The Invisible Immigrant
by Vanessa McKiel
We’re at the border. My heart quickens. I feel light-headed. My mouth suddenly feels parched. There is that prickly hot feeling of panic seeping outward from the very center of my stomach as we wait in line for the next immigration official. But I am a citizen now, I remind myself. They cannot deny me entry. This knowledge does not assuage the raw fear that I still feel. What if my children can enter but they deny me? I am surprised by how irrational that thought now is and how suddenly it just appears. It’s the post-traumatic stress syndrome of the transplanted alien; somehow it always finds me.
We’re at the Canada-US border. I can’t be much more specific than that, other than to say it’s the Montréal - US border. It’s one of those peculiar airport crossings where you legally cross from Canada into the United States without having to geographically leave Canada at all. You check in, bumble through security, and then pass through customs & immigration - assuming that they let you in - and there you are: on this American Island, surrounded by Canada. You can even continue to spend your loonies on over-taxed tea in the departure lounge of the island. You are nowhere in the United States in Canada.
So, we’re at the Montréal-US border. The cacophony of airport noise—beeps, clangs, stamps, fragments of announcements—mesdames et messieurs, votre attention s’il vous plaît, c’est le dernier appel pour le vol 424 à destination Chicago—all resonate somewhere above my light head. We take two steps forward in the line so that now we face the replica of the Statue of Liberty. That French announcement is there, swirling around her crown, and I wonder if she has been here long enough to be fluent in both of Canada’s official languages. Though I then suppose it was French that she knew and she had to learn English, being a transplant herself. She looks down upon me with a very scrutinizing gaze and seems to say: “Well, here you are again. Why not just move back?”
“It’s not that simple,” I answer. I realize I’ve mumbled this out loud when my daughter asks me who I am talking to.
“The Statue of Liberty,” I say as matter-of-factly as I can manage.
My daughter looks worried. “What are you talking about, momma? You told us we shouldn’t joke around at security and immigration.”
This dear child of mine, usually so confident when her feet are firmly rooted in the green, mossy earth of the Pacific Northwest, has known only one home her entire decade of life. She stands there looking at me with such an unsettled expression. It is the first time I see her looking unsure on her feet, so vulnerable and out of place, standing here in my homeland.
I try to imagine what it must be like to be from just one place. It was just a couple of months ago that I stood in this very same spot, under the questioning eyes of said Statue of Liberty, standing beside the same limp American flag with the same layer of dust I noticed last time. That flag seems somehow so out of place here in Montréal. The immigration border agent took my passport and in one fluid motion deftly opened it to the official photograph page, surveyed it with a very practiced eye, and then, turned that practiced eye upon me. There followed an eternal moment. One filled with flashbacks to the hours of my life spent stumbling over questions at various border crossings, to the helplessness of being denied access to a flight, to immigration interviews and tests for HIV and TB. Then suddenly, I could just see a very subtle shift in the size of the pupil of that practiced eye. The survey of the real me was completed and was accurately integrated with the passport photo of me. Something very slight in the immigration official’s gaze relaxed as he asked me, “Where’s home?”
I wondered if that agent, with his trained, practiced eye on the real me, could see the uncertainty that this simple question had plunged me into. The truthful answer to his question made my mind race a thousand miles and more: home is where the heart is. But my heart is here in Montréal, tobogganing down a wintry slope on Mount Royal; it is drinking maple sap from icy buckets in the spring woods; it is picking ox-eye daisies in the sunny fields with mom; it is galloping flat out through red leaves in Glengarry county; it is in the shadow of the highest mountain on earth where I met my husband; it is in our house in Portland with the growing souls of our three young children. It is all of that and more in a fraction of a second as my mouth thankfully gets to the finish line first and somehow dutifully answers, “Portland,” while all these thoughts of homes I’ve lived in race, wildly out of breath, to catch up.
“Welcome back,” he said as he handed me my passport—the American one, of course. But that practiced eye followed me into the hall of departure gates. I felt like that eye was still on me as I sat at my gate, geographically in Montréal but legally in the United States, awaiting my flight home from home.
Another two steps forward in line and I am brought back to the present, now under the questioning gazes of both my daughter as well as the Statue of Liberty.
“What’s not so simple?” my daughter queries persistently.
“Travel, these days,” I reply distractedly. “It used to be more straightforward and way less expensive,” I continue but then wonder if that is really true or simply the difference of being the overburdened, responsible adult rather than my younger unencumbered self. But my daughter seems satisfied with this exchange; the Lady Liberty, however, does not. She is clearly still awaiting a more truthful answer.
“I had to leave Montréal to become who I am,” I inform her under my breath, as I think to myself, answer the question only, offer nothing more. Truthfully though, I became who I am precisely because I left. I realize I have lived in Montréal so long that it will always be home but I have lived in Portland longer even than that, so now it is home, but not. I am Canadian, but not. I am American, but not. I am the invisible immigrant, no longer really even able to go home. But if home is that perfect place somewhere in your childhood, where you have not yet seen the underside of life, where you are unconditionally loved and free to live in the moment, unfiltered, then none of us can ever go home because home exists as a place in time more than a geographic place.
We are next in line. The Statue of Liberty from this vantage point thankfully can no longer see me directly. I grace her with one last glance and see that she is now simply watching the dust gather on the American flag beside her. I watch each immigration official—which one will be the one we get? Please let it be number three, I pray to the Lady Liberty, my lucky number. Then I will know that it is a sign that we will be allowed to cross without ordeal. I appeal to Lady Liberty to make agent number three hurry up and the rest of them to slow down. I pray that we are all accepted back into the United States and not rejected. This is the cost of transplantation—it can be life-giving but there is forever the fear of rejection.
It is agent number four who finishes first and waves us forward. Thanks for nothing, I silently say to Lady Liberty as I usher my children ahead of me. Send the natives to the frontline—their confidence will distract the enemy. Three natives and one transplant makes four, so agent four is going to be good luck! I irrationally reason as the hot panic spills over in my stomach and these PTSD-like thoughts that have hijacked my mind carry me forward. I reach over the heads of the natives in front of me and hand four American passports to immigration agent number four.
“What was the purpose of your trip?” immigration agent number four asks crisply.
“Visiting family,” I reply as Americanly as I can. I try to look taller. Will that help? What I want to say is that we were visiting dying family who can no longer travel, that this trip cost me two months salary, much heartache and more gray to my hair. I want to say I had hoped this visit would convey some understanding of my childhood home to my children. I want to ask how you say goodbye when you think it is the last time you will see someone you love. I want to be the one questioning the immigration agent: how do you know you are home? But I have crossed the Canada-US border too many times and in too many permutations to know that I must answer the question simply and offer nothing more.
Immigration agent number four’s eye has breezed over my passport photo and the real me in mere nanoseconds this time but his poker face is struggling a bit with reconciling my youngest child’s toddler photo with the lanky spitfire that faces him. Not a word. Another one of those eternal moments holds us in suspended animation and we are all so still that an old-time photographer could easily capture this. Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island could be the caption. Then, very suddenly and brusquely, the immigration official stuffs our customs form and boarding passes into the passport pile and hands me the lot, his poker face dissolving into a warm smile. “Welcome home,” he says.
Relief drenches me completely, washing away the panic that had spilled in my stomach as well as the tension I hadn’t even realized was splinting the muscles in my wobbly legs. I manage a grateful smile. Welcome home I repeat to myself as we walk further into the United States in Canada. And I realize that we truly are as home as we will ever be—dual citizens, natives and transplants, standing in two countries at the same time, waiting to go home. We are all always waiting to go home.