📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
On March 12, President Donald Trump responded to the global spread of COVID-19 by announcing a 30-day ban on the entry of all "aliens" traveling to the United States from Europe, beginning at midnight the following evening, Friday, March 13. I woke up that Thursday morning in a small, sunlit apartment on a quiet street in Athens, Greece, lined with tightly planted orange trees. My partner, a U.S. citizen by birth, and I had just arrived there from Latvia, where I had traveled to renew my student visa. After five demanding years of doctoral studies at Duke University, I had saved up to spend my spring break abroad before returning to North Carolina for my final year. As I do every morning, I opened my eyes and reached out for my phone—a sticky habit I've been trying to break. That morning, I am glad that I did. March 12th is the day that I will never forget, but not because of the vile, xenophobic words—"foreign virus"—that left U.S. president's mouth. I will remember it because of the power of solidarity across borders that I experienced in spite of them.
As I opened one news notification after another, it finally dawned on me. It didn't matter that we had both traveled exactly the same route and spent every moment together for over two weeks. Neither did it matter that I currently live in the United States, nor that my visa had just been extended for another five years. I would not be allowed to board the flight back to the U.S with my partner, scheduled for the next week.
See also: Banking on immigrants
In its official statement, the White House deemed any "alien" a security threat, unless they were legally married or otherwise related to an American citizen or permanent resident. For the first time on a mass scale, many European Union citizens, who are otherwise able to travel to the United States using the visa waiver program, were subject to scrutiny at the border normally reserved for non-western nationals. Although the EU condemned the measures, several right-wing politicians in Italy, France, and Greece also resorted to blaming migrants for the virus's rapid spread across Europe.
March 12th is the day that I will never forget, but not because of the vile, xenophobic words—"foreign virus"—that left U.S. president's mouth. I will remember it because of the power of solidarity across borders that I experienced in spite of them.
Within this nationalist narrative, the migrant "becomes" equal to the virus, threatening to "invade" and "infect" the host body. Not only does Trump's ethno-nationalism require cultural elevation of "Americans" as a morally superior group compared to those who migrate to the United States, it also necessitates the casting of migrants as threats to the functionality of the nation. Movement across borders poses a threat to the cohesiveness of the state that depends on the exclusionary logic of citizenship. The migrant is always a guest, never truly at home; she belongs neither here nor there, nor anywhere.
For many migrants, home is many places and no place at all. Immigration, whether by choice or circumstance, forces people to live and love across borders, often separated by the scrutiny of checkpoints, nerve-wracking visa interviews, and xenophobic prohibitions (not only on movement, but also on employment, benefits, etc.). It splits you into fragments, and uncertainty becomes a way of life. When Trump got elected, I wondered, as did many immigrants and visa holders, just how my life, and that of Muslim immigrants, DACA recipients, and undocumented people, would be impacted.
It didn't matter that we had both traveled exactly the same route and spent every moment together for over two weeks. Neither did it matter that I currently live in the United States, nor that my visa had just been extended for another five years. I would not be allowed to board the flight back to the U.S with my partner, scheduled for the next week.
Certainly, being an Eastern European affiliated with an elite institution has afforded me the credibility and safety that many migrants who stand next to me in the line at the border cannot count on. But while visa-holding students may be viewed as a more "protected" group, they are certainly not immune to racist, Islamophobic immigration policies enacted by the White House.
Just earlier this year, an Iranian student on a valid visa was turned back at the Boston Logan airport and deported without due process, despite a ruling from a federal judge. Mere months before that, a group of Iranian students "headed to school in the University of California system" were barred from boarding their flight from Tehran altogether.
When students from countries like Iran or Afghanistan are successful in entering the United States, they often receive single-entry visas and are prohibited from leaving the country, thus being separated from their families for years. During their studies, all students are not authorized to work outside of the university, and those not born into wealth often struggle to make ends meet. In the current crisis, many low-income students in the United States have been left with no source of income or support this summer as universities have canceled funding and internship programs and implemented hiring freezes.
In the current crisis, many low-income students in the United States have been left with no source of income or support this summer as universities have canceled funding and internship programs and implemented hiring freezes.
This, of course, is not the image that universities' communication teams project. On February 16, the Vice President of Student Affairs at Duke wrote to all international students "to remind you that we are here for you." Accordingly, when I realized that I wouldn't be allowed to board my return flight home, I promptly wrote to university officials and faculty leaders. I was at risk of being homeless in Europe for months with little funding to sustain myself.
In the following days, no university official monitored this emergency situation or contacted me to offer any substantial assistance. My department's director of graduate studies did not respond at all. As my colleagues wrote a week later, the university's COVID-19 response reflects the broader disregard for already precarious graduate students and other essential yet neglected workers, such as the subcontracted dining staff. We have now collectively issued a set of demands, urging the university "to look after its own" as it purports to do.
See also: The hidden politics of immigration
Desperate for legal advice and support, I turned to social media, posting a plea on my personal Facebook page, tagging friends, mentors, and acquaintances. Minutes later, my phone began buzzing. High school and college friends, some of whom I have not talked to in years, sent their cell phone numbers, words of support, and offers to host me "for as long as [I] need." Finally, my friend Mindy Isser, an experienced labor organizer, replied with advice that, in hindsight, was a harsh dose of reality I desperately needed: "I think you should do whatever you possibly can to get back to the U.S. before Friday at midnight," she wrote. "People will support you."
The chaos ensued. A flight from London to Chicago cost exactly $8,682.
The chaos ensued. A flight from London to Chicago cost exactly $8,682. Transactions failed and webpages crashed. With one click, prices soared, and across European airports, travelers paid "as much as $20,000 for last-minute flights." In that moment, it became clear that returning home was wholly determined by ability to pay. At last, not yet knowing how I would afford it, I booked a flight to Boston scheduled to arrive just a couple of hours before the midnight deadline. Later that evening, I sat in the bed and sobbed, watching donations pour into the GoFundMe page set up by my close friend in Durham. In less than three hours, my network of friends, colleagues, and activists crowdsourced the funds to cover all my expenses.
The next morning, while it was still pitch dark outside, I zipped up my suitcase and hugged my partner. Choking on tears, I got into a bright yellow cab and watched him through the tinted window as he turned into a small dot in the distance. Twelve hours later, I arrived at the Boston Logan airport at 8:46 PM, a little over three hours before the travel ban took effect. "Your love brought me home… in time," I wrote on my Facebook page later that night.
The United States government was, of course, not the only country to implement a travel ban. Other countries across the world have implemented strict travel restrictions, too, although notably, Portugal did so while treating all migrants as permanent residents. Airlines followed suit by grounding largely empty planes. As a result, western media has been slammed with stories of British, Australian, and American nationals stranded abroad and struggling to find a way home.
Yet, other travelers, guest workers, and foreign students—among them, 4,600 international students stranded in Wuhan, China—have also been trapped in foreign countries due to border closures and governments' inability to repatriate their citizens. They, too, have been left with little recourse. Western media's relative silence on the fates of thousands of non-western nationals signals the broader social disregard for immigrants, guest workers, asylum-seekers, and refugees, and, more broadly, for those who do not hold passports from North American or Western European nations.
All across the world, hundreds of people are displaced, stranded, or forced to leave their loved ones behind and run across the border. Their daily suffering does not prompt a global crisis, neither do they dominate the news headlines, because as a society, we have normalized that kind of violence: against the poor, the prisoners, the low-wage workers, the migrants, the undocumented, and the refugees. In the last few weeks, however, the majority of us—not just them—have become vulnerable to losing employment, health insurance, and our homes, facing the possibility of succumbing to premature death, or being stranded far away from our loved ones. I say this not to minimize the urgency of the coronavirus crisis, nor to dismiss its absolute devastation on our communities, both here in the United States and across the globe. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about how forms of social and material violence that we are up against in this particular moment in time otherwise remain invisible unless they begin to affect those to whom this "should not" happen.
When institutions failed me, my community mobilized and— within three hours—made sure that I was able to safely come home.
We ask: how long will this last? We desperately hope to return to our normal lives, not realizing that our biggest mistake would be to turn away from what the coronavirus pandemic has revealed. By putting pressure on our social institutions, the pandemic has merely intensified the fires that have been burning for a long time, exposing the government's misplaced priorities and the failure of institutions to prioritize the wellbeing of all human beings.
My experience, while not disastrous, nevertheless, showed me that ultimately our hope is with the people. When institutions failed me, my community mobilized and— within three hours—made sure that I was able to safely come home. Trans activist and teacher Dean Spade refers to this sort of autonomous mobilization among ordinary people as "radical collective care." Spade argues that in crisis (which is, one may say, perpetual), social movements are faced with two challenges: how to address our precarious conditions of existence and how to mobilize people to resist them. "In face of these conditions," Spade writes, "expanding use of mutual aid strategies will be the most effective way to support vulnerable populations to survive, mobilize significant resistance, and build the infrastructure we need for the coming disasters."
Now more than ever, we must boldly choose solidarity over charity. Charity presumes that the more fortunate of us must give generously to the "needy." It affords us the illusion of safety, which was crumbled in a matter of weeks. Solidarity, on the other hand, implies our interconnectedness in struggle, our dependency on each other, and the willingness to offer more than symbolic gestures of care.
In the face of this crisis and especially, in its aftermath, we must build new relational networks guided by the principles of collective care and mobilize together to provide mutual aid. We must turn to each other. We must take care of one another. We must honor the dead and fight for the living. We must create something else.
This piece was originally published in April 2020.