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*Insert Immigrant’s Name Here* is Dead
A New Life
One night this summer, at Young Centre in downtown Toronto, I watched a Soulpepper Theatre production of the 1972 play, Sizwe Bansi is Dead. The play, set in apartheid South Africa, tells the story of the eponymous protagonist, a Black man from a small town who lacks the appropriate legal documentation to stay in Port Elizabeth, a city of opportunities. With the threat of deportation looming, Sizwe must not only cease to exist, he must also resurrect Robert Zwelinzima, a dead stranger whose record card grants lawful stay in the city. As I watched Sizwe negotiate compromises to make his (legal) death more palatable, I was struck by the many parallels between his dilemma and my experience of immigrant life in America.
I moved to NYC in 2016 on a student visa for a master’s degree program. In the excitement leading up to this new phase of my life and career, I forgot to consider the social consequences that my new legal status—non-permanent immigrant—heralded. Once I arrived, however, I came to quick appreciation of the Faustian nature of the bargain I had made with America: freedoms, taken for granted in Nigeria, had been traded in for the promise of knowledge. In America, my immigration documents became the new author of my fate. My world was bounded by words on paper—I could get an education but only at a specifically named and approved institution; I could work but only for a specific number of hours doing specific things at specific places; I could leave the country but with no guarantee of re-entry. And the expiration—God forbid—of these documents meant, in practical terms, that my life came to a hard stop.
For immigrants living in America, ordinary moments of daily life can quickly tumble into a nightmare. I remember the story of a young lady who went to a military base to attend a friend’s bridal shower. At the gates, she presented her ID-card as required. But when her details were imputed into the security system, it revealed that she had no lawful permit to remain in the United States. She was immediately arrested and subsequently placed in deportation proceedings. The person who told me the story narrated it with a tinge of blame towards the young lady, as if she should have known better. There is common wisdom that guide immigrants to America which the young lady had somehow, apparently, failed to heed. But, as far as I could understand, the woman had simply forgotten that her old free self was dead and in its place was a new stilted reality in which even shared joy was a dangerous thing. And this scared me because I too did not know, at the time, that if my visa expired, then even the freedom to celebrate with a friend became curtailed.
There are different deaths that confront the immigrant to America. Sometimes, like with Sizwe, these deaths take the form of assuming someone else’s identity, because this someone else holds a work permit or green card or the oh-so-coveted blue passport. Other times, we swap out our real names, accents, clothes, food—our real selves—for something more American, so we can access spaces and people that recoil against difference. A more common death is the social death where the immigrant no longer knows their place in the new world; our values from home morph into stumbling blocks to be defeated. The solid sense of dignity from many years of living full and free lives is chipped away, bit by bit, and traded in for daily bread. Our old selves die; we become someone new and unfamiliar, better suited to negotiate the new and unfamiliar reality of life abroad.
I moved to America nestled in dreams of building a career in Intellectual Property law. I filled my master’s degree curriculum with IP courses and when I graduated, I applied for IP roles. The first few months of post-graduation were silent. Then I learned to blur out the foreignness from my resumé—the details of my Nigerian education and experience I re-characterized as “international,” evoking the idea that I was a woman with vast and varied legal experiences. And when I learned to do this effectively, the calls to interview started trickling in.
Yet, at those interviews, I couldn’t avoid the one question that signaled the end of the road—will you require the firm to apply for a work permit on your behalf? The answer was yes. However, at my first few interviews, I answered yes but explained that I wouldn’t require one until my one-year post-graduation work permit expired. I also assured that I was willing to provide all necessary documentation and assistance to navigate the immigration process. I quickly learned that instead of soothing anxieties as intended, the answer signaled a future of immigration paperwork that American firms dread. In later interviews, I answered the work permit question with a simple yes and waited to receive the email where the firm would tell me, reasons unspecified, that while I was a remarkable candidate, they had chosen a different direction. The “Nos” kept piling in until I met N.
She ran a boutique civil litigation practice close to Wall Street. When I told her I would need a work permit, she brushed it off: “my best friend is an immigration attorney, he can take care of that.” As the interview came to an end, she asked when I could start. I resumed the following Monday. N remains a bright spot in my memory of New York. I am grateful to and for her. I said this to her once, as we drove back to the office from court, and she rolled her eyes at me. “You do good work,” she said, “you are a good lawyer.” Then she turned up the volume of the radio.
Right? Wrong? Or Just Gray
The temporary immigrant exists in perpetual limbo; the license to stay is discretionary and can be yanked away at any time. We are at the behest of the stamp wielding officer who can, with one slam of fist against desk, declare: “approved!” or “denied!” The immigrant’s life is built from materials so flimsy it cannot even withstand the weight of stamp ink, one stamp too many and our lives crumble. The dust soils our clothes and hovers heavy around us as we hurry out of the country; proper goodbyes are an indulgence, dignity is too expensive.
I entered America towards the tail end of the Obama presidency, when the 2016 election campaigns were in full swing. Clinton was the democratic candidate and Trump, the republican. The republicans, of course, won. I remember how quickly it all spiraled after Trump’s victory was announced. Protests sprung from every corner, one such protest happened at Washington Square Park, in front of my school. The school administration sent out an urgent email to immigrants advising us against attending protests; our ephemeral legal status meant that if we were arrested at a protest, we would be vulnerable to deportation proceedings.
I was in the library when I read the email and I do not think I had planned to attend the protest until that email came in. I have always considered the right to protest an essential aspect of free speech, so the email felt like a challenge to that conviction. I packed up from the library and made my way to the park, huddled against the cold evening air of New York in November. But I did not protest. I stayed close to the edge of the park and watched protesters march with placards raised high. I mouthed chants but swallowed the sounds because the school’s email had taken on the specter of a deportation agent waiting until my voice became too loud before it pounced. And thus I learned how thin the immigrant’s dignity is. Whatever sense of pride or justice drove me out of the library and towards the park was mere smoke quickly vaporizing in the cold evening wind. If I could not join the comrades with my full chest, was I truly protesting? Was it protest if I was already setting myself up to deny my protesting? I left the park and went home.
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Returning to Self
I left America in 2021, at about the bleakest point in the Covid-19 global pandemic. By that time, America had changed me. I knew grief much more intimately than I ever wanted to. I understood depression as a tangible thing—thick, heavy, and hard to break. I knew loss. I knew rage. I also knew good things: the smallness of being in the midst of tall trees in the middle of a hike; the fulfilment of renting a one-bedroom flat in Brooklyn and decorating it as I liked, and then hosting friends in the space. I knew how my voice massaged by years of legal education, and my mind honed on books, could impact society.
I had started to do small activist things again. Like swiping folks through the subway turnstile when I was exiting. Like standing and glaring at police officers, phone held up, as they gathered to eject a houseless person from their corner of the street. I was still “non-permanent” in the US, but I was no longer intimidated by the ephemeralness of my life. When the #ENDSARS protest started in Nigeria, I was feverishly online; I debated with family and friends, sharing ideas about how we could win the fight. I made a video from my NYC apartment and published it for my tiny online audience. I created a text template from the video and shared it with family and friends so they too could make videos. When the movement called for a protest in NYC, I made placards from old Amazon delivery boxes and marched across Manhattan to the Nigerian consulate, chanting against police brutality. When a supporter of a Nigerian activist turned politician attempted to co-opt the protest for their purposes, I raised the call—END SARS—that drowned their voice.
I wanted to do more, do it all. If COVID was heralding an apocalypse, I wanted to go down fighting for things that were important to me. I had legs that could march, but I also had hands that could write. I started researching the history of police violence in Nigeria to understand why police reform continued to fail. It soon became obvious that, to do the research as I wanted to do it, I would need more time and dedicated attention. I decided to return to school for another graduate degree, and so I packed up my apartment and left the country.
Before I resumed in the graduate program, I returned to Nigeria—I explained it to a friend as “I just needed to touch the soil again before I move to another country.” I stayed about six weeks in Isęyin, a rural town in Ọyọ state under the auspices of an art residency program. Isęyin is less than an hour from my ancestral village, also in Ọyọ state. So, I visited. I saw my grandfather’s grave and the old and odd collection of furniture from my childhood home in Lagos. I saw where I had etched my name on the top surface of a chest of drawers, short and black, that now sat in the hallway of the village home. I couldn’t remember when I wrote my name, but I imagined that my parents would have raged against me for defacing the furniture. They would have called me strongheaded for doing something I knew they disapproved of. And I took the dusty, peeling surface as tangible evidence that I was something, rebellious and strongheaded, before America happened. By the time I left Ọyọ, I felt grounded, convinced, and ready.
I am still in the graduate program in a new country. In the first leg of my research, I studied the failure of police reform in Nigeria and connected it to the country’s history of British colonization. In this second phase, I am looking at other ways colonialism has settled in Nigeria. My life feels less transient. In early 2023, I visited NYC—a detour, as I returned to school from a conference in Texas. I was surprised to be so disoriented by the city’s hurried energy. I lost my way on the train and around the city a few times. I was no longer a New Yorker; my new city was changing me.
I stayed in Brooklyn while I was in New York, with a childhood friend. I visited old routines—hiking in Prospect Park; reading by the water fountain at Washington Square Park; book browsing at Strand in downtown Manhattan. I also visited my old office. It was empty, dark, and quiet, as if still frozen in the eeriness of the pandemic even as the rest of the world opened up. Only two people were in, one of them was N. I asked about old friends and colleagues and they got me caught up. Then I asked about J, a charismatic and boisterous criminal defense attorney who had an uncanny ability to make big legal problems seem small. He was tall and broad with a booming laugh. I knew it even before my question was answered, from the sag of shoulders and turning of necks, from invisible spots that suddenly became interesting, and eyes that couldn’t stop blinking, I knew that J was no more.
As I understand it, the world in pandemic was too much to bear, and on one night, it must have seemed to him that it would be better if he left altogether. He passed in 2022. When I lived in NYC, grappling as I was with the limitations of my life as an immigrant, it had not occurred to me that life could change so suddenly, so permanently, for folks like J, whose lives were not similarly curtailed. I saw the many deaths the country dealt to immigrants. I paid attention to how, like Sizwe, we had to become different people so quickly and so often. But I had not considered that citizens living in their own country and living in the same place they had lived for decades, were also dying their own small deaths, until there was no further dying possible, just that final one that led to permanent absence.
When I returned to Brooklyn, I told my friend about my day, including about J. I told her he was a good man who talked about his family often, and with a smile. He loved finely dressed people and was frequently finely dressed himself. He was the president of this organization, and an executive in that. He was the life of the party in the office, always fully present in every room. And yet, he is no more.
Perhaps we are all immigrants in this world. Life, after all, is just a marketplace; heaven is home. I trust that J is home.