How my kids—and I—manage our fear in the age of Trump
This week’s Half ‘n Half is about how the 2016 election raised questions for my Czech American children (and me) on belonging and our place in this world. The story begins more than 7 years ago in the summer of 2011.
“I’m going to be the officer,” my then 8-year-old daughter, Anna says, “You guys line up here.” She motions to her two younger brothers. She has turned a white table with stenciled farm animals into an immigration desk, like the ones we have stood before in airports as long as she can remember.
As I listen to my children playacting, I remember back to the first time our family was questioned upon our arrival to the US, the year before my husband, who is Czech, decided to give up his US Green card and apply for a tourist visa. Though my husband received his Green card when we were married, we soon realized that entering the US on a Green card raised alarm bells at the border.
I smiled and looked the DHS officer in the eye, as he took my family’s passports, four blue books and one red one. He glanced at the stamp on the customs form, at the children’s travel suitcases embroidered with their names and asked, “Why are you being sent to secondary?” referring to the extra level of inspection that non-citizens were routinely put through before admission to the US.
“Oh, it’s because of him,” he said, motioning to my husband’s Czech passport.
Waiting in the small, hot room, my children were thirsty, then hungry. They wanted to know why we couldn’t go through to my parents, who had promised balloons and a Welcome banner when we arrived in Washington Dulles. They started to chase each other around the pile I made of the suitcases while I tried to keep my voice level and calm. Inside I was boiling. And frightened.
This was in 2011. Over the years, my children would learn their part at the border: Don’t speak to an immigration officer until he speaks to you. Say your name loud and clear. Don’t goof off. Let Mommy talk first.
Though we were always cordial to customs agents, I didn’t see that this level of security was necessary. I paid U.S. taxes. We should not have been afraid.
But my husband was seen as an outsider. I was afraid.
My children know how it feels to have immigration officials ask questions that put a sharp edge in their father’s voice and make their mother’s words tremble in the air. They have learned firsthand that crossing from one country to the next is a privilege not to be taken for granted.
“What do you think?” Anna waves her passport book in my face. She has colored grey stars and stripes on a red American flag and glued it in the middle of the book.
“I’m going to make a stamp for everywhere we visit in America.”
A part of me was not surprised that my children had spent the morning making their own passports. Like it or not, the fabric of the passport game has been woven into their young lives as intricately as the patches on the faded quilt that covers my childhood bed where my daughter sleeps when we visit.
In the age of Trump, when fear, nationalism, and racism have spread from the United States outward toward Europe and beyond, even raising my children in a fairytale village outside of Prague doesn’t keep them safe from the Trump-created crises that pop up on their social media and in the news.
It has been years since the summer they played the passport game. My daughter is now a teenager, more interested in taking artsy photos for her Instagram feed than in coloring, and my two sons are inquisitive pre-teens.
We live far from Washington and daily doses of political news with headlines each more dramatic than the next. Still, when the US makes international news, my children want to know what’s going on.
With the impeachment trial underway, I thought back to my conversation with Oliver about the wall on the day of the election.
We were in the car on the way to the store when Oliver asked, “Mom, President Trump won’t do anything bad to Česko, will he?”
“I mean, his bývalá žena is Czech, right?”
I was surprised Oliver knew that Ivana is Czech. I was not surprised that Oliver didn’t know the word for “ex-wife” in English. My children flipflop between English, Czech and their own mixed “Czechlish” like they switch gears on their bikes to get up the steep hill to our house without slowing down.
“If Trump does build a wall, we’ll get past it, right? Daddy, too?” Oliver leaned forward in the backseat until his head touched my shoulder. I could almost see him thinking about casting for bass at Lost Lake with my father. “What if something bad happens in America? Can Grana and Opa come here to live?”
I remember trying to quell my son’s fears, telling him that a president could not build such a wall. It would be nonsense, and the other branches of the government wouldn’t let it happen. When he insisted, I told him that, “Yes, we could likely get through it.” Even as I said it, the reality made me mad.
“But, would you want to stand on one side and know that other good people were stuck on the other side?” I asked. Oliver shook his head. We were both close to tears.
“Let’s not talk about it anymore, Mom.” He added, “My friend, Matyáš, he says Trump is like President Zeman.” (Miloš Zeman, the current Czech President is a controversial national figure, whose views on immigration are similar to Trump’s, although his international reach is far weaker.)
Later that night when my children were in bed, I had told my mother about my conversation with Oliver. In return, she said my sister-in-law called her that morning to ask, “If something bad happens in Europe, we’ll get Emily and the family back to America, right?”
My mom and I broke into nervous giggles wondering what the rest of my family in Virginia would think if they knew Oliver wanted to bring them to the Czech Republic to keep them safe. It is not that we thought the situation was funny. It was just that we didn’t know what else to do.
Nearly two years later, when Oliver heard the news mention Trump’s wall, he came to me saying, “But, I thought there wasn’t going to be a wall. You said he couldn’t do that, Mom.”
My heart sank. As much as I yearn to let my children live in their innocence as long as possible, I also want them to grow up with a wide world view. My family has been on the wrong side of the rules before (albeit, in a privileged sense). Still, Oliver knows it is not a pleasant experience to be one of “them” when you want to be an “us.”
Before I had a chance to respond, Oliver answered himself. “Mom, anyway, a wall will not fix it, people can get around a wall. I know that.”
When the familiar refrain of “Born in the USA,” blasts through the car’s speakers, my children sing along. They don’t know the words beyond the four-word refrain. But it is enough. Two of my children weren’t born in America, but they can still sing it. When they were small, they used to argue about whose song it could be – which one of them was the most American – and then somehow, they agreed the song could belong to all of them.
We need that inclusive spirit now more than ever. We can still do the right thing. But it takes the courage of a people united, not divided, to make the first step.
Wow! So glad you wrote about this. A thought that has been on my mind since Trump was elected. A true fear of being separated from my Czech spouse. It happens in other countries. It happened in the past. It can happen again it seems.
Polly, thanks for reading. I wrote this piece awhile ago, but I never thought it was quite the right time to post it.
What a great story. Thanks for sharing it. I travel all over the world with my American passport and never have a problem. Except when I go back to the USA. I always feel like I’m under suspicion for living in Europe.
Thanks for reading, Christopher, and sorry about the delay in my reply. We were traveling and I didn’t get my message until we arrived back in the Czech Republic. I hope your future travels around the world continue to go smoothly 🙂 Kind regards, Emily
I remember my sister saying to me, “If things ever get bad for you in the Czech Republic, come back to America. We’ll find a way to manage it.” Then Trump was elected. I said to her, “If things ever get bad for you in America, come … .”
Glad to see you on the Monitor again, Emily. But I don’t see your full by-line anywhere. You deserve one.
Hi Mary, thanks very much for reading and for sharing your feedback! I was also surprised to see the story in the Monitor – so that makes two of us. Kind regards, Emily
I can relate to the border issues coming into the us. My Czech wife got her US citizenship years ago just to get off the green card. However, it is more bureaucratic than something to be fearful of. But yes it drives us nuts. However I feel that your story is a bit over the top. Like most developed countries Czech Republic has a treaty in good standing with the US. People can come here freely. But border security is important in all countries. My czech mother in law once asked if we could help her friend’s daughter to find a husband in the US. Just jokingly. This is because she had been here illegally so many years and she couldn’t return to CZ to visit the family. And she was an educated woman. I actually have known several people like that and I would never help an illegal stay here longer. I would also never overstay my visa in CZ or any country. So a wall may be over the top, but it sends the message to the world to do things correctly. And from your story I think your children’s fear is based more from your over exaggeration.
Hi Steve, thanks for reading my story and for your thoughtful criticism. You raise some good points and others have pointed out (even family members) that the story was over the top. I usually stick to writing about life in the Czech Republic and my family’s experiences in the Czech school system or on our weekends in Czech nature and do not veer into politics. I do believe what my children experience personally and what they hear in the media contributes to their sense of well-being and/or of feeling fearful, but I am sure that they are also affected by how they see that the news affects me. And, I hope that conversations can continue about what is the best step forward to improve the complicated immigration system.
The fact that you had to write this piece breaks my heart. And, as your friend Polly said, “It happens in other countries. It happened in the past. It can happen again it seems.”
Lissa, thanks as always for reading.
I first want to say that for years I have enjoyed your articles.. I can relate to them as I have 2 children living in the Czech Republic. After reading this article, though, I am very confused and have several questions that maybe you can clear up for me and your readers.
If Radek had a Green Card when you got married then gave it up, do you really think it’s unreasonable that US authorities ask some additional questions about this, or anything else they may deem as odd? Also, why does the fact that you pay US taxes exempt you or anyone else in you family to be excluded from extra scrutiny?
Why would there be “alarm bells at the border” when an American citizen and family arrives back to the US with their Green Card holding spouse? You mentioned that Radek was sent to said Secondary, which “was the extra level of inspection that non-citizens were routinely put through before admission to the US”. I went through this same exact scenario countless times with my Green card holding wife over the years, and never heard that this is something that “non-citizens were routinely put through”. As a matter of fact, from my experience, the vast majority of the time arriving to the US we were greeted cordially, asked a few basic questions, then welcomed back sincerely and professionally…. there was never an alarmed feeling, nor “Secondary”, a term I’ve never even heard of until now, but apparently it’s “routine”.
You said you were “inside boiling and frightened”, and that Radek was “seen as an outsider” What exactly were you ‘frightened’ and ‘afraid’ of? Was it fear of his deportation just because he was perceived as an outsider?
When Oliver had concerns about “the wall”, why didn’t you simply explain that the wall in question is being built on the US southern border and is over 1,600 miles away from Dulles International? Or maybe pacify him by saying that this wall has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to your family arriving legally on a flight to this airport. Maybe that would have put him at ease. I can understand why your statement saying: “But, would you want to stand on one side and know that other good people were stuck on the other side?” would totally stress out a child to a point where he is “close to tears”, as you said. Then “nearly two years later, when Oliver heard the news mention Trump’s wall, he came to me saying, “But, I thought there wasn’t going to be a wall. You said he couldn’t do that, Mom”.
Wouldn’t that again have been a good opportunity to possibly explain the truth about the wall, as he has been stressed about it for 2 years at this point? Maybe a decent explanation would help him realize the difference between ‘being one of “them” when you want to be an “us.”
It’s apparent that you and your family went through a very traumatic experience with Radek’s horrible treatment at immigration in 2011, which seems to be the crux of you writing this article. My biggest question is: you seem to want to portray this as one of “Trump-created crises”, but did you purposely failed to mention that when this happened in 2011, Barack Obama was president?
I’d like to say that I am in no way whatsoever a huge supporter of President Trump. I am though, a huge supporter of non-biased, fair and impartial journalism, and facts without fear which was totally lacking in your article. It’s funny how you end with “it takes the courage of a people united, not divided”, as your articles’ sole purpose was to divide. I’ve always laughed and brushed off the term Fake News…..but sometimes it’s just evident. Maybe you can clarify some of this for us.
Dear Alan, Thank you very much for taking the time to write to me and for raising some good questions. I appreciate the spirit in which your criticism was intended and will keep your words in mind when I put another piece of writing into the world. Kind regards, Emily