I’ve been wanting to get out of the United States for the better part of my life. Not because I don’t love it here; I do. It’s my birthplace, the place I always want to come back to, the place I always know I can come back to. It is my home. But having been born American, I was taught that the entire world was at my fingertips. My little blue passport guaranteed me two things: I could go almost anywhere, and I could always come back. So given the opportunity to go, I always took it. In my adult life, I’ve lived in five different U.S. states and three different countries. I’ve lived my life untethered to any one place, fully aware of the privilege of being allowed to move freely, and fully taking advantage of that privilege. It is without a doubt the thing I will miss the most.
You see, I fear the end of that privilege is fast approaching. Maybe I’m catastrophizing. Maybe I’ve just had to listen to one too many stories of political refugees fleeing in the night, exiled from a homeland where just a few years prior they too knew privilege. Maybe my perspective is skewed. Such is the nature of existential dread. I can always convince myself, if only for a little while, that I am letting anxiety get the best of me, that no way are we as doomed as I’m letting myself believe. Then I remember, I have heard this story before. I do know how this typically ends. My fears, to use the language of asylum law, are well-founded.
In the days immediately following our last presidential election, as many of us were coming out of our what-the-hell-just-happened stupor, I remember reading some foreign press piece finding hope in the fact that having elected such a president, the United States might be jolted into realizing that we are in fact no better at these games of governance and politics than the “developing” world — a designation itself always meant to separate us from “them,” a.k.a. the “shithole” countries. It was a hopeful position to take, still assuming the best in our collective nature. The election of our very own con-man, our homegrown despot, would certainly awaken our sense of solidarity with the global community, right? The myth of American exceptionalism was sure to crack.
Turns out, not so much. Even those actively working to stop this administration’s most egregious assaults on democracy and the rule of law, still seem to have this unwavering faith in the “system.” Broken rule after broken rule, these true believers cling to the idea that Donald Trump is the cause of the chaos. All we have to do is get rid of him and everything goes back to normal. Get out the vote and on Nov. 3rd, we can pretend this never happened. We are still the best there ever was.
No doubt, it is hard to abandon our hard-wired identity as a superpower. In spite of all the turmoil and confusion of the last four years, the truth is that up until this year, for a lot of people (maybe most), their day to day hadn’t changed much. They still walk out of their same house, through the same city, to the same job. Like slowly boiling frogs, there was no sense of urgency. Then COVID struck and the cracks in our foundation just got wider and more obvious.
Right off the bat, in those first few weeks of our wholly inadequate “shutdown,” the income and class disparities were glaring. As celebrities scrambled to post solidarity videos urging people to stay indoors from their lush backyards, essential workers, most of them low-wage earners, were required to return to work, exposing themselves to a deadly illness or face economic ruin. With no public healthcare structure to speak of, millions of uninsured people faced a global pandemic completely on their own, with millions more joining them weekly as jobs started disappearing.
Then George Floyd was murdered in front of the entire world and the biggest crack of all, our greatest sin, took front and center once again. Mr. Floyd was far from the only death at the hands of law enforcement. For 400 years, we’ve been killing Black, Brown, and Indigenous people with impunity; with pride, even. In the first eight months of 2020, police were responsible for the deaths of 164 Black people. At least. The masses took to the streets to demand a justice that has never been. Our government responded with riot gear and secret police. Secret. Police.
Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on, though not everywhere, of course. While the United States continues to ignore it and go about its business while the death toll rises, Asia seems to have things under control and life there seems to be moving on. We don’t talk about that, of course. It might force us to concede that we aren’t actually the best. Not at anything.
Add to this mix an election that is being set up to be contested, a president that is all but promising not to transition out of office peacefully, and again: Secret. Police. All I see is doom. Someone please prove me wrong.
Like I said, I know this story. The location and the names often change, but the ending… the ending is always the same. Pretty soon a lot of us, certainly the most privileged among us, are going to be clamoring to get out of here, begging another country to take us in, desperate to show that we are deserving of a life of peace and safety. But let me tell y’all a not-so-secret secret: the world does not take kindly to refugees. Not even a little bit. Our little blue passports aren’t going to save us this time.
Martha E. Menendez, Esq. is the Bernstein Senior Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic.