Living Under DOMA: The I-94

April 10, 2013

Here, Katherine Thompson continues her story of fleeing the U.S. with her non-U.S. citizen girlfriend Jodi so that Jodi’s immigration status can remain legal. 

I am too young to rent a car. Jodi, 12 years my senior and often the brunt of cradle-robbing jokes, charms the Enterprise rental car man with her Australian accent and gets us a cheap rate and a free pickup from the train station—always bargain travelers, we have figured out that we’ll save money by renting the car from a tiny upstate town rather from within the New York City limits. So we return to where we met at summer camp, pick up our car and head north into uncharted territory. For those who have not driven across New York State before, or who are familiar with the compactness of New York City, the state is somehow unfathomably large. It dwarfs its nearest neighbors, and its strange anvil-shaped girth creates large diagonals of never-ending highways.

So we arrive in Buffalo, just about as far northwest of New York City as you can get before Canada, after dark, and decide to save the border crossing till the morning. We pass through Buffalo’s shabby outskirts speckled with cheap motels, all attempting to cater to the honeymooning set: names like “Rainbow Motel” and “Niagara Inn,” advertising outdated features like color TVs and free local calls, along with intriguing allusions to “honeymoon suites” with “heart-shaped Jacuzzis.” Jodi’s shoestring traveler credo dictates that one should never stay in a motel when a car will do, so we find an empty parking lot that doesn’t seem too heavily trafficked but also not too dangerously isolated. We discover with delight that the back seats fold down—not flat exactly, but to a 20° angle, and we fidget our rather tall frames aslant, feet in one corner of the trunk and heads against the backs of the front seats. We burrow under blankets and attempt an unsatisfying night’s sleep, hips digging into the hard seatbacks, necks filling with cricks, hearts sagging under the apprehension of the next day. We awake to the sounds of trucks early in the morning, and rather than wait to be discovered by a truck driver, we find a greasy-spoon diner just around the corner where we get thick breakfasts, thin coffees, and a chance to brush our teeth in their bathroom.

Refreshed, it’s time to do what we came for. The beginning part, of course, is not the scary part, and we do a pretty good job of enjoying a full day at the Falls without thinking about the imminent border-crossing stress. Despite all the cheesy business that has cropped up around it, Niagara Falls is truly breathtaking, one of those places like the Grand Canyon that makes you swell with awe and some strange New World pride—we may not have Europe’s thousand-year-old castles, but we have some unbeatable feats of nature that have managed to retain much of their original majesty during these three hundred years of conquest. I remember being surprised how easy it was for my imagination to strip away the neon signs, wind-whipped flags, the bridges and buildings and cars, and to envision the landscape as it was before it was beheld by 12 million pairs of human eyes per year. The sight is a rare and wonderful gift.

We take the requisite photos from the American side and then get in the car for the crossing into Canada. This is the easy part. Canadian border guards, though very good at their jobs I’m sure, do not, in general, feel the need to be as hyper-vigilant as U.S. ones. Canada has a pretty generous immigration policy, as first-world nations go, is not quite as concerned with the imminent threat of terrorism as the U.S. is, and, perhaps most importantly, does not have any neighboring countries that have a significantly weaker economy and lower standard of living. As beautiful as Canada is, it’s kind of hard to imagine droves of Americans crawling through sewers or dragging themselves, starving, through their frigid forests, hoping to find a better life in Canada.

So, although they ask a few questions, we are let into Canada without much ceremony. But we make a small and crucial mistake—in a case like this, there is actually such a thing as too little ceremony. The Canadian officer doesn’t take Jodi’s I-94 card out of her passport. And he was so nice, of course we don’t want to tell him how to do his job; and anyway, at this point we don’t know enough to even know that we are supposed to or allowed to ask him to take it.

What?, you ask, I think I lost you there.

I don’t blame you. It’s time for an aside on visa basics for visitors to America: the I-94.

When you arrive in America as a non-American, the amount of time the immigration officer gives you to stay is stamped on a white card called the I-94. It’s a perforated card, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) keeps the top portion, and the bottom portion is stapled into your passport. Whatever date you get on the card is the date by which you have to leave the U.S., and upon leaving, you have to turn in that bottom piece that you have carried with you like a sacred totem of belonging throughout your American sojourn. Supposedly, the pieces are matched up at the end (I secretly imagine that house-elves or Oompa-Loompas are working at this, somewhere deep in a miserable government vault) to ascertain that you actually left by the date you were supposed to. And here’s the thing about the I-94, aspiring visitors to the land of the free: with freedom comes responsibility, and the responsibility is YOURS to make sure that your I-94 is turned in at the end of your stay. Usually, your airline or cruise ship will make sure to collect them. But if you leave by land, it’s unclear what you are supposed to do, because you don’t pass through any kind of “Thanks for Visiting the U.S.” comfort station or anything. If going to Canada, you pass through a checkpoint manned by Canadian immigration officials, who probably don’t give an “eh” about your I-94. If going to Mexico, you will probably pass no one. The main pedestrian entry into Tijuana, Mexico from San Ysidro, California (the busiest border crossing in America) consists of one-way revolving doors made from steel bars, the kind you exit through at some of the older New York City subway stations. Part of what they say about the Hotel California is true: you can check out any time you like—but you can’t necessarily come back in.

OK, so, we are back in Canada, and haven’t yet realized that we are burdened with the terrible weight of the I-94 still in Jodi’s passport. We are spending the day still looking at the majesty of the falls, getting coffee, reading brochures about all the tourist attractions that we are not going to do because they cost money. Listening to the wispy screams of the people getting wet on the boats below trickling up to us from beneath the water’s roar. Finally, the apprehension too much to ignore, we decide we might as well get it over with. It is approaching dark. A day of Indian summer has turned into a chilly, Canadian autumn twilight. We head back to the U.S. border, having gone no more than maybe a quarter mile into Canada, and having left the U.S. for no more than a few hours.

A common question we always get when we talk about Jodi having to leave the U.S. to extend/change the status of/not violate her visa is “How long does she have to go for?” And at first, it does seem intuitive that if you have to leave the U.S., you would have to do so for a specified length of time before being able to come back. But in fact, the USCIS is not really concerned with what immigrants or visitors do while they are not in the U.S., or the amount of time they are there. They are concerned with one thing and one thing only: the border.

In his incredibly researched and breathtakingly told history of convict transportation to Australia (The Fatal Shore, 1988), Robert Hughes discusses, among many other things, the 19th century British attitude toward criminality—what made them believe that the best way to deal with criminals would be to ship them thousands of miles away? The entire system of transportation to Australia was based on what most of us in the modern era would now see as a simple error in logic: they believed that criminality was innate to certain individuals, and that if you could remove those individuals from the population, you could remove crime. It was much easier to believe this than to recognize or address the poverty, inequality, or lack of social mobility in British society that might motivate these “criminals” (mostly petty thieves) toward their criminal acts. And for eighty years, even when, for decade after decade, the crime rate in Britain never dropped, despite thousands of “criminals” being shipped away for life, they failed to see the error of their reasoning.

Well, the USCIS thinks that the way to control what visitors DO while in the U.S.—i.e. the way to prevent terrorism, crime, and illegal immigration—is to control who comes into the U.S.—to only let in the people who pose the least risk. If they can stop terrorists from entering, they can stop terrorism in the homeland. If they can keep drugs from coming in from Mexico, they can stop drug-related crimes and addictions. If they can patch the fences, undocumented workers will stop “taking American jobs.” No matter that perhaps the wrong questions are being asked—why would someone be motivated to commit terrorism against Americans, or traffic in drugs instead of selling carpets or used cars, or risk their life to cross a desert in hopes of finding a better job? “Secure the borders” is the battle-cry, the party line. Thus, everyone crossing an international border becomes a potential threat.

And that is what we are now—a twenty-something schoolgirl still with her baby fat, oddly partnered with a tall and tanned and older and lovely woman with several visible piercings and a distinctly un-American rebel twinkle in her eyes (Jodi’s dad tells me he’s traced their ancestry back as far as 1818 in Tasmania, meaning they almost certainly have a transported convict or two in their family tree). What devious plot to undo America might we be masterminding? What insidious gay agenda might we planning to unleash on the typical apple-cheeked American family?

We pull up to the American border. If tollbooths could be described as “armored,” then that is what it looks like. We offer our passports to the steely-faced young man in the booth. And we hope.

Read about the beginning of Katherine’s flight to Niagara Falls here and come back next week for more of her story.