Editor’s note: This essay is part of our two-week blog series, featuring eight autoethnographies from students at Brooklyn College. Read the introduction to the series here, written by Professors Jeanne Theoharis, Joseph Entin, and Dominick Braswell. Follow this link to read all the essays in the series.
It’s March 18th, a Wednesday afternoon in Union Square. It’s my last day of work, and soon enough it will be my last day of in-person classes for the spring semester of college. It’s a strange scene. Usually, this part of NYC is packed with office workers, students, and pedestrians bumping into each other rushing to their daily commute. Today the streets are nearly empty; it seems like many people decided to stay home, at least those that have that type of luxury. There are people out here still working: charging, lifting, breaking, building, or driving, but no one really pays attention to those people. Not while the rich treat NYC like their playground. Little do they realize some of those people are immigrants. In fact, about one in four workers in New York is an immigrant. Yet they generally lack access to federal aid programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. As the son of immigrant parents, I would know. My parents and relatives recount the injustices they face on an everyday basis, from subtle discrimination to being unjustly treated in the workplace. “Si, no molesta, pero estamos aquí por el bien de ustedes,” they would often say. How selfless of them. How unfair it is to them. To my neighbor next door and down the hall and across the street and around the block. They all ought to be home, but that’s not how things work in the United States of America.
In 1882, the US Congress established the public charge rule for the sake of allowing the US government to deny a visa to anyone who, “is likely at any time to become a public charge” — but without defining what “public charge” means. Under the Trump administration, the “public charge rule” is being interpreted broadly to reduce the number of people who are eligible for green cards and other visas, by penalizing those on any form of government assistance. The Trump administration defines a public charge as an “alien” who receives one or more public benefits. This rule unabashedly targets poorer immigrants using a merit-based system that is grounded in racist ideologies. Over the years, the rule has been subjectively enforced. For example, in the early twentieth century, immigration officials on Ellis Island used the law to bar immigrants who were “likely to become public charges as an effective means of denying entry to Jewish immigrants.” Today the Trump administration has taken this rule to incite hatred, fear, and long-lasting trauma. My family and community face the brunt of this rule.
It’s March 19th. Every Thursday I visit my parents. The neighborhood I moved to gives off the same calm vibe it does every day. Unlike Flatbush, the block is always loud and vibrant. Today things were quiet. Not a soul on the stoops or police sirens declaring ownership of the neighborhood. I knew today would be the last day I came to visit them, at least for a while. My mom wasn’t looking too good. I hope it’s just a fever. News about my dad’s only brother being in the hospital filled me with doubt. Virgencita please watch over her.
It’s Tuesday evening, March 24th. I get the news from my little sister that “papa y mama se lo pasan tirados en la cama.” This is news I thought I’d never hear. They wouldn’t allow it–my dad can’t go a day without working, and my mom can’t go a minute without doing something. She often tells us that she’ll get all the rest she needs when it’s time for her to go. I’m not ready for that. I turn on the television for the sake of distracting myself, but the headlines about the virus only stress me out even more: “20-somethings now realizing that they can get coronavirus, too”; “Gobernador de Nueva York pide 30,000 ventiladores para los afectados por coronavirus”; “Density is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight.” Did my dad catch it from his workplace, or did my mom catch it while running errands? Who else might be sick? I call my aunt who lives upstairs from my parents. She picks up and before she even says a word she’s coughing her lungs out. My parents were like that just a few days ago. She mentions to me that uncle wasn’t feeling too well either and thinks he might have passed it on to her. What does this mean for my younger cousins? With school out, what are they going to eat or learn? Before another thought even crosses my mind, my cousin calls me. His dad, my father’s only brother, is on a ventilator. He’s tested positive, and they think he might not make it. I think back to what el Vicegobernador de Tejas said: “los abuelos están dispuestos a morir por coronavirus para no dañar la economía.” Who in their right mind would say such a thing? He might be undocumented and old, but who died and appointed you the spokesperson for someone else’s life?
It’s March 25th, I got word from my siblings that our parents aren’t okay and that my tio from upstairs is too sick to get out of bed. How are my cousins, Christian and Danny, going to survive? They’re only ten and seven years old. It’s a 40-minute walk from my place to theirs. I have to do it, because how else are they going to eat if my aunt and uncle are coughing their lungs out like my parents? I get a blocked caller ID number calling me. “Raúl I’m scared. Are my parents going to be okay?” I realized shortly after it’s Christian. I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was share the little positivity I had left. “They’ll be okay, I’ll be dropping off some food soon, I made all your favorites,” I say in an effort to cheer them up. I hear Danny crying in the background. Can she hear through my lies, or is she just as scared as I am? Christian explains to me that, “Danny is scared that someone is going to come while our mom and dad are sick.” I know exactly who that someone is. She’s imagining again that ICE will take advantage of her parents while they’re bedridden. “Danny, it’s going to be okay, no one is going to come. Everyone has been ordered to stay home and that means even those bad people.” Is this one of those times when it’s okay to lie? This sucks. Things are only going to get worse and I don’t want to lose anybody.