The Chronicle Review

What It Feels Like to Live in Limbo

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

February 08, 2017

If one leaves in the morning, the U.S. embassy in Lebanon is only a short drive north of Beirut; but in the afternoon, the coastal highway is clogged with traffic. The embassy sits on a calm, residential hill. Two parking lots across the street compete for its numerous daily visitors. In one sits a makeshift coffee shop where an old, rangy man offers glass bottles of Coca-Cola and unsolicited advice about visa documents and the best time to start queuing up.

The line often extends beyond the hallway into the building and out onto the street, a particularly unpleasant wait in the sweltering heat of summer and the torrential rains of winter. Since cellphones are not allowed, people chat to pass the time, sharing plans, dreams, and sorrows. I always found the officers controlling the queues and performing the first check to be kind and polite, unusually so for embassy guards who often tend to act like little tyrants, taking pleasure in turning people away for the smallest reasons — a photocopy of a missing document or a wrong-size photo.

The waiting room inside the embassy, reached via a labyrinth of narrow hallways and security checkpoints, looks like one in a hospital, with rows of plastic seats fixed to the floor. It feels like a hospital, too, where patients await their diagnoses, or like a classroom at the end of a marking period, when students wait to find out whether they’ve passed.

Worried they’ll miss their names’ being mispronounced by the American officers, anxious applicants hush the chatterers. Most of the interviews are witnessed by all, and the verdict, often quick, lightens the steps of some applicants and weighs down the unfortunate others as they make their way to the door, congratulated or consoled by those still in line. How many tearful exits have I witnessed during the years, hopes and dreams shattered by a bureaucrat standing behind an oval window, brandishing the power of that resonant "no," followed by neither justification nor apology.

All that separates me from those fleeing or visiting from the executive order's target countries is the arbitrary stroke of one man's pen.
Because of my affiliation with various American universities over the years, my visa application was always approved. Consular officers seemed almost relieved to review my file, with the relevant forms already filled out by trusted American university officials. In fact, more than once the officer had attended the same school where I was studying or teaching, turning my interview into a friendly chat. But it never actually got comfortable. It was difficult to forget, even for a moment, the officer’s brandishing of that stamp necessary to the continuity of my career — of my life. And it was impossible to block out the sobs of others. I felt my luck like a wound on my side.

The second stage of the encounter with the immigration behemoth happened at airports. Immigration officers there would often ask one of two well-meaning questions: Was Beirut still the Paris of the Middle East? And — when they learned that I was studying political science — was it possible to be a female politician in Lebanon? But every once in a while, I would be taken in for further questioning, for no clear reason.

I couldn’t win in calling one place or the other home. Once an officer in Boston asked me why I had gone to Lebanon for the winter break, and when I responded that it was "home," he snapped, "But you live here now." Another officer asked me why I was coming to Washington, and when I explained, "I live here," she snarled, "You only live here because you work here."

The system mostly worked smoothly for me until one episode years ago, in which I found myself in a sort of immigration limbo. The details of the episode are too personal and complicated to relate, but, to put it simply, I was changing from one immigration status to another, and it was not clear what my status in between the two was.

The uncertainty lasted for months, during which three lawyers gave me conflicting advice. One asserted that I was unlawfully present in the United States, and that if I left, I would not be allowed back in for at least three years. I spent hours reading the laws and learned that immigration officers have a lot of discretion based on their determination of your supposed "intent." I sought answers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, receiving a first response a long six months later. It was another few months before my case was cleared and it was determined that I had never been unlawful.

In the meantime, however, I spent many nights crying myself to sleep, had nightmares about being taken away to jail, missed the funeral of a dear uncle who passed away in Lebanon while my case was pending, and, finally, had to risk missing my own dissertation defense, having gone home to apply for a new visa.

I now have a green card, having transitioned from nonresident alien (twice the words needed to tell you that you don’t belong) to permanent resident (twice the words needed to tell you that you do). Yet the president’s recent executive order on immigration reminds me of the precariousness of my status here, and has brought back all those memories of tense interactions with immigration officials. Lebanon wasn’t on Trump’s list — this time. I am, for the moment, spared that cruelty, as I have been spared, at least since the end of my own country’s protracted civil war, the conflicts that those from the listed countries are fleeing from.

But I am a Muslim, and an immigrant. My older brother is also a permanent resident here. My younger brother is here on a student visa. My parents have visited on tourist visas in the past couple of years — to attend my dissertation defense, my older brother’s marriage, my marriage, and, most recently, to meet my four-month-old niece.

All that separates me from those fleeing or visiting from the executive order’s target countries is the arbitrary stroke of one man’s pen. That wound on my side tugs at me as I wonder about their lives and their futures.

Loubna El Amine is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.