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Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The baby stops wailing, momentarily. His mother, twice the size of the father, rocks him as gently as possible in her gargantuan arms. Her vice-like grip soothes him. The immigration officer calls out a Chinese-sounding name for the third time. People giggle. Eventually a Chinese family decides it must be their name and hurry forward, slightly embarrassed. A young man with tattoos speaks Spanish to his girlfriend who drapes her arms around his neck, visibly in love.


The gargantuan Guyanese woman walks away. The baby screams until she returns. The wedding ring on her sausage-like finger is basically a man’s signet ring. I look at her scrawny husband and think of the Stabroek News story about the 76-year-old Guyanese granny who battered her 45-year-old boyfriend to death. 


I continue guessing the nationalities around me. I love this game. It’s like a United Nations Guess Who? Guyanese and Venezuelans abound. I observe passports. Republic of Ghana, Republic of India. Eventually Germany then USA. The big boys have arrived.


All, no doubt, have fascinating stories. I wonder if they ever imagined being immigrants. I never did. Sitting here at the Immigration Department, it’s the first time I realise my status. In England I’m an emigrant. In Trinidad an immigrant. Both are politicised terms.


“Any idea how long the wait will be?” I enquire. We’ve been here since 7 am. Two hours later all we’ve accomplished is handing in our appointment letters.


“Take a seat, please,” the officer snaps, “I don’t know how long the wait is.” I refrain from cussing.


A door slams and a Christmas decoration drops to the floor. Twelfth Night has passed, perhaps it’s an omen.


Oman? Roman? She sells Seychelles? We’ve all washed up on the T&T shores. Like flotsam and jetsam. 


“Anne Frank!” an officer calls. Surely not? A middle-aged black woman stands up. The officer repeats it to make sure: “Anne Theresa Frank?” The woman nods.


Muhammed Ali is called next. A Syrian, not the erstwhile Cassius. Later I google the name and find there is a Muhammed Ali in Trinidad on LinkedIn.


Portraits of Carmona and Aunty Kamla gaze down over the latest arrivals. 


Signs say Please Do Not Stand In The Corridor and No Hats Allowed In The Waiting Area. But people are standing in the corridors. And wearing hats. Whoever printed those signs must be apoplectic with rage. I picture them in a back office screaming at the CCTV monitor.


A woman with a T-shirt saying “I Feel Sorry For People Who Don’t Know Me,” falls asleep on the shoulder of the stranger next to her. For a country that doesn’t get irony, ironic T-shirts are surprisingly popular.


A Malaysian man makes notes in a study book about molecular biology. Not all immigrants are needy and destitute. Many are here because the country needs them. The health and media industries need CSME skilled workers. 


Three hours pass and very little happens. I have no wifi or 3G. I begin drafting this column on my phone. This is the modern world that I’ve learned about. 


The torpor briefly lifts when Bunji Garlin walks in. People murmur excitedly but respect his privacy. Just one autograph request. He waits in line like the rest of us. 


Five hours in the excitement has well and truly worn off. Bunji left ages ago. I haven’t eaten and my bladder is about to burst. I don’t want to leave my spot in case they call my name and I miss it. An American woman hands out lollipops to children as rewards for patience. One hundred and 35 people have arrived according to the ticketing system but we 7 am folk are still here, questioning the system, if there is one at all. 


I ask an officer but he has no time to explain.


“Do you have an appointment today?” he barks. 


“Well, yes...” 


“Then wait to be called.”


After seven hours I am called. Once in the room the woman stamps my passport and tells me how I could have avoided all this at the airport. I scream internally.


Later my landlord gives me sage advice, “In Trinidad, never hustle officials. You’ll wait longer. If you get through, eventually, that’s the main thing, don’t watch how long it took.”


I think of the young Don Corleone arriving in New York in The Godfather Part II and in my head I hatch a plan to etch something on the Port-of-Spain lighthouse: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


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