The Immigration History(ies) That Make Me

September 14, 2023
By: Allison Sáenz
Map of Central America, Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

On a cold and windy February morning, I find myself waking up at 5:30am in order to catch a 6:30am train to begin my commute of the day. I account for extra time because I’ve never been to today’s particular destination on the schedule. I am in Washington DC conducting dissertation research and my time in the nation’s capital has taken me to archival repositories at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Archives of American Art. Materials I have come across include poetry discussion audio recordings, oral histories that speak to issues of migration, and political posters that critique U.S. imperialism abroad. However, my dissertation, “Sunbelt Sanctuary: Central American Immigration, Culture, and Ethnicity in Houston, Post-1965,” places Central American placemaking within the context of federal immigration policy and its manifestations at the local level. Therefore, I am headed to a repository that will provide insight into this particular history—one that is deeply tied to my history as a daughter of Central American immigrants.

My thoughts linger in tentative theses and the possible archival discoveries of the day as I jump on the Red Line in Northeast Washington DC and transfer to the Green Line for a third of my journey. My destination is the Branch Avenue Station, which will take me to Camp Springs, Maryland. I arrive an hour into my travel and I can see the outline of my destination from the Metro station. Even on this cloudy day, its grandeur is evident. From the sidewalk across the street, others might mistake this building as mere office space, but to me, it is distinguishable. Two flags are met with the wind and a large piece of cement front and center contains imprinted words that are hard to miss: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

As the daughter of a deported parent, I know that this research visit will be one of the most difficult of my career and this becomes clear as soon as I enter the building. I approach the front desk where security guards are already processing visitors. I await my turn to be scrutinized and am immediately questioned as to why I am there. It is difficult to recall the discussion that follows, but my emotional memory has not forgotten the energy of suspicion that surrounded me that day. I tell security that I am a researcher and have an appointment with the USCIS History Office and Library, to which I am told that I have the incorrect address and no such library exists. 

Anxieties leading up to this research visit mean that I have memorized the address. I know that I am at the correct location, and I communicate this to security staff. They then instructed me to sit down to the side and reach out to my point of contact. I called the historian I have been in communication with and waited patiently for this to be cleared up. 

Sitting to the side in the lobby of this building takes me back to other waiting rooms I have sat in. This is a place of someone’s livelihood, but it is making me relive a nightmare. Does it take me back to the waiting I did when I visited my undocumented father in prison? Or does it take me back to the waiting I did when I saw him for the last time in the United States at a detention center, right before he was deported to his home county? These questions are a reel in my mind, and I do not know if they will stop while I am in this building. The reality is, that the waiting I am doing transports me to each of these instances, all at once. And all at once, I feel the weight of carrying my family’s complex story of migration into unexpected spaces.

Suddenly, my point of contact appears. I am torn from the thoughts that attempt to define this visit. I am then cleared to go through security. I am reminded that I am entering a federal building and questioned if I have any explosives. My water bottle is a quarter of the way filled, and I am asked to drink out of it. I leave my driver’s license at the front desk and will only receive it once I exit the building. These manifestations of federal power at the personal level stack up and shape how I approach the reading room. There is an eagerness to put my historian cap on and find documents that are helpful in elevating the complex histories of Central Americans in the United States. However, I cannot sever myself as I enter this archival repository. I am both a historian and daughter of immigrants. I am both a researcher and the daughter of a deported father. I am both committed to recovering this history and broken by the history that has made me. 

Entering the headquarters of USCIS is a layered experience for me that seems to have no end. I am not allowed to go anywhere without an escort, which is made clear by the bright red lanyard around my neck. I am hyper-aware that I am seen as an outsider who must be watched closely. Ironically, I am doing the same thing. These headquarters will never merely be just a building. It is a harbinger of power–a power that has dictated consistently at different points in U.S. history who is worthy of belonging and who is not. 

The archival material I come across is both informative and infuriating. Plans of action by part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service note how “Detention is the most efficient means of ensuring the alien’s appearance at the deportation hearing. Deportation is the ultimate deterrent to illegal immigration.”[1] Though, my most significant take away upon walking out of these spaces is that the immigration history(ies) that make me extend beyond understandings solely found in archival repositories. The immigration histories that made me are within me. They followed me into USCIS’s Headquarters security. They follow me as I place multiple Freedom of Information Act requests. They follow me in my teaching, research, and writing. 

Being an immigration historian is not merely an intellectual exercise. Those of us who feel the personal reverberations of stories past, in the present, engage in an emotional labor that requires us to take a step back. Disengaging with historical content does not mean dismissing it. Instead, slowing down is part of the archival process. We recover so much more than a new historical intervention when allowing ourselves to hold space for the sentiments that shaped our past, present and future. 

When my research appointment wraps up in the afternoon, I stay with these thoughts as I am escorted back to the lobby, given my driver’s license in return, and walk out of the building. I know I have much to unpack, intellectually and emotionally. However, as I take the train back to Washington DC, I look down at what I intentionally chose to wear the night before. A basic black t-shirt has the words “Central American Collective” front and center. It was given to me by its founder at a community event in Houston, and I knew I would need a reminder of the reason I am an immigration historian. Suburban Maryland passes by me on the empty train car and despite the heaviness that weighs down on me, I feel affirmed when remembering why I made this trip, and who I made it for.

[1] Plan of Action, Vertical Files: Illegal Aliens, Central America-United States, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services History Office and Library, Camp Springs, MD.

Allison Sáenz

Allison Sáenz is a Honduran-Costa Rican-American PhD Candidate at the University of Houston where her research spans Latina/o/x, immigration, and public history. Her work centers the Central American diaspora as it has historically navigated a complex immigration system. She has previously been a Latino Museum Studies Predoctoral Fellow with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino. Currently, she is an Inter-University Program for Latino Research/University of Illinois-Chicago Mellon Fellow.

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