When a Baby Immigrates

I’ve heard both sides of the immigration debate. The question, or rather the accusation, that hurts the most is, Why do you all have to come here? The question not really posed as a question but a complaint. As if the decision to immigrate is made on a whim. As if there are those of us who are more worthy (ahem, white immigrants) to be welcomed into the US than others (ahem, black and brown immigrants), when the decision to come to the US is not some random decision made lightly but one that is made after lengthy and serious consideration, out of necessity for a better life for oneself and one’s family, and in some cases, out of basic survival where violence and bloodshed no longer make home “home.”

The xenophobic and hateful rhetoric of those currently in power is being implemented in the most vicious way – targeting the most vulnerable: babies and children. The same party and administration that relentlessly professes to be pro-life could care less about immigrant babies and children. They prefer to scar and traumatize them for life by ripping them away from their parents. Parents who have risked everything to come to a safer place than their home countries only to be further persecuted when they reach our borders. Though the administration has since ended the separation of children from their parents by recent executive order, it still aims to detain and imprison families together while at the same time offering no resolution to the over 2,300 children who continue to be separated from their families with no hope of reunification in sight.

As a 16-month-old myself who was still in diapers and entered the US from the Philippines with my parents and siblings during the period of Martial Law under then-Philippine president (/dictator) Ferdinand Marcos, I can’t imagine what immigrating would’ve been like had I been torn away from my parents upon reaching LAX, placed in a cage with my siblings, and then later penned up in a warehouse with other children not knowing when I’d ever see my parents again. And yet this is exactly what has happened to babies and children at our US-Mexico border as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting people who cross the border illegally. The administration defends their actions as their way to solve our “immigration problem” while blaming the Democrats when it is the current administration that is solely responsible for enforcement of this brutal law. They have no one to blame but themselves for the cruel and inhumane treatment toward immigrant families.

My entire family are naturalized citizens, save for my youngest sister who was born here. Even then, from infancy to 5-years-old, my American-born sister would be held in the arms of my immigrant mother as we all stood in those long lines together at the federal building. My baby sister would keep her baby self occupied by playing with me, 2 years older, while our parents snaked their way to the front of a several-hours-long line where there would be a filing window and a clerk behind it, requiring my parents to complete and submit various forms, all of which I still don’t know the names of. And who would at age 5, 6, and 7?

Though I came here as a baby and was naturalized at age 7 –  what the general consensus probably thinks is too young to remember anything – I vividly remember living with my cousins for a number of months (which to my baby brain felt infinite). My father’s brother with his wife and children immigrated a few years before us and had since established themselves in a 4-bedroom home where fate would have all 10 of us living together until my parents found jobs and were lucky to purchase a home just down the street from my uncle and his family almost a year later after our US arrival.

I remember having my picture taken at different times for different forms. I remember the long hours both my parents worked to establish themselves in our adopted country while my siblings and I, particularly me and my baby sister, were left under the watchful but loving care of my grandparents who bathed us, fed us, and picked us up from kindergarten. As I look at the very few baby pictures I have, baby pictures are not simply baby pictures to me.  When you’re an immigrant baby, baby pictures hold a different and special kind of significance, a historical record of where we were as a Filipino family, like thousands of Filipino families who had immigrated that same year, searching for the kind of life they did not, and could not have had, in our Motherland. 

I have never forgotten what it means to be an immigrant and what it means to be naturalized. Throughout my life, I’ve had to carry my original Certificate of Citizenship, Form N-560, stamped and signed by the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization. It is one of the most important documents I will ever be in possession of. 

Immigrating is never easy, and the circumstances my parents faced are probably one of the more “easy” arrivals into the US, but before I became a citizen at age 7, it wasn’t unusual to be fraught with fear, constantly reminded by my parents and grandparents of the threat of being taken away. My parents and grandparents had come from a country where those who defied their government disappeared. As immigrants in those very early years in the US, it was my understanding even at such a young age that we were stuck in a limbo stage. I still don’t know exactly what that limbo stage meant, except I understood it could mean we could be taken by white people in authority, as I envisioned them to be white men in uniform, who could come and take us away anytime.

After listening to the heartbreaking audio recording of children crying for their parents and seeing the countless images of immigrant parents who have lost their children at the border, I thought of my own mother who held my 16-month-old squirmy, impatient, and inconsolable self in her arms for the duration of our 20-hour journey from Manila to Los Angeles. It was from Honolulu to LAX, the final 5.5 hour leg of our journey that she said I cried and screamed nonstop and could not be soothed. “I think you were just so tired and wanted to sleep but couldn’t,” she would tell me many times as she recalled our journey to the US. It was not an easy flight for me and my mother to say the least, including fellow passengers who had to endure my murderous and unceasing cries across the Pacific Ocean at 35,000 feet.  And who could blame me, stuck inside a cramped tin ship with all the familiar smells, sounds, tastes, and comforts of home forever vanishing within a day. I couldn’t express anything in words then. Only tears and exhaustion, which I don’t remember, but my mother does. 

It seems babies know even if they can’t understand.

Me and Ma, Philippines, 1978
Me and Ma, the Philippines, 1978

WHEN A BABY IMMIGRATES
or Leaving Las Piñas

Las Piñas, the place of First Home and baby dreams,
dissolving before it could materialize into
eyes
nose
mouth –

I was too young to remember in words
though the absence of them
found their way in screaming tears

as we officially left Las Piñas
and I screamed for 5.5 hours
without pause
from Honolulu to Los Angeles
to a new home and new bodies
in cramped plane seats.

My mother blamed lack of sleep for
my murderous cries  
rocking me in her arms
affording no rest to a mother who knew
she was forever leaving too. 

Her anxiety must have sent shock waves
to my 16-month-old body –
our anxiety ping-ponging
between mother and child.

Even after my infantile amnesia
apologies have no place  
for crying babies except this is how it is
and we follow.

My mother’s attempts to soothe
must have been trapped between
innocence and shakiness –

What can I do?

Her eyes would imprint themselves
in the small gap of air between us
between each shush, each squeeze
in the cradle of her arms –
uncertainty hidden under a crooked smile
not knowing whether to cry
her eyes and lips
trying to find some foothold
but ultimately quivering
on some swirling slice of air at 35,000 feet
as if freshly cut and delicately traced
by a symphony conductor’s baton.

*If you’re interested in donating to a single organization, or creating separate donations, here are a few of the leading non-profits involved in immigration issues.

 

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