KALAMAZOO, MI, February 20, 2017 – While flying across the globe as an international recruiter for a large Midwestern University, passing through countries and their immigration checkpoints is a frequent occurrence. It is hard to miss that every official at any U.S. Immigration checkpoint is big, burly, super-fit, and packing a gun.
Entering the U.S. at a busy airport, usually at the tail end of an exhausting multi-week trip, stumbling along on my 16th consecutive (and counting) travel hour, wearing the same old clothes, the same uncomfortable shoes, the only goal is to just reach my final destination, take a shower, and collapse into bed.
Plodding through a busy airport, feeling travel miserable, there is absolutely no possible way that I am intending to pick a fight with any DHS official. Not even close. The Customs and Border guards are intimidating even to me, a naturalized U.S. citizen.
I am not about to be rude in any way to our protean border troops. Why? The obvious, DHS is there doing a job but also because I am tired and just want to get home and take a shower as soon as physically possible.
That’s why it’s so hard for me to shake that image of students and family members gathering up luggage, waiting patiently in line to leave the airplane and then walking down those narrow airport hallways to the U.S. immigration checkpoint, only to find that their legal visas were no longer valid.
I can’t remove that image of a big, burly, super-fit Department of Homeland Security agent packing a gun, towering over a student who is handcuffed to a chair
I can’t stop thinking of the confusion, fear, pain, and, most of all, fatigue that these students and family members felt as they wondered how things had gone so wrong and when they would be able to sleep again.
I felt extreme empathy while witnessing their plight.
When I complained to a friend about Executive Order 13769 and the unexpected detentions that it caused, he simply said well, they’re from failed states, so of course.
I thought about that term, “failed states,” and how its abstract quality seemed to sanitize what was happening. But I had to ask, were these detained students and family members in fact “failed states”?
Or were they instead success stories, people who had saved money for college and successfully passed the visa interview and college application process, all in order to get a better education in the U.S.
And wasn’t this desire for success, this quest to do better, something that unites us all? For don’t we all dream of getting a good education and a good job so that we can start a family and live a happy life?
And yet if, despite these shared dreams and similar desires, we still decide to chain these people to a chair and tower over them with a gun, isn’t it then true that it’s our country, our state, and not theirs, which has in fact failed?
Tom Marks is a U.S. citizen who has worked in international education since 1985, and is the Director of the Center for English Language & Culture for International Students at Western Michigan University.