My mother still remembers two questions from her 1966 U.S. immigration paperwork (and there was a lot of paperwork):
1) Are you planning to overthrow the American government?
2) Are you planning to work as a prostitute?
In case you’re wondering, she answered—honestly—no to both questions. So did my dad.
My father first came to the United States in the 1950s to get his master’s degree at Harvard University. He was an Egyptian citizen back then, and went back to Cairo after completing his studies. But my dad didn’t want to stay in Cairo, a place that was going through tremendous changes too elaborate to go into here (just type “Egypt Nasser 1952” into Google). He arranged to get himself to West Berlin with a research group. The goal was to take notes on a Berlin University program and implement a similar program back in Cairo. The study was supposed to last for six months.
But then Mohamed, my dad, met Helga, my mom. And he wanted to stay.
For the others in that research group, the trip really did only last for six months. But Mohamed stayed. He got a job, they got married. A little girl, my sister Nadja, was born. When that little girl was two years old, Mohamed got a job transfer to New York City. The company in New York paid for the move and the moving company packed all of their belongings. My mother, father, and sister moved to New York City in August of 1966 and they traveled by ship, on the SS United States.
As an Ivy League electrical engineer with a background in the optics branch of physics (all, basically, about light) my dad could and did find work across the country. The first stop after New York City was Missouri. I appeared in the world in 1968 in Kansas City.
Eventually we got to California and settled in Orange County. My father worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and spent a large part of his weekdays commuting. Sometimes it felt like I was more of a foreigner than Dad ever was, even though I was born here. Following in my father’s footsteps was hard because he had no idea he had ever been at a disadvantage. He just sort of showed up and succeeded. And my mother had no idea I was Arab-American. (She still tosses her head around in confusion when I mention the term).
I have a photo of my mother, father, and sister in 1966. It’s their first night on board the SS United States, headed for New York City. They’re seated at a dining room table with a balloon and other decorations that look sparkly and festive. My mother told me years later she was afraid of the ship sinking, afraid of drowning. They even moved with their car, a light blue Volkswagen Fastback that, in 1969, they’d be driving to California with me sitting on my mother’s lap in the front seat, safety belts be damned. In this photo, my mother is looking over her shoulder and not smiling, and people always comment that I look just like her. My sister is the baby in a high chair, also not smiling, just looking cute.
But my father looks radiant, handsome. You can see how excited he is. He couldn’t wait to get back to the United States.
Egypt is not on the list of the current moratorium, and yet I wonder if maybe it sort of is anyway. Or is about to be added. I wouldn’t want to be trying it out at the moment, traveling here with an Egyptian passport. And the idea that Egypt somehow should be on the list or deserves to be—this is painful. If such a moratorium had existed in the 1950s, I don’t know that they would have let my father into the country, even to attend Harvard. I am also perturbed by this prevalent myth that green cards are some easy commodity. The vetting was already difficult in 1966; it became even more intensive after 9/11. I have friends from the United Kingdom who told me of their elaborate visa processes, then layers of green card paperwork that don’t simply end but repeat annually. There is no quick, easy route to getting permission to enter the United States to be a resident of any kind.
There was a problem with my mother’s green card the last time we went to Berlin together. It was 2015, and we went to say goodbye to her sister. We wanted to attend the funeral and made arrangements so quickly that my mother didn’t notice that there was an expired date on part of her paperwork. And no one noticed on her way out of the country. She saw it only after she got to Berlin.
The U.S. Consulate in Berlin couldn’t tell her anything. They wouldn’t even let her into the building. A type of police officer took her paperwork and went inside to consult in secret. For all we know, he showed her card to an intern. After maybe twenty minutes the officer returned to yell at my senior citizen mother and scold her. And this was to a blonde, gray-eyed woman named Helga. He looked at me like, what are you doing here? “I’m her daughter, I’m trying to help,” I said, holding my hands up. He told my mother she had to book a flight to go to Frankfurt and get a meeting there.
In Frankfurt, she arrived at the consulate for her appointment and had to clear a few security hurdles. First, she had to remove her watch. Okay, like an airport. Then she had to go down the street and drop off her cell phone at the flower shop (people still to this day stare at my mother in disbelief when she tells them about the flower shop). Then she was allowed to go through metal detectors and enter the inner sanctum of the consulate.
Miraculously, they told her everything was in order. She never even needed to appear in Frankfurt in the first place. She could get this particular card updated when she got back to California, it would be perfectly legal and fine. So: hotel room for one night, cab fares, round trip flight Berlin-Frankfurt: how many dollars? But being told she had nothing to worry about and all that money and panic had been spent for nothing: slightly infuriating, but priceless nonetheless.
This is the mildest illustration of how much bureaucracy is in place for foreigners arriving in the United States to live, work, or study. Even my mother, who has lived here since 1966 but is still a German citizen, had to go through a blood pressure-raising runaround and then still got yelled at by Swiss airport officials when she was on her way back home. It’s never easy.
But the officers at Los Angeles International Airport understood what was going on with her green card when she deplaned after the trip. The customs officer looked at her paperwork, checked everything out and simply said to her, “Welcome home.” She answered—honestly—yes.