The great equalizer

October 6, 2011 — Delaney Hall Detention Facility, Newark, New Jersey

Finally, I tried to turn my thoughts away from the others because I saw quite clearly today that none of that mattered right now. It was hard to swallow that I was thought of by the guards as just like the others. That I’d been brought up to believe I was gifted, more special than the rest was laughable in this environment and that scared me. Who I was, how I viewed myself, all of it, knocked on its ass. This feeling of being just like the others felt bitter, unwelcome. I saw it in the guard’s eyes, or should I say their lack of eye contact. To those in charge at Delaney, I was just a guy who was now a detainee. Delaney, the great equalizer.

So I turn to what is easier to understand: the facts. Eni and I are locked up. A first in my life and his. It felt surreal, a dash of curiosity added to the cocktail of emotions. I’d been stripped of everything but my eyeglasses, including basic human interaction, like eye contact and civil conversation. The system had moved me into a different category of human being – just a notch above cattle. This realization obviously didn’t sit well.

I feel off-center as I lay there, the nagging question of who I am, how I am seen, just won’t go away. I am used to respect, for who I am and what I’ve accomplished … so was this a bruised ego I am acknowledging? Pondering that for a bit, I know this is only part of it. I am human after all, and unless you’re Christ or Ghandi you probably can’t ever remove ego. But I mustn’t look at that right now. It’s the other thing, the big question.

How was I going to fix this?

After all, that’s the expectation for a husband, father, man of the house. I’d gotten us into this, and I was the one who needed to get us out. How would I have my voice heard?

Not a boy anymore

Finally I nod, unable to speak, so he just reaches down and pats me. Eni, a boy just twelve hours ago, is now very adult the way he stares at me. I hate that he is here, but at the same time find comfort in it, a piece of my real life. That I couldn’t spare him weighs on me though. Protected with little responsibility in his normal life, he will now have to grow up suddenly. There have been times when I’ve wanted him to handle more, be the adult I was at his age. But this is not the way I wanted it to happen.

18 hours in, I was still in disbelief. Not that it was happening to us, as if we should be immune to these things, but that it was happening at all. Nothing made sense. Why was the U.S. doing this to me and by extension, my family? So many mental constructs I’d been building for 35 years dissolved with one knock. The system that I had been idolizing for the better part of my life was under question. That my son and I were lying in a cell was unfair and stupid. Could it be that the U.S. was using us as an example? Were they seeking to quiet the public’s frustrated rumblings of inaction against illegal immigrants by saying, “See, we are doing our job protecting America!” How else to explain what had just happened? It didn’t make any sense.

I’ve tried for years to seek US residency and citizenship for me and my family, ever since I was invited here to study under the Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) fellowship. We’ve hired lawyers, spent tens of thousands of dollars for the permission to stay here, working, contributing to society, and, yes, trying to live that American dream I’d had in my head since my early years in Bulgaria. Why would they lock me up? I am an academician, business owner, taxpayer. And why would they lock up my son? He came to the U.S. at the age of two, knows no other home, and all the decisions that had been made on his behalf had been made by me. Why lock him up? This is beyond unfair. This is heartless.

The tears did not stop that first night but I would soon learn there were others in Delaney who were worse off than me. And yet, many found it in themselves to listen to my story, to help me adjust to life in detention and even gave me some of the basic necessities for the first few weeks. Their kindness and wisdom showed me humanity in an inhumane situation. This was a good realization for me.

Me, my son, and six guys in a cell

October 5-6, 2011 — Delaney Hall Detention Facility, Newark, New Jersey

Hungry, cold, and dead-tired, the trauma of the past 14 hours of processing succeeded in bringing me to my psychological edge. Most of our time was spent in different offices – waiting to answer a new set of questions. The names and faces of the interrogators became too many to remember and numbness soon spread through me. Handcuffs were on then off, on then off. Finally, I knew we weren’t going anywhere. The stiff orange jumper was placed in my lap and I realized this would be no quick visit. Somehow I knew I would be there long enough to see the material become softer over time, not so rough against my skin. This was not a consolation, just a reminder we were in big trouble.

The cell Eni and I were in holds eight. On my back in a bottom bunk, I stared at the underside of the bed above me. The sound of my roommates makes it difficult for me to shut out the day, to falter into a peaceful state of denial. I miss my wife then, the familiar sounds of her drifting off to sleep. I’m praying she is safe and not about to be ripped from our comfortable, very American life.

To my left is Pakistan. Above left – Peru. To my right is Bangladesh. Above right – Mali. In the corner – Guatemala and Brazil.

Above me – Bulgaria. My son.

I feel an overwhelming sadness then, and when I hear the muffled crying from one of the other bunks, I can’t help but cry myself.

“You okay, Dad?” Eni asks, his face upside down, peering at me from the edge of his bunk from above. The dark circles under his eyes evidence of the day we’ve had, and I don’t know when he’ll have the luxury of sleeping-in again.

I wanna be a cowboy

The details of my existence were my perfect storm. It’s why the love and fascination with America started. I began to escape to the West in different ways. My friends and I played cowboys and Indians all the time. We would emulate American culture every way we could imagine, sometimes with comedic, cartoonish effects. We walked with “cowboy swagger”, which we were sure was attractive for the girls (it wasn’t). We invented ridiculous hairstyles in our efforts to bypass the school’s strictly-enforced requirement for military-style haircuts.

My parents bought me “Bulgarian Levi’s”, which were a crude imitation of the real thing. I refused to wear them. Instead, I managed to score a pair of authentic Wrangler’s, which I wore while searching for the coveted Levi’s. My friends and I yearned for the West’s fashions, and we most wanted the blue jeans we idolized. They were extremely hard to find, even on the black market, and months of saving went into paying for just one pair. Often we paid for fakes, but we didn’t care as long as they looked real. It took me years to get an authentic pair of Levi’s jeans and a jacket, two sizes too large. In my head I was cool nonetheless. I also smoked Marlboros–hard to come by, and expensive. I quit smoking in 1993, on U.S. soil, realizing that modern American society looks down on smokers. Yeah, I did it for health, too.

We worshipped American movies, especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and emulated Clint Eastwood every chance we got. It wasn’t until later that I found out the film was Italian, not American. Like everything else American, movies were difficult to get. The films that did make it to the Bulgarian theatres were often censored, with whole episodes and scenes cut out. The only way for us to know this was that the movies often didn’t make sense, so we figured there had to be more to it.

Movies gave me the ability to escape, but also so much more. Every western film was evidence, proof, that there was a better world “out there”, a better society built on meritocracy. This society was where people loved their jobs and put their hearts into what they did. By comparison, everybody hated their job in Bulgaria, and put in the bare minimum. A popular saying: “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.” I digress, but this is important. One of the many disappointments upon graduating from college was the work environment I found myself in. I wanted to do my job, and do it quickly and efficiently. My coworkers didn’t like that. It made them look bad so I gave in and learned to scale back and just coast, like everyone else. It didn’t make me happy but at least I wasn’t a pariah.

Likewise, American music was scarce. My friends and I had a distribution network, consisting of making cassette tape copies of vinyl LPs. The third and fourth iterations of these recordings were so bad one could hardly recognize the tune. But we were crazy about them anyway. We loved The Beatles. I learned to play all their songs on my guitar, and knew all their lyrics. I remember most of them to this day.

I have said before that my friends and I fell in love with the West sight unseen. We loved The Beatles because they represented the West, not because we had evaluated them against, say The Rolling Stones and decided The Beatles were better. These evaluations did come, but many years later. We loved their music and sang the songs because it made us feel more “western”.

My family gave me my west-oriented foundation. My high school friends helped me build this into a life-time philosophy.

A tiny kitchen in Sofia

Poorer than most, I remember my grandmother and aunts comparing our situation to the Bulgarian equivalent to the Joneses. It must have hurt them to know that my father was a university professor, but the whole family was poor nonetheless. As a kid I often wanted him to sacrifice his beliefs for the good of the family. As an adult, I am more compassionate and on a good day, applaud him. Mom worked as a lab assistant at the technical institute and only joined the party because of her memories. Born into a family of “bourgeois sympathizers”, her family was under threat daily because they wouldn’t get behind the regime. I am beginning to think that some of her fears might have been unfounded or irrational, but they were there and quite real to us. Whatever the cause of these fears, Mom decided to join the party as a way to appease the powers that be. But everybody saw right through it.

So, too broke to afford more, my parents made the decision to separate the three of us. From infancy until I was seven, I lived with my maternal grandmother and two aunts. We occupied a single room in a community building, where we shared a kitchen and an outhouse with the rest of the tenants. Until I visited my friend, I thought this was normal. When I realized that I lived very differently from other kids, I remember how the desire for my own space and a “normal life” became overwhelming. Why was I only seeing my parents on the weekends, while my sister, born a year after me, stayed with them? I felt like an outsider and more comfortable with my grandmother, Mama Mia, and aunts Anna and Beba.

By age seven I moved back with my parents and sister. I was supposedly home, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was leaving my real family to go live with distant relatives. I often wonder how Mom and Dad got through most days. My sister and I argued a lot and as a family, we didn’t spend much time together, other than the evening meal. I dreaded dinner time. My parents fought a lot, or we were all silent as we sat around the table with the bland and unappealing food Mom threw together.

Dreaming of America

Bulgaria, 1970s.

Usually very private, it would take a few drinks for my Uncle Stefan to tell us stories about America. Around the dinner table one night, I remember him recounting his trip to visit an old college friend who’d defected. “In America,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and seemed to savor the words, “police can’t stop you on the street and ask for an ID.” This was mind-blowing to us, considering that such practice was commonplace in Bulgaria. America meant wide open spaces, abundance in every way you can imagine, and friendly people who weren’t burdened by oppression. I learned from him about degrees of freedom unheard of in our home country. My uncle worshipped America and now I did too. I dreamed of America daily after that.

It was the circumstances of my early years that laid the foundation for this yearning. Learning that America promised freedom of speech, financial opportunity, and space to breathe−exactly what we were lacking − fueled the intensity of my longing. Have-nots were the rule for most in Bulgaria, though my father made our situation worse. I both blamed and understood him for some of what we didn’t have. A university professor, he staunchly refused to join the Communist party, ensuring that he’d never get the financial and social benefits that other professors at the university received for their allegiance. His colleagues of similar rank were getting higher salaries, plus additional income-generating opportunities, such as lectures, publications, etc. Dad was shut out of everything. As a young boy who’d listened to my Uncle Stefan’s stories, the unfairness of it was even clearer to me. In America he wouldn’t be punished for his beliefs and opinions.

Am I Under Arrest?

(continued from “A hard knock“)

“Put on some sneakers, we’ll take you to the office,” he answered, ignoring my questions.

“For how long?” Didn’t I at least have the right to know this?

“A couple of hours, maybe a couple of days.” His words as vague as all his other answers.

Finally I nod and turn to go get ready, my hands curled into fists at my side. Baldy comes in to wait for me, the other two stay outside.

I think then about a very successful meeting I’d had the day before. It was a huge contract for me and I’d planned to work on it today. The project? Consulting for a government entity. I couldn’t help but see the irony. I’m both mad and anxious that it’ll have to wait. Same goes for the sailing I’d planned to do tonight.

At the doorway of my son’s room, I stop a moment to watch him while he sleeps. Finally I go and touch his shoulder, tell him ICE is here. “Dress up and let’s go to their office,” I say. He looks confused but seems to know better than to ask a lot of questions.

My hands shake as I put on my sneakers. Baldy is impatient as he hovers too close and I want to tell him to back-off.

As I lock the front door, a fourth guy comes from around the back. Was he stationed there just in case? I want to ask, “Do I look like the type of guy who’s going to take off?”, but don’t–instead, I quietly feel the indignity to my core. After all, I work here, raised my family here, pay my fair share of taxes. It’s the only country my son knows, English the only language he speaks. I feel as American as any U.S. citizen, with the same allegiances. But they don’t care. They don’t care that I’m a Fulbright Scholar and have received many awards, including the honor of Outstanding Professor. They don’t care that the office of George H.W. Bush awarded me a certificate for my work.

Guy #4 leads us to a nondescript SUV. In an almost apologetic tone, he tells my son and me that we have to ride in the back. He says he is supposed to handcuff us, but won’t–not until we get to our destination.

Handcuffs? Are we being arrested? At no time has someone said the words, “You are under arrest”, like I’ve seen in the movies. But last time I checked, handcuffs aren’t used for those free to go about their day.

We drive from North Brunswick to Newark, NJ. It’s surreal. My son is giving the driver directions while he is texting. I warn him he should put the phone away, but he dismisses me. I feel pride at his brazenness, but at the same time it scares me it will make things worse for us.

Gradually it begins to dawn on me that this is the culmination of my 20-year U.S. immigration saga. 20 years of hopes and dreams that tomorrow will be better than today, crushed. It is darkest when hope is gone.

A hard knock

New Jersey, October 2011

A hard knock on my front door breaks the quiet ease of my morning. Maybe a deliveryman, except they usually ring the bell. Plus, I wasn’t expecting any packages, but perhaps my wife is. I’d ask her if she hadn’t already left for work. For a moment I wonder if I should answer. A voice in my head says no, but I ignore it.

Two guys in their mid-thirties are there, dressed in regular clothes. Experience tells me this can’t be good.

“Hi,” one of them says. “We are conducting an investigation. We are from Homeland Security. ICE. Who lives here?”

Damn. “I live here,” I answer, and make a mental note to start listening to my gut.

Because of our immigration status, we’d had a lot of interaction with the authorities over the years. They knew where we lived. We’d shown up for every court date, every appointment, everything. I tell myself there should be no reason to be concerned.

Pushing away the urge to ask them to go away, I invite them in. They don’t budge. Instead, one guy pulls out a yellow folder with a half-inch-thick stack of paper inside and opens it. A picture of my son stares up at me. I now know for sure this is not like my other encounters with H.S. I feel protective, almost territorial. This is my son, after all. I want to rip the picture from the folder.

“Does Enislav live here?”

“Yes, he is my son.” My heart starts beating too fast now. Anger triggers a rush of adrenaline; the violation into my private life leaves me sick inside.

“Is he here?”

I want to say no. I want to telepathically send a message to Eni to climb out his bedroom window and go to his sister’s house.

“Yes,” I answer through a clenched jaw.

“Who else lives here?”

“My wife.”

“Is she here?”

“No, she left for work.” I say silent thanks that she’d already left for the day, but at the same time need her.

“Listen, we have a warrant for you. We need to satisfy the warrant.” No emotion. They are well-trained.

“What does that mean?” I ask, trying to outwardly maintain a steadiness I’m not feeling.

“You have to come with us to the office to fill out some paperwork.”

A third guy with a shaved head suddenly comes around and wants to know if everything is okay. Everything is okay, his buddies tell him. I feel outnumbered and realize that was their intent.

“So why don’t you go get your son and get ready,” one finally says.

“Get ready for what?” My voice is shaking a bit, betraying me with its lack of confidence. “Listen, I have never been through something like this. What am I getting ready for?” I nearly yell those last words, but stop short. Growing up during the Cold War in a Communist country, I’m well aware of what yelling at authority will get you. In Bulgaria this happened. But in the U.S? Incomprehensible.

Prologue

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?

When life gives you lemons, write about it

I arrived in the US in 1991 at the age of 33. Like millions before me, I decided to seek a better life for me and my family in The Land Of Opportunity. I thought good citizenship, academic excellence, and successful entrepreneurship would easily pave the way. I was wrong.

After eighteen years of legal wrangling with the US immigration authorities, my son and I were detained in a for-profit facility in Newark, New Jersey, and threatened with deportation. We were released after 65 days in detention, following a massive campaign of public support. Our case is still pending.

On this blog I will be publishing excerpts from my forthcoming book about my family’s ordeal. This is My American Lemonade.