My wife was already at work when ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) showed up at our door. It was nine a.m., October 5, 2011, a day that began like every other in our New Jersey home. My son Enislav still slept, I drank my last bit of coffee while arranging the day in my head. I’d planned to spend several hours on a contract for a government agency and hopefully sailing later. There was no reason to think my family’s American lives would radically change in the next few hours. But by noon, it was clear. After a car ride in the back of a federal SUV, Eni and I wore orange jumpsuits at Delaney Hall, our home for the next 65 days. No college classes for Eni that day or many future ones. My consulting firm would have no leader. My wife and daughter were left afraid for our safety and future.
Day after day from my bunk, I listened to the immigration stories of my roommates. We all had one. Mine involved over 20 years of countless dollars spent on lawyers who would help me navigate the paperwork and court dates necessary for immigration, based on my request for political asylum. Meanwhile I strived to be tops in my field, starting with a presidential certificate from George H. W. Bush and receiving an Outstanding Professor designation from INS, ICE’s predecessor agency. I started my own company, paid taxes, and raised two children here. But that obviously wasn’t enough. I had failed at giving me and my family what we wanted most: U.S. citizenship. I dug deep, used what my family had taught me about resolve and hope, and thought a lot about my past to remind myself why I’d left Bulgaria. Why I’d bothered. The irony was especially palpable to me lying in that bunk, recalling the moment I knew for sure I must leave.
It was on the eve of my wedding to Mayia in 1983. We were excited, planning our future careers as architects as we walked arm and arm down Rakovski Street in Sofia. Before we reached our local hangout, a favorite for their never-ending supply of Coca Cola, I saw some of my friends running in the opposite direction and yelling for us to do the same. Instead, we kept walking. I had the required identification and so did Mayia, so we needn’t worry. We were wrong. Two militiamen grabbed me and left her there, forcing me on a bus with other men they’d picked up. It was that moment when my decision to leave was solidified. I must leave this police state as soon as possible. I must live in the land of the free, where such a thing could never happen. Where they don’t detain innocent people.
But I was wrong. How else do you explain why in 2011 I was detained in a bunk, my son in the one above me, in the United States of America?