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What it Feels Like to Be an Illegal Alien

For over a month now, Samy has been stuck in the city of Chiang Mai. Broke, alone, at constant risk of deportation, and bored out of his mind, he sits in a room, waiting for a friend to bring him enough money to charter a van back to his home in the refugee camp.

He ended up here because he grew stir crazy enough to venture a trip to the market, where he was promptly arrested for not having citizenship papers. As a Burmese refugee, he faced deportation for being caught outside his camp. After that close call, it was back into hiding (the next group of Thai officers that pick him up might not be as easygoing) and back to the waiting game.

This might not be the worst fate imaginable to a seasoned refugee who’s spent much of his adult life in the margins—stateless and accustomed to such tensions. But to me, it seems excruciating.

The problem is that since Samy is technically in Thailand illegally, he can’t travel around the country on cheap public transportation, or take buses or trains. There are checkpoints between major cities and the border cities, like the one outside the refugee camp where he happens to live. Refugees and illegal immigrants apprehended at these checkpoints can be jailed or deported.

Which is why Samy is still waiting. With enough money, he can charter a private van with a friendly service that knows the backroads around the checkpoints, but the risky trip isn’t cheap, and with no way to earn any money, Samy is out of options.

I offer to wire Samy enough money to pay for the van, but he tells me no, thank you. “I think my friend will come soon,” he says. He must have said that a half dozen times by now.

I’ve written about Samy’s optimistic disposition before, but this takes it to a whole new level. Samy and I have spoken once a week since he’s been in Chiang Mai, and besides saying that he’s bored, he doesn’t show any frustration about this situation. Here he is confined to a room and he’s telling me, "Nah, let’s wait it out."

It’s always struck me as one of the great cliches, the protagonist turning down help in the face of serious adversity because he’s too proud—but I think some variation on that theme is going on here. It’s more than just not wanting to be a charity case; Samy has genuine confidence in his own self-reliance. He has never asked for money before, and he’s refused it the very few times I’ve offered.

But time goes by, and the friend never shows up. And though I’m not really worried about Samy’s immediate safety—why not is hard to say, and maybe I should be, but I guess I’ve grown confident in his ability to handle this stuff with his trademark nonchalance. I just think the situation sucks, and I want to help. I get pissed off when I’m stuck on a subway platform for too long; I can’t imagine bouncing off the walls of a dingy apartment room for weeks on end. I hope he’s got A/C.

Another motivator behind this new development may have something to do with all the noise coming from Arizona. I’m not going to get into politics here, but I will say that considering Samy’s predicament, I can’t help but draw parallels: Samy was arrested because he was actively working to lift himself out of a life where he’s constricted to a couple square miles of muddy village.

It’s a good exercise in empathy, and it makes me wonder whether we as Americans, who value freedom above all else, would wish these circumstances on anyone. Are we willing to cultivate an environment of fear for people in situations not so disparate from Samy’s? I mean, nobody—with the possible exception of convicted multiple felons—should have to live like this.

And so I want to do something, and seriously, paying for Samy’s way out of Chiang Mai is about as expensive as, say, dinner for two at a casual restaurant here in Brooklyn. If I stay home and make pasta next Thursday instead of going out, we’re even.

Thankfully, Samy finally agrees to let me help him out this once. He tells me he’s going to give his friend a few more days to come through, and then we’ll try to figure out if Western Union can help me deliver a couple bucks across the globe. I'll let you know how that goes.

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