The President and I

Finding home in alienation

by Abubakr Ali

May 2nd, 2021

 Illustration by Amey Mhatre

“His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.”

Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham

 

Travel Ban - Executive Order 13769

 

Enclosed in the bubble of elite higher education, I never saw the first assault coming: the ‘Muslim Ban’. Wrought in legal jargon and laced with bigotry, the blanket prohibition of citizens from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen into the US designated them as chief exporters of terrorism and hence a threat. My country was included in the list, one of that infamous group of mortal enemies of the United States who were under permanent economic sanctions. The blunt discriminatory reach of the law was devastating. Flustered, upset, I watched as plans I had for my final semester disintegrated. I would not be able to travel with my peers for our studio project nor would my family be able to watch me graduate.. With mere flicks of a fountain pen Trump had irrevocably altered my immediate future. With that opening salvo he succeeded not only in severing the tenuous connection I had with family back home but also in sowing the seeds of fear and resentment in the back of my mind. These feelings, latent and subdued, germinated, inflaming the preexisting animosity I had towards my ‘lowly’ origins in Sudan, and more so towards the sympathies of my American colleagues.

These feelings, latent and subded, germinated, inflaming the preexisting animosity I had towards

my ‘lowly’ origins in Sudan and more so towards

the meekly expressed sympathies of my American colleagues.

This marked the start of multiple run-ins with the orange haired devil and the waves of change he was riding. On his coattails came the immigration reformers, the white supremacists and the disaster profiteers. A medley of America's worst sins slavering over the vulnerable.

A medley of America's worst sins slavering

over the vulnerable.

Trump and his belching proclamations would invade my brain incessantly over the next 4 years, gnawing away at the edges of my sanity. Mobilising the same forces that delivered him his position, he preyed incessantly on those he deemed undeserving of the "American” dream He moved fast, issuing executive orders, proclamations and instituting rule changes. Libertarian scholar Clyde Wane Crews, Jr coined the term “regulatory dark matter” to describe the internal guidance, memos, bulletins, circular and other such documents subject to little scrutiny or democratic accountability. His primary target of this critique was perceived overreach from democratic presidents. Ironically, it was this dark matter that formed the bulk of Trump’s work, functioning as the invisible and effective counterpart to his executive orders. In the obscure bureaucratic realms of federal law, he made devastating changes and successfully embedded his exclusionary agenda within immigration law.

Empathy - Executive Order 13767

As Trump continued to occupy media in his favourite forms—TV and Twitter—turning a pretty profit for them all, I developed a sixth sense, for information on immigration policies. Always alert for headlines announcing Trump’s latest executive order, or tracking down the updates on existing orders. For months I devoured a steady diet of memos, executive orders, proclamations and court rulings. I dove in a confused panic down the bedazzled websites of law firms, parsing through pseudo legal advice and explanations for yet another obscure rule change. It soon became clear to me that I was not the primary target of America’s white anger. Instead before me, the oft  ignored  stories of foreign workers, refugees, asylum seekers, minors, and separated families unfolded—all people of colour, all from what they call the Global South, staggering, just as I was, under the binding chains of immigration law.


 

I dug deeper into their harrowing stories. Slowly I started to get accustomed to them; they were no longer the faceless mass of “unfortunates' or political talking points for the frenzied American media. They were Anita and Jenri, a mother and son separated at the border when they sought asylum in America. Reports of Jenri’s violent separation and his debilitating trauma left me shattered. Then there was Ahmed Salah Hassan, a refugee from Somalia whose name rang with a bitter familiarity, who sought to escape the violence in his home country. Instead he was deported, his case rejected and would later lose his life, engulfed in the violence he was escaping. These lives, woven together from articles, podcasts and images told me a now recurrent story of nascent hope ruthlessly squashed. Slowly, they coalesced into an awareness of the extent of the damage caused by this constant deluge of cruelty. Families separated, children traumatised and my own deepening anxiety. All of us cowering under a shared menace, painfully cognisant of the fragility of our lives.

Families separated, children traumatised and

my own deepening anxiety. All of us cowering

under a shared menace, painfully cognizant of

the fragility of our lives.

Yet a deeper immersion in these stories, their presence within a click as it were, revealed a more compelling and unexpected phenomenon. Featuring  another cast of characters: lawyers, social workers and activists, all mobilizing to assist those unfairly targeted by these policies. All similarly dogged, empathetic and resourceful individuals that battled and manoeuvred their way through the regulatory dark matter. They descended upon airports and crossing points, offering their assistance to asylum seekers. These were heroic characters, woefully uncharismatic but incredibly capable and dedicated . Their modus operandi was quotidian, filing injunctions and lawsuits, organizing protests and soliciting signatures for petitions. Everyday actions that drew little attention, but were carried out to great effect. Yet within their relentless drive one could nurture the seeds of human decency.  It is tempting to speculate on what pushed them to such action but their efforts unearthed within me  a peculiar trust in the abundant kindness of strangers.

Uncertainty

The noose tightened. Restrictions on visas were increased and so did my alienation from my home country. I could still steal visits back home, each time planning well in advance my appointments at embassies, my bag stuffed with every shred of evidence that proved my legal status as a foreign worker in the US. Receipts for mattresses I had delivered to my home, copies of my lease and my New York subway card. All shared the same “evidence” dossier that was to support my account.

Receipts for mattresses I had delivered to my

home, copies of my lease and my New York

subway card. All shared the same “evidence”

dossier that was to support my account.

I would watch, on my phone, laptop or on social media as a populist revolution would take place in my home country. This revolution was fully televised, in fact, it was transmitted in all forms of media available for consumption, inciting an prolonged paranoia that exacerbated my alienated condition. Trapped, I would count the days on the short swift trips doled out by my stingy white American employers. Visits during which I would attempt to piece together mangled memories of a past life. Instead, these short stints of enforced resettlement further revealed my growing incompatibility to my home. My memories grew thinner, bland and harder to evoke. Trump had successfully wedged himself at the crossroads of my future. I was now a foreigner, of both the countries I had lived in.

I was now a foreigner, of both the countries I had lived in.

Limbo - Proclamation 10052

 

The final assault felt inevitable. Firmly in the thick of the COVID Pandemic, without a job and my funds running low, I was at my most vulnerable. It was logical therefore that this would be the moment Trump would make his biggest move yet. Finally, he came for me. This time, citing the emergency of the pandemic he instituted a blanket ban on working visas. I could no longer exchange my only possession the US saw some value in: my labor. Thrust into a sudden limbo, I was rendered, in plain economic terms, worthless. Consequent job interviews became a pageantry of skill and promised devotion for my prospective employers. It was no longer enough to prove that I was capable of “doing the job”, I had to plead for the favour of sponsorship. Now, here, the sweat, blood and money invested to secure my opportunities amounted to nothing. My elite education, my intellect, my talent, my love for my field, all reduced to my alien status.

 

These periods were dotted with episodes of deranged despair, commencing without fail, in the early hours of the morning. I fought these moments of helplessness with small bursts of concentrated hope and optimism. Oscillating between fogs of serenity and bouts of mindless panic. To grasp onto a measure of sanity I sought to make room for the new ever changing moods that occupied my brain. Making space for fear to be expressed and frustration to be acknowledged. For them to sit quietly, alongside the depleting reserves of hope and contentment.  I found strength in the stories of a community that long battled this dehumanisation. They had marched on insistently, staking their right for a happy life and walking the path to that destination without stumbling. It was a great measure of relief to realise that I was but one of many facing these challenges. This shared struggle now seemed surmountable. I found solidarity with their struggle even when painfully reminded of my privileged position in regards to most.

My case was but one of many, tragically recurring through the years, to the point of cliché. I remained in limbo, suspended in a state of alienation but I knew that from that well of collective resilience I could always draw on the valuable knowledge and wisdom of my fellow aliens.

Note from the Editor

Aastha D

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