couldn’t leave the U. S., unless we wanted to leave for good. Meanwhile, to make a very long story short, we faced uncertainty as my mother’s job as a teacher, the reason we all moved halfway around the world, was in jeopardy (due to her school district); without her job, we would have no reason to live in the country. Our permanent residency papers had yet to come in then, probably the only secure thing that would help our family.

The bind my mother was in happened just as I was about to apply for college in 2012. I considered my position at the time to be awkward, since legally I was an international student if I were to go college here. With what happened with my mother, I felt the college applications process being a bit more of a vortex of despair than it would feel otherwise. The question of me continuing my studies for work one day became less a given, reverting to a question of “if”.

I’ll skip ahead in time to September 2014. I was about to return to Carleton in a few days for fall term. (I applied to Carleton as an international student, and became accepted and enrolled as one when all was said and done.) Our family was still secure in the country, temporarily, by some legal maneuvers my parents worked out. We picked up the mail after Labor Day, finding USCIS envelopes in the bundle that came in our home. I think we were never so excited for the envelopes like this before, because they were larger than usual, and more solid too. Opening them and peering in at the contents, we discovered a piece of plastic, a privilege, a long-awaited relief. They don’t call them green cards for nothing!

We took it calmly and happily, with hugs and kisses all around the family as we opened the envelopes. We all knew what the cards meant. Job security for my mother. The chance for my father (and the rest of us) to work without restrictions. The even greater chance to pledge allegiance as citizens to a country we already call home. The more desired chance for the freedom to move. It’s what allowed us to cross the Canadian border, for me to dream of study abroad, for the day that we might one day return to see old relatives again on the other side of the planet.

I think back on this now, seemingly petty that we were marveling how we lived under another flag for a few days. This ability to cross the border is a testament to the privilege we have as permanent residents (and future citizens) of America. To live here is a privilege for us. An imperfect privilege in an imperfect country, there’s no denying that, but it’s a privilege better than elsewhere in the world; better enough for us. We’ve gone through a lot of waiting, money, and stress to know we can settle here for the rest of our lives. The question now is what to do with the privileges we’ve had and will certainly have. Traveling to Canada invoked said privileges. But what next? We all have something meaningful, something good to do with what we receive, whatever it may be; making lemonade from the proverbial lemon. I’m pretty sure I don’t have a definite answer yet: I haven’t declared majors yet, and I haven’t the faintest idea what I’ll like out of physics for a career. I haven’t even decided what life will look like for me in ten years.

Whatever it may be, I know a few things: that my family and I have come a long way to have the opportunities for purposeful and decent lives; that with our residence in this country, I’ve grown up and I’ve been educated here; that I intend on pursuing something good not only for me but for society as a life mission; and that I have this chance to do good with my one life now, which I intend on living as best as possible. Wherever this life leads, I’m looking forward to making good on my chances. And chances are, with the right determination and balance, and the right sense of humanity, I might just make it.

Gaston Lopez, Quest Scholar, Carleton ’17