It was week five of the quarantine, the week President Trump tweeted plans to temporarily halt immigration to the United States. I am a legal immigrant from India living in Hartford, Connecticut. What did the tweet mean for me and the millions of legal immigrants currently living in the country? I refreshed the New York Times website repeatedly, hungry for updates.
Information was coming in bits and pieces. “No word on the removal of people in the U.S. already on visas,” one Times story said.
I felt like I swallowed a giant stone. I felt dirty, like an “other,” like somebody who didn’t really belong here. A day later, an executive order came restricting, for the time being, green card applicants living outside the country.
Then, on June 22, another executive order suspending entry of aliens (H, L, and J visa holders) for the rest of the year, further creating a wave of uncertainties for immigrants. My mind swarmed with questions: What happens to visa holders already in the country? What happens when you send in your visa renewal application from inside the country? It felt like just as the stomach was accepting one punch, it had to endure another more devastating punch.
My family lives 8,000 miles away in Madurai, India, under indefinite lockdown. My father is diabetic with a heart condition, living in a city where six feet of distance is a luxury most people can’t afford. Today, the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India exceeds 566,000, with nearly 17,000 deaths.
I don’t visit my family often. Once a year if I’m lucky. But I always knew that if they needed me, I could get to them, or they could get to me. To have that taken away, by governmental policy and the pandemic, feels unbearable.
Every time I call my family in Madurai, India, my father has a bright red bandana wrapped around his neck, ready to tie it around his nose if he comes in contact with another human being. They live in an apartment, and nobody is allowed to leave the premises. During week two, they found that the terrace was empty, and started taking walks in the evening. Sweat trickles down my mom’s face as she tells me about the rising heat. It’s peak summer in South India at the moment.
From our beautiful quarantine perch, my partner and I struggle to comprehend what it must be like for them. While I order groceries on Amazon and Instacart, they wait for the milkman to drop off fresh milk outside the house every morning, and then for the vegetable man, who surprises them with at least one fresh produce a day. I worry as my dad, with a mask and a pair of gloves, got a special dispensation to attend an event organized by the company he works for. What if he catches the virus from an asymptomatic carrier?
Stateside, my aunt, my mother’s older sister, is in State College, Pennsylvania, visiting her daughter, who is a PhD student at Penn State. Fifteen years ago, my aunt was thrown off of a motorcycle and into a tree in Bangalore. She broke several bones and had to have her skull repaired. Three months ago, just before her trip to the U.S., she fell down a ladder, hurting her head again. She’s on seizure medications, and packed just enough for what she thought would be a short visit. Now she’s not allowed to go back home, to be with the rest of her family and to renew her medication.
Two weeks ago, her daughter called her doctor in India, who called a doctor in the U.S. to transfer her prescription to an American hospital, and after weeks of waiting she’s finally gotten her refill. “I don’t know when I will see my husband,” she tells me. “But at least I can survive now that I have my medication.”
My baby sister, Pooja, is a marketing manager in Bangalore. She took one of the last buses out of the city—before India went on lockdown—to reach my parents in Madurai. I don’t know when I will see her again. For now, we communicate through WhatsApp on her sketchy internet connection, sharing virtual hugs. (India's lockdown left migrant workers without jobs, food, or a way to get home.)
“Show me your face this morning,” she says. I send her a photo, bags underneath my eyes. Sleep is fitful these days. The dreams are terrifying.
I live in a beautiful two-bedroom apartment. I take online yoga classes. I work on our back garden on the weekends and make noodles from scratch. What my family is going through isn’t uncommon. There are videos of grandparents meeting their grandchildren for the first time through windows. There are husbands who can’t hold their wives’ hands through chemotherapy. There are frontline workers quarantined from their families. And children have laid their parents to rest without proper funerals. But this distance, this irreducible distance I feel, this is the immigrant nightmare.
One of my closest friends, Vishakha, a writer and immigrant who lives alone in Washington, D.C., has been interviewing her family in India throughout the lockdown period. The conversations often end with philosophical questions: What is our priority in this life? What do we want to leave on this planet when we go? What is important to us?
She and I made the choice to move thousands of miles from our family. We made the choice to make a life for ourselves here. It’s become our home in most ways. But home is there too. We live in two places.
“I lost it when one of my friends said this social distancing could go on for all of 2020,” she tells me. “What will I do, Aish, if I don’t get to hold another human—especially my family—for that long?” (Here’s how we’ll know when a COVID-19 vaccine is ready.)
For immigrants, the meaning of home constantly changes. Is it their family? Is it a place? Now, is it somehow the space in between?
I called my family in Madurai after the President’s tweet. I had tears in my eyes when mom appeared on the screen. She consoled me, as she always does, and asked me to hope for the best. My dad asked, “Are you really living a full life if you have to worry about where you will be tomorrow?” Then he paused. “But now, I can’t even ask you to come back to India.”
For several seconds after, a quiet filled the air. Just our breathing, the three of us. “Bye Appa, please be safe,” I said. As I always do.