On Solid Ground: Reflections on an Easter Monday in America

Lamb roast or turkey thighs? Young children could be picky eaters. Maybe I should text my friend and ask, but it was late. They’d be fast asleep. And what about sides? Potatoes? Rice? Yes, rice would be good. A simple green salad. Fruit. A bottle of wine for my friend and her partner.

We’d known each other for close to twenty years. She was working on her dissertation when we first met in Berlin. I was a performance artist and made my living teaching English in Germany. I bumped into her on the street near my apartment in Prenzlauer Berg and handed her a postcard for my latest show. She came and sat in the first row.

Shortly after that we became friends. We met each week for coffee and had dinner parties at her studio. She would share what she was working on, a treatise on the psychology of everyday racism that went on to become required reading in university classrooms on several continents. When I moved back to the United States, we kept in touch, but barely. When the group email message announcing the birth of her children showed up in my inbox, I was thrilled.

Four years later my friend had become an internationally renowned visual artist. She had an exhibition opening at the Guggenheim, and she and her partner decided to make a family vacation of it. They bought tickets for themselves and their two children, both under six, and rented an apartment a mere ten minutes’ walk from my co-op in Flatbush. I imagined lunch on Easter Monday, grazing long and leisurely over the meal Berlin-style, before going out for a walk in the park. On Saturday night, I made a mental note to take both the lamb and the turkey out of the freezer first thing in the morning, just to be safe. Then I went to sleep.

On Sunday morning, I received a message from my friend on WhatsApp. “There are new US border policies,” she wrote, “and our children were not allowed to fly with a normal passport and ESTA visa. They now demand an extra visa for small children/families that takes several months to be ready. I’m really astonished with the US politics now!” There would be no vacation, no Easter Monday meal. The four flights they’d purchased, the rental fees for the apartment, a total of over $5,000, they were forced to forfeit. They were now back home in Berlin, trying to explain to their kids why they were not going to New York after all and why they were not going to meet the English-speaking friend they’d heard so much from their mother about.

I read and re-read the message. Was this for real? Of course it was. I knew it was, even as I called my friend and expressed my disbelief. She was exhausted, she said. She’d been awake since dawn, getting the kids ready, heading off to the airport, only to be told by sympathetic German border personnel that it would be against the law to let her family fly on an ESTA and even if they did fly, they would be detained upon arrival at the US border and forced to take the next flight back to Berlin. They were one of many families who had had the door slammed in their faces like this. For months, they had been preparing for this trip. No one had informed them that there was anything required other than the ESTA. No one had told them about any kind of new policy about bringing children to the United States. They were from Germany, a western European country that enjoyed, or had enjoyed, special privileges when it came to traveling to the United States. They had return tickets, four of them, and plenty of evidence to show they had no wish to settle permanently in New York or anywhere else in the fifty states. The whole thing felt like a set-up, a trap.

My friend was tired, outraged, shocked. If this is how it is for those of us coming from Europe, she said, imagine what it must be like for people coming from other places, places demonized in the American imagination, dubbed “shithole countries” by the president himself. Imagine, indeed. I thought of my colleague, a doctoral candidate from Mexico, who had booked himself an impromptu vacation at the end of May. Travel restrictions on green card holders like himself were about to go into effect, he said, and once they did, who knew when he’d be able to make it back to Mexico? His plan was to spend as much time with his father as he could before US policy paralyzed him indefinitely. Should he return home for a visit after the new policy was put into place, even if his father became deathly ill, he would put everything dependent on his status, including his career, his studies, his marriage, and his livelihood, at risk.

“So, I’m going on vacation,” he said with a force pleasantness I had grown to associate with him. My colleague was the type who was upbeat all the time. Ask him how he was, and the answer was a series of goods shot off in threes: “Goodgoodgood!” Sometimes he said it so fast, the d’s got lost, and what came out was a stutter, like someone trying to say “good” and choking on the word instead.

My friend and I talked for an hour. Mostly I listened. I thought of her kids and how I had imagined enlisting their help setting the table for our meal. I thought of how this would have been the first time my friend had ever set foot in my home, the first time she would’ve seen photographs of my family on the wall. She would’ve seen the mask she brought me from Mozambique long ago propped on the shelf, the delicate vase she had given me as a gift not far from it. I thought of how much I’d looked forward to walking with her family through the neighborhood, past the old Victorian houses, along the bustle of Flatbush Avenue, around the roller-skating rink in the park. It all felt like a foolish fantasy now, the kind of middle-class dream you might find in a travel brochure or a furniture catalogue. I felt like an idiot for having such dreams while the border policies my tax dollars paid for dolled out senseless punishments to families like my friend’s and my colleague’s.
And their punishments were nowhere near the worst.

After my friend and I hung up, I searched online for information about visas for children traveling with their families to the United States. I finally found it on the website for the US Embassy and Consulate in Germany: Kids traveling with a passport issued after 2006 need to apply for a visa and are not eligible under the Visa Waiver Program. It was the last option in the drop-down menu. It was also written in a banner on the right-hand side of the page. I had performed nine online searches to locate it.

The Office of International Services at the university where I work, and most other offices that perform similar functions, I imagine, would tell me that the onus is on the applicant to inform themselves about the documentation required for international travel. The requirements are not kept secret: they are public information, posted on embassy and consulate websites for all to see. You can find out for yourself or you can go to the embassy and ask. You can even hire an immigration lawyer if all else fails. No doubt this is true. The onus is indeed on the traveler, and yes, all the information you need is available at the click of a mouse, or in this case, nine clicks. But what happens when the standards of the country in question are not just double standards, but a three-dimensional mess that changes its shape according to the unpredictable whims of a sociopath commander-in-chief? If I wanted to travel to Berlin tomorrow, I could pack my bags and do so without giving a thought to the visa requirements. I need only Google “Americans traveling to Germany visa” and the first hit that pops up is a reminder of the Schengen Agreement and reassurance that I can visit my friends without a visa, just as I have for the last twenty years. The sand may shift, but never under my feet. In a country that claims to be a democracy, a champion of diversity, we stand rooted on solid ground and watch while our friends and colleagues slide and sink.

It’ll be turkey for one this Easter Monday. My friend and her family will never see the inside of my home or walk through my neighborhood. Why would they want to after all? There are any number of friendlier places on the planet they could pay good money to visit: South Africa, Brazil, Portugal, China. Meanwhile, we in the United States are getting exactly what we asked for. We voted for isolation, we’ve got it. We chose to be on our own. So we are.