Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Different Kind of Border Patrol (Of Bodies and Borders Part III)

This is a guest post from Tassja

I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution. 

As a decolonizing Womanist, global race relations are something I try processing every day. I spent most of my life in Dubai, which was, among many things a transnational hub made up of a largely expatriate community, a capitalist’s wet dream, and a city of labor abuses so appalling that the government engages in active misinformation about the reality of human rights violations.
Even before I attended college and read critical race theory / post-colonial theory and politicized my experience, I lived with a burgeoning sense of frustration, of limitedness, of anger. I realize now that this comes from being a marginalized body. What I want to discuss in this post is how marginalized bodies experience restrictions on their mobility that privileged bodies never have to consider. For example: I am attending college in the United States, and once a year I visit my family in Dubai. My family is middle-to-upper middle class and can afford to fund my plane tickets. But, if I want to transit through Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Heathrow, I need an ‘airport transit visa’. This is a visa stamp you have to obtain on your passport from the embassy of the respective European country. It costs close to 200$ and is only valid for one transit. So if you have a return ticket, you need to obtain a transit visa for the way back. The visa section of German, Dutch and most European embassies are only open for about four hours a day, which is your only window for getting an appointment so you can pay them 200$ to sit in an airport for two hours (the transit visa explicitly states ‘Not Allowed to Leave Airport’).

Of course, not everyone needs a transit visa; the requirement is only for nationals/ passport holders of ‘specific countries’. This is the list of specified countries requiring a transit visa for Frankfurt: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan,Syria and Turkey.

Notice, of course, that all of the countries are majority non-white, that most of them (including my own, Sri Lanka) were until recently occupied by European colonial forces, and wield considerably less political and economic power globally than the likes of Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, England et al. When I talk to American citizens about this, most of them are surprised and unaware about the necessity of a transit visa. In fact, most of them are surprised and unaware that not everyone can travel the world with little to no hindrance. Nearly all of my friends in Dubai, who are of color and middle-class, can relate stories of frustration, anger, downright discrimination and degradation at the hands of European consulates and visa officers. My cousin was recently denied a student visa to attend college in the US for no identifiable reason than that the visa officer felt like it.
When I was applying for a student visa for the US, we were told to arrive at the embassy by 6 AM. When I got there with my parents at 6.30 AM, there were close to 15 people already in line. We were warned that, the later in the day it was, the higher our chances of being denied a visa due to the fact that visa officers get tired and frustrated as their day goes on.

Tired. Frustrated.

How heartbreaking. You mean they actually may have to work hard for the exorbitant salaries and benefits, (not to mention unrestricted world travel) that being a Euro-American visa officer entails? Tut-tut.

Excuse my sarcasm, but my parents toiled ten hours a day, 6 days a week, with no benefits and no guaranteed retirement for years, fervently hoping to save enough so one day their children can have opportunities they never did. And at the end of the day, it all comes down to whether a visa officer is pissed about not having enough foam in their latte. I remember watching the visa officers sail in with their Starbucks cups to sit behind glass windows, while we applicants sat tense and alert under the guard of somber American flags. When it was my turn, a hundred thoughts were going through my head: smile, look breezy, pretend that this isn’t too important (even though, if denied a visa, I would mostly likely have to delay my attendance by a semester), answer all questions clearly, insist that you have every intention of returning after you graduate, and smile. 

This, is powerlessness. This is what underlies the "helpless rage of Third World Citizens". And this is part of what it means to move through the world in a brown body. 

People in the US think borders, policing and immigration only relates to Mexico. But the treatment of Mexican immigrants by a white-supremacist state is a microcosm of larger patterns of global inequity. Of course, my personal experiences/ frustrations with world travel are filtered through class privilege. Using the term ‘border patrol’ and referencing the immigration war against Mexico, is in no way an attempt at equalizing different realities. My situation is vastly different and more privileged than that of migrant farm workers robbed of their wages by deportation, or factory workers in Korea who lost jobs (and sometimes lives) because capital can simply up and move, while labor cannot.

In Women’s Studies classes, FGM (female genital mutilation) is always a hot-button issue. People are quick to chastise the ‘barbarity’ of African/ Asian countries, but think nothing of the thousands of ‘genital modification’ surgeries performed involuntarily on intersex babies in US hospitals, or the culturally-fuelled craze for painful procedures like “vagina rejuvenation surgery”. Now, before you jump down my throat about the ‘comparison’, let me state that this isn’t about saying a privileged, American woman paying for a designer vagina is equal to a dangerous, painful procedure performed involuntarily on young girls. What I am saying, is that it’s part of a spectrum, a spectrum of racist patriarchy that values women as bodies first, people second; a spectrum of worldwide misogyny that relegates women’s bodies to cultural symbols and baby incubators.
Similarly, the racist visa policies of Euro-American countries, the unease I, and many other travelers of color, feel in airports, is part of a larger system of policing the mobility of brown bodies; a system interwoven with colonialism, capitalism, and resource monopoly. The privileged bodies, whose mobility is unrestricted worldwide, get to decide where capital goes, where factories are built, where coal is mined. In the wake of advanced, global capitalism, of course not everyone can move through the world freely, because if they did, what’s to stop them (us) from moving to places where wages are livable, land is unpolluted and resources are plentiful? Because at the end of the day, that’s what Western immigration laws are about: protecting access to centuries of amassed (stolen) wealth, and perpetuating a system wherein white bodies can move through the world at will, taking what they need.

Think about the increasing collaborations of local-level law enforcement with federal bodies like the INS, and then the increased military presence in airports all across Europe and America post 9/11, and visa policies directly related to a country's political relationship with Euro-America, and it’s hard to deny that mobility/ travel is anything but innocuous. Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right, and our ability to exercise that right reflects the value placed on our humanity by the societies we live in. For centuries, women in many parts of the world experienced restrictions on their movement. Working class people, people of color, middle-class people, can all relate to the helplessness of seeing jobs come and go, with little power to control where they go and how we can get to them. Mobility is about power. Restrictions on our mobility, whatever form they come in, are an exercise of white, patriarchal, capitalist power. 
There is a story in my family that many would prefer to forget. My mother will only divulge reluctant details, and then quickly change the subject. Before I was born, her sister, my aunt, planned to immigrate to the Midway Islands to join her husband, who had found a job there. They were a young, newly married couple, and their son, my cousin S, was little bigger than a toddler.

They left Sri Lanka with the hope of settling in the Midway islands as a family. But something was wrong with their documents: either they were not legitimate or something was missing. Whatever the case, my aunt and her young son were held in a detention facility for almost 5 days. My mother says there were dozens of other women, and children there; mostly brown, mostly young, mostly having travelled nearly 48 hours to see family members.

When my aunt was finally allowed to leave, they sent her and S back to Sri Lanka. Two days after returning home, she contracted a vicious case of chicken pox, from what she believes was the less than sanitary atmosphere of the detention centre. 

I have never talked to my aunt about this. It’s something I know my family would rather bury and move on from. But I remember the first time I was travelling to the US, the way my hands nearly trembled when I handed officers my documents, the sense of fearful powerlessness that must bury itself under obsequious replies to the immigration officials.  And I thought of her. Young, newly married, newly a mother, never having travelled anywhere outside Sri Lanka. I imagine her trying to reason with the officials, trying to make sure her English is not terribly accented, crying but swallowing her sobs for the sake of her son. I imagine the helplessness, the pure terror, the indignity of it all, and I know I will never breathe easy travelling through American airports. 

"What if every time they pulled over one of us
we got to grab one of them?
What if we could bring them to that long beige place
and make them unlock all the ones who didn’t make it through?
keep going open the doors at Guantanimo and the Celebrity Inn
what if we could jump behind that counter
get on the PA and announce
It is hereby declared
that all borders are bullshit
and starting today
we will never stand on this line
sweating terror
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha