Irshad Manji is founder of the Moral Courage Academy in Hawaii and author of the just-released Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times, from which this essay is adapted.
Lady Liberty wasn’t home the night that I came calling.
I’d grown up in Canada but lived in the United States for seven years. For all the minor irritants and daunting injustices of American culture, this Canadian had reasons to stay south of 49th. Nothing wrong with dual citizenship, I told myself. And the U.S. Department of State seemed to agree: They approved my application to become a permanent resident.
I was required to pick up my documents in Montreal, the Canadian city with a U.S. consulate closest to New York, where I was living. Then, I only needed to submit them to U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Montreal airport, collect a stamp for my permanent status and catch my flight home. “It’s a formality,” shrugged the young man who interviewed me at the Department of State.
The U.S. side of Montreal’s airport was practically deserted. No lines, no unruly throng, no huddled masses whom federal agents could bawl out. I gave my passport and papers to an intake officer. He welcomed me to the country.
“Thank you, sir,” I chirped. He then handed my documents to Officer Garcia, who instructed me to take a seat. Thirty minutes later, Officer Garcia motioned me into his office.
“You have a big problem,” he said, engrossed in his computer screen. “I don’t see any adjustment to your status in the system.” I pointed to the pile of Department of State paperwork sitting on his desk. One particular document would allay his concern and I requested that he inspect it.
“How do I know it’s not photoshopped?” he postured.
I wanted to remind him that the Department of State sealed my papers so they couldn’t be tampered with. But when Officer Garcia started trash-talking the department itself, I held my tongue. Fortunately, his own agency had e-mailed me a copy of the document for my records. “It’s on my laptop,” I assured Officer Garcia. “I’ll show it to you.”
“We don’t do computers,” he said, still staring into his monitor.
“I’m not sure what else to say,” I replied. “May I call my immigration lawyer?”
“We don’t do lawyers.”
After more psychological Ping-Pong, Officer Garcia dispatched me to the waiting room. I forced myself to be buoyant. It’s a slow night, I thought. He must be bored. He’s killing time.
An hour elapsed and he waved me into his office again. “Your existing work permit expires in one month,” Officer Garcia reported. “My supervisor, who is a nice guy, will allow you passage into the United States until expiry.” He then began enunciating each word:
“But if it were up to me, I’d not only detain you indefinitely; I’d have you charged with fraud. And the burden of proof would be on you, not me. I’m inputting these notes into the system as we speak. You are declined for permanent residency.”
Shocked and shamed, I shuffled to the flight gate. Just before midnight, as I unfurled the cover of my bed in New York, my numbness gave way to grief. “Please, Allah,” I whimpered. “Please help me to see this obstacle as an opening. Do I need to understand something that I still don’t? Teach me. I’m willing.”
Over the next week, I kept in close touch with my immigration lawyer, my family and my God. Six days later, on the Fourth of July, I received a call from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. While hesitant to admit any wrongdoing, the agency arranged another opportunity for my government-generated documents to be accepted.
Because they already had those documents, I could skip Montreal altogether and finish the task at Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. There, I met with Officer Jansen. She presided over a painless process, green-lit my status as a permanent resident and accompanied me to the airport exit a few doors down.
We stood alone in the elevator, lamenting the “glitch” that brought me there. Aiming for a more positive send-off, Officer Jansen chimed, “So, you teach Islam?”
“Leadership,” I clarified. “I’ve written books about reforming Islam, but I teach leadership.”
She frowned. “It’s all over your file that you teach Islam.”
We paused. “Officer Jansen,” I queried, “do you think that’s why…?”
She, of course, couldn’t react. But in hanging her head to avoid more eye contact, she let the cat out of the bag.
Officer Garcia’s rejection of me had nothing to do with current President Donald Trump’s reprehensible immigration policies. My slap-down took place during the presidency of Barack Obama. That’s the nature of systemic discrimination. No matter who’s “in charge,” the culture of the institution determines what role you’ll play.
In our conversation, neither Officer Garcia nor I would play the individuals whom we actually were, each with unique histories and complicated emotions that might overlap. Rather, I was cast as the incarnation of foreign antagonism. He fancied himself the avatar of domestic tranquility. Officer Garcia could act out this delusional script because he had state-backed power over my Muslim ass.
To my relief, he also had a supervisor who’d overrule him. Temporarily. Although my immigration lawyer turned the situation around, what does any of this say for those migrants who can’t yet pay for a dedicated lawyer?
I’d taken three weeks off from work to wait for my documents in Montreal. Where does the system leave those who can’t afford to stop working, assuming they’ve got gainful employment at all?
During my wait, I stayed with family who fed and comforted me. How can most migrants do it if they have to cover all those nights at a hotel?
I came of age in Canada, which shares a language with the United States. What hope do less lucky folks have for defending themselves against puffed-up officials?
But the most unexpected lessons from this episode have more to do with my power than Officer Garcia’s. I’ll reveal two of them.
The first lesson is I can be monumentally privileged at the same time as I’m momentarily powerless. After all, my privilege as an English speaker with a pistol of a lawyer decided the outcome of my immigration fiasco. Officer Garcia’s enormous privilege within the system didn’t prevail.
The second lesson is power shows up in fluctuating shapes and flows in unforeseen directions. People on my side – champions of diversity – tend to obsess with the system “out there”; the structures and institutions that exist in our material universe. Yet, this obsession often diverts us from asking game-changing questions about our own agency.
Questions such as, “As I fight the system in which I live, am I ignoring the system that lives in me?”
“Do I see certain people as labels before I see them as individuals? Do I reflexively treat those people as threats to my security because of the labels that I’m attaching to them – people whom I categorize as straight, white and male?”
“When I exclude them in the name of inclusion, am I using my power all that differently from Officer Garcia?”
My fellow lovers of diversity, as mass migration speeds up the world over, we’re the ones to whom the future belongs. Will we replicate the mistakes of the early North American colonists, slicing and dicing individuals into classifications, assigning worth to those classifications and thereby creating a hierarchy? Or will we see, in the words of the novelist Zadie Smith, that every person is “internally plural"?
The power to choose is ours.