Human Rights

(Un)documented: the Truth About Why I'm Afraid to Fly

Last week, I boarded a plane for the first time since arriving in the US from Slovakia 15 years ago. Despite having all my papers in order, I couldn’t shake the anxiety of all those years I was unable to leave, and the fear of being deported.

An airplane takes off from a runway at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, September 23, 2013

I have imagined myself on an airplane a lot over the last 15 years – always against my will, flying back to Slovakia, never to come back.

Last week, for the first time since 2000, I boarded a plane. For the first time in my life, I was flying alone. My green card was tucked away inside my European Union passport in the overhead bin. No one at the airport asked for either of those documents. Yet, for so much of my life those pieces of paper – or rather absence of one of them – defined who I was.

Despite having all my papers in order for the last four years, I had to force myself to fly. The occasion was bittersweet: on one hand, it was a reminder of all those years that I had spent in the US, unable to leave. On the other, it was a milestone: here I was, flying, and it wasn’t because I was being deported.

Four days after my 13th birthday, in July 2000, my family flew to New York for a second time. While our green card application was pending, we came to visit with my grandmother, who was an American citizen. We never made the return trip. 

We had applied for green card in 1996 and my parents figured we might as well wait for our case to be processed in the US instead of in Slovakia. My grandmother wasn’t getting any younger and we were getting older. The sooner we enrolled in US schools and learned English the better, my parents figured. What they didn’t figure is that it would take more than 10 years for our green card to come through. 

Having overstayed our tourist visa by more than a year, if we returned to Slovakia we would have been barred from entering the US for the next 10 years. And so we were stuck. 

We are not the only ones who have had to endure the long wait. In November 2010, of the 4.4m applications for legal US residency, 4.3m came from those related to a US citizen, like my grandmother. According to an NBC News analysisof data from the US Department of State, the applicants might have to wait anywhere between three and 20 years for their family-sponsored green card, depending on what category they fall into. Married sons and daughters of US citizens – a category that my family fell under – wait 11 years on average. Those from the Philippines and Mexico might have to wait as long as 20.

To say that I was not a fan of moving to America would be an understatement. Weeks before our first day of school, I locked myself and my brothers in a room and staged a day-long hunger strike. I wanted to go home.

Once I acclimated to my new life, my paranoia about being deported blossomed – which wasn’t helped by the cruel actions of those around me. 

I remember sitting in an advanced placement chemistry class, watching my high school crush pick up the classroom phone and pretend to call immigration on me. I also remember a college admissions officer at my top-choice school tell my college adviser that they don’t touch people like me.

I remember crying in the shower after my grandmother passed away. I remember being angry because my grief for her was colored with thoughts about immigration: couldn’t she have fought her cancer for just a little longer until our green cards came through? Would we be deported now? Would that be better than being here - constantly afraid, always feeling unwanted?

As I became an undocumented adult, lawyers would tell me that I was too old to get a green card with my family. Some told me that I should just get married. That was the last straw, I told my mother. If the United States of America didn’t want me unless I was married, then I didn’t want to live here.

Unwanted. That’s how America made me feel – not undocumented, unwanted.

More than 10 years after I arrived in the US, I finally received my green card. That little piece of paper opened many doors that were before closed to me – the doors of the department of motor vehicles, the doors of the social security office, the doors to jobs in journalism and the doors of airplanes that would take me where I wanted, instead of just back to Slovakia.

Yet in the days leading up to my flight, all I could think of was presenting my documents to the TSA agents at the airport. When friends inquired about my anxiety, I shook off their concerns and told them that my infamous fear of heights was flaring up.

Right after I packed my passport and green card, I got sick to my stomach and threw up. As I stood in line for the TSA screening, all I could picture was getting snatched by immigration control agents.

It wasn’t until the plane landed in Las Vegas, the destination for my work trip, that I was able to calm down. 

To the people around me, I might have been just another person afraid of flying and of heights. Yet the tears that ran down my face during the landing had little to do with that. I was flying and I could go anywhere I wanted.

 
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