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694: Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

All right, you're turning your laptop so we can both look?

Emanuele Berry

Turning the laptop, so that we can both watch this.

Ira Glass

That's my co-worker, Emanuele Berry, standing up to show me a clip from an old film on her computer. This is something that she's shown lots of people since she first saw it. It's from an old Soviet movie from 1936.

Emanuele Berry

OK, so this is a film called, The Circus. It's kind of like the Russian version of It's a Wonderful Life. It's that classic black and white movie that comes on TV all the time, that's heartwarming, that everybody knows. But then when I saw what was happening, I was like, what is happening? Um, yeah, I'm going to hit Play.

Ira Glass

OK.

Woman

[SINGING IN NON-ENGLISH]

Emanuele Berry

So there's this beautiful blonde woman. She's singing in the center of the circus tent. She's an American who has come to Russia to perform. And then this man just starts screaming, stop the show, stop the show.

Man

[NON-ENGLISH]

Emanuele Berry

So let me explain who he is. He's German. To be honest, he looks a little like Hitler-- the mustache, or whatever.

Ira Glass

Oh, and it's 1936, so Hitler's on the rise.

Emanuele Berry

Yes. And he's in love with this American circus star, but she's rejected him. And so to get revenge, he is going to reveal her secret to the world, the secret that she's been keeping throughout the entire film. And then he brings out this black baby.

Man

[NON-ENGLISH]

Ira Glass

Then the baby's, like, a toddler size.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, maybe two. And then the German, he runs up the stairs, and he holds the baby up, almost like Simba. And he starts shaking the baby and screaming, she slept with a Negro.

Man

[NON-ENGLISH]

Emanuele Berry

She gave birth to a black child.

Ira Glass

You're reading the subtitles?

Emanuele Berry

Now, he's shaking this child over and over again. He's like, a black child, a black child.

Man

[NON-ENGLISH]

Emanuele Berry

And then this guy comes up to him, this Russian guy in the audience. And he's like, what's the problem? And the German guy says, it's a black child. A white woman gave birth to a black child.

Ira Glass

And while the Russian guy just literally shrugged his shoulders.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, he shrugged his shoulders. And he says, so what?

Man

[NON-ENGLISH]

Emanuele Berry

And the German guy goes off on this speech and puts the baby down. And the toddler, he just sort of walks off. And people in the audience, they sweep the baby up in their arms.

Ira Glass

To protect the baby from this guy.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah. And so they're passing this black kid around, all of these white Russian folks.

Ira Glass

And they're laughing at the guy.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah. He's like, why are you laughing? Why is this funny? Remember, it's 1936. In the US, we're more than 30 years before interracial marriage is legal everywhere.

I mean, it's Jim Crow. Black people are still being lynched. And to see this scene where this guy is being told, by all these white people, mind you, you're crazy, this is no big deal, I'm like, what is happening here? And as I started to do more research, I learned that this was part of Soviet propaganda for decades-- this message, America is racist, WE are not.

In the 1920s and 1930s, African-Americans, they actually moved to the Soviet Union because it was promising a better life. The boy in the film, that black baby, is actually the son of an African-American who moved to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Emanuele Berry

And I haven't gotten to the last bit of the scene, which is actually my favorite part of the whole thing. So this Russian woman is cradling the baby, rocking it back and forth. And then she starts singing to him.

Ira Glass

Mr. Dreams stepping soft, maketh he no noise. Yeah. So she's totally putting this baby to sleep.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah, they're putting the baby to sleep. Yeah. And then she passes the baby to this next person. And it just becomes this thing where they're embracing this child, one from the next, rocking it back and forth and singing to it. The other thing that's happening in the scene is that they're all singing in different languages. The Soviet Union at this time, there are all these different ethnic groups.

Ira Glass

And then there they are, all embracing this black baby.

Man

[SINGING IN NON-ENGLISH]

Emanuele Berry

When I'm watching this black baby being embraced, I wonder, was it true? Would black people really be embraced like that? And for the--

Ira Glass

In the Soviet Union?

Emanuele Berry

In the Soviet Union. And for the African-Americans who went over there and left to escape racism, did they somehow actually escape racism? Because that's a question that I think about a lot. Can I go somewhere in the world and escape racism?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Emanuele Berry

I had a year or two where I really thought about this a lot. I was working as a journalist in Ferguson, covering months of protests and a community-- really, I was covering a community that was in crisis after the shooting death of Michael Brown.

And I just had this experience where I felt like I'd just seen some of the worst parts of American racism, from watching people threaten other people because of the color of their skin, to just looking day after day at the social inequalities that exist in St. Louis and the structural things, like redlining. And it was kind of hopeless. I really felt kind of hopeless about it, at least at the time.

And I was a little bit like, I think I just have to leave here. I used to almost play this game as a coping mechanism where I would think about where in the world can I go? I would talk to my friends about Ghana, or Central America, or places in the Caribbean. I'm like, do you think it's better there? Would it be better there to be a black person there?

Ira Glass

And so seeing this film made you wonder about Russia and, did it work out for the black Americans who moved there?

Emanuele Berry

I don't necessarily think that Russia is a better place to live as a black person. But for those people who did move there in the 1930s, and their kids, and their grandkids, what role did race end up playing in their lives? How did it work out for them?

Act One: Black in the USSR

Ira Glass

That's actually the thing that we're going to be talking about in general in today's program. We have stories of people who decide I'm going to go somewhere, I'm going to move there, I'm going to try to fit in. And we see what happens. And for Act One, an act we are calling Black in the USSR--

Emanuele Berry

Aw, that's cheesy.

Ira Glass

You came up with that name.

Emanuele Berry

I know, but I was joking. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

But it's good. [LAUGHS] Anyway, for that act, Emanuele, you looked for descendants of those African-American expats in Russia, and just explain who you found.

Emanuele Berry

OK. So the woman that I found, her name is Yelena Khanga. And she wrote this book called Soul to Soul. She's a black Russian, born and raised there. And I don't know, I sort of felt a connection to her the more I read about her, because she's a college athlete, like I was. She's a journalist, like I am. Her grandfather is from the same county in Mississippi that my grandmother is from.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Emanuele Berry

And I don't know, I sort of just felt connected, in a way.

Yelena Khanga

How did you find me?

Emanuele Berry

Like, originally?

Yelena Khanga

Yeah.

Emanuele Berry

Uh, your book.

Yelena Khanga

Oh, you read the book, OK.

Emanuele Berry

I read the book, yeah.

So like I said, Yelena is a journalist. She had a successful talk show in Moscow. They call her the Russian Oprah, which is almost definitely because she's black and had a talk show.

It was her grandparents who moved to Russia back in the 1930s. They had a leftist New York version of a rom-com meet-cute. Her grandmother, Bertha, was a Polish Jew who'd been arrested at a women's rights demonstration. Her grandfather, Oliver Golden, was black and had been arrested down the street at a human rights demonstration.

Yelena Khanga

And they met at the jail. And in the morning, the rabbi came to bail my grandmother out. And my grandmother said, oh, wonderful. Could you please bail me out together with my new friend, Oliver Golden.

Emanuele Berry

The rabbi, her father, saw that Oliver was black.

Yelena Khanga

And her father looked at her and said, well, you're staying in jail with your new friend, and left them there. And that's how their love story began.

Emanuele Berry

That's a weird matchmaker situation.

Yelena Khanga

[CHUCKLES] But it worked.

Emanuele Berry

The couple didn't see a future for themselves in America, so they decided to go to the Soviet Union. Oliver had visited before, and they wanted to help build Lenin's great new society, one that promised no racism. Oliver and Bertha settled in Uzbekistan.

Yelena Khanga

My grandfather thought there would be some kind of a kinship between African-Americans and dark-skinned Uzbek people. That's why he chose to go there. And he worked as an expert in cotton.

Emanuele Berry

Yes, her grandfather left the American South and traveled halfway around the world to work in cotton. He developed a new breed of cotton that would work for Uzbekistan's short growing season.

And life was good. They made good money, had a nice apartment, a nanny for when their daughter, Lily, was born in 1934. Oliver wanted her to have everything he thought white kids got in the United States, so Lily had language tutors, music and tennis lessons.

But their lives got harder after they became full Soviet citizens and lost their foreigner status. And after Stalin began to solidify his power, they started to live like everybody else. Oliver died in 1940.

Lily grew up and went to college in Moscow. She married a politician from Zanzibar, Yelena's dad. He died shortly after Yelena's birth, so the only consistent black presence in her life was her mom. The neighborhood she grew up in-- all white. From a very young age, being black meant constantly explaining herself to the world.

Yelena Khanga

My best friend was Sasha. He was a neighbor. And since my childhood, I thought he was my brother, because we were together all the time. So in the street when somebody would ask me, why are you black, he would say, number one, she's my sister. Number two, she is black because her father was from Africa. And guess what? Everybody's black in Africa.

And they would say, yeah, but she was born in Moscow. She's supposed to be white. And he says, OK, Yelena, if somebody else asks you the question about color, we're just beating them right away. So we were known in the neighborhood as the most cruel fighter. He taught me how to fight. He told me, you take a bottle, you break the bottle, and with whatever is left, you just put in their face. So we were bad kids in the neighborhood.

Emanuele Berry

This was when she was only seven years old. So Russia wasn't some racism-free utopia. People like Yelena obviously came up against what I would call racism. But when I asked Yelena about it--

Yelena Khanga

That was not racism. That was curiosity. That was ignorance, but not racism.

Emanuele Berry

This happened a lot in our conversation. Yelena would tell a story about some experience that sounded honestly horrible to me, but she'd always insist that it wasn't racism or discrimination. It was ignorance.

I think that ignorance can be, and often is, racism. But I didn't want to debate that fact so much as understand how she thought about it. Although people commented on it, Yelena didn't think too much about the color of her skin when she was a child. She didn't feel different because she was black, but because her family came from America. It wasn't until she started thinking about boys and love that she thought more and more about the way she looked, how much she stood out from everyone else.

Yelena Khanga

And I would ask my mother, Mom, why am I so ugly? Why is my nose so big? Why are my lips so huge? And she would say, no, you're beautiful. And then she would ask her American friends to bring American magazines, Black and Lovely-- I think it was called Black and Lovely. And my mom would show me those magazines and say, look, those beautiful women, you look just like them.

And I would take this. I was so proud, I would take this magazine, bring it to Sasha and other friends in the street and say, look, I'm just like them. And they would say, Yelena, this is a very strange magazine. Why is everybody black in it? Don't bring those magazines anymore. And I felt so lonely, because I didn't have anybody just like me.

Emanuele Berry

I had assumed that there would be a little community of all the black Russians, that they'd stick together and hang out all the time. But it sounds like Yelena didn't have that, wasn't around people that looked like her, not even her mom, really. Lily was much lighter and gorgeous, according to Yelena.

Just for the record, when I met Yelena, I thought she was gorgeous. There's something regal about her. It's hard to imagine her as a self-conscious teenager, but she was.

Yelena Khanga

My mother would always remind me. Let's say she would tell me, be careful with boys. They would not date you because they love you, but because they would want to try dating a black girl. And that's why my self-esteem was damaged, probably, because I didn't trust any Russian guy that would approach me. And I didn't believe that somebody would fall in love with me at all, sincerely.

Emanuele Berry

I wanted to know the ways in which being black shaped Yelena's life in Russia. And to hear her tell it, her family was never denied an apartment because of their race. She was never put into an inferior school because of her race. She was never singled out by law enforcement because of her race. There wasn't that kind of institutional racism.

But she was lonely. She felt undesirable. Being black made it hard for her to imagine a future with a partner. So much of my conversation with her was about wanting to find her person, her strong desire to find someone, and her fear that she wouldn't.

Despite her insecurities, Yelena was popular and accomplished. She took music lessons, spoke perfect English, and was an excellent tennis player, just as her grandfather would have wanted. Her mother constantly reminded her that she had to be better than everyone else. Apparently, you still have to be twice as good in the Soviet Union.

She was recruited to play tennis at one of the country's top universities and accepted into their prestigious journalism program. She had so much going for her, but she still felt like no boy would ever want to date her, until she met Vaisa.

Yelena Khanga

He was a chess champion. And well, I started in Moscow State University, so I was a tennis player. He was a chess player. And (LAUGHING) we were a beautiful couple.

And he had a very rough time dating me. Then the coach, physical training coach of the university, called his parents and said, do you know that he's dating a black girl? And they said, well, yes. Why? What's wrong? And he said, because she will get pregnant, and she will marry him.

Then his parents called my mother and said, if you think that your daughter will make our son marry your daughter, you are wrong. And then my mom said, if you think that my daughter will marry your son, you're damn wrong. There's no way my gorgeous daughter will marry your ugly son. And it was just going back and forth, back and forth.

So he felt that he had to demonstrate that, no matter what, he will be with me. So he started missing his classes. And he would come to my classes and sit there. So the teachers from his classes would write him, you have to attend. You have to attend. Boom, boom, boom. So the end of the story was very sad. He was kicked out of university for missing classes, and he was taken to the army.

Emanuele Berry

Wait, he had to go to the army?

Yelena Khanga

Yeah, yeah. If you are kicked out of university, you have to go to the army.

Emanuele Berry

Wow.

Yelena Khanga

So that was my first experience dating a Russian boy.

Emanuele Berry

Yeah-- a pretty dramatic end to a first relationship. But the drama didn't stop there for Yelena. A few years later, she dated a Russian guy from Veronezh, a small town about a day's drive away from Moscow. They went to visit his parents and stay for the weekend. One morning, she came back from the shower and caught her boyfriend's mother examining the bed sheets.

Yelena Khanga

And later, I asked my boyfriend, what was she looking? And he said, well, she never saw people of color, so she thought that the sheets would be turned to-- and she was very surprised that they were clean.

But again, it was not racism, it was pure ignorance-- pure ignorance. And this woman adored me later. So but I felt that enough is enough, and it's time for me to be with people that knows who I am, that don't look at my sheets, and don't ask stupid questions.

Emanuele Berry

Something was missing for Yelena in Russia. And like me and her grandparents, she decided to look elsewhere for answers. She thought she'd find them in the very country that her grandparents had fled-- America. Yelena had heard about American racism, but she still thought she would be better off in the USA.

Yelena Khanga

When we saw Eddie Murphy, when we heard about Arthur Ash, when we heard about those brilliant musicians and jazz musicians, and all of them were black and very, very, very successful. So when my grandmother would start telling me about racism, I would say, yeah, yeah, yeah, right, and think about all those very famous African-American athletes that would be laughing all the way to the bank. So I felt that I would be understood much better by people like me. And in fact, yes, I was dreaming about going to United States and marrying an African-American.

Emanuele Berry

When you pictured and dreamed of going to America, what did that life look like?

Yelena Khanga

How would this guy look like? The man of my dream?

Emanuele Berry

[LAUGHS] I said life, but I guess we could also get a description of the guy.

Yelena Khanga

Uh, yeah. See, I was not really dreaming about skyscrapers and, you know, capitalism, and all that. I didn't understand about that, but I just felt that-- what's this song? (SINGING) One day, da da da dum, he'll be tall and black. Da da da dum. Whose song was that?

Emanuele Berry

"One Day Your Prince Will Come," The Sleeping Beauty.

Yelena Khanga

Yeah. Yes.

Emanuele Berry

Actually, "It's The Man I Love." It's Gershwin, not Disney. But what do I know? My parents almost exclusively listened to Stevie Wonder's Inner Visions for most of my childhood.

Yelena Khanga

I was expecting to meet a prince that would look like me. And he would look at me and he would say, oh, my God, you're so gorgeous. Because even the guy that really, really loved me, Vaisa, in the university, he used to call me Monkey. He called me Monkey, with love. He didn't realize that that was insulting.

And I never told him that, in America, that would be insulting. But you know, in Russia, guys would call their girls Rabbit-- I don't know-- my cat. Well, he called me, My Monkey. And I couldn't explain to him that that was racist, because I knew he was not a racist. That's just how he called me. And I felt, OK, if I look like a monkey, and so what?

Emanuele Berry

Wait. So this guy called you Monkey, and you didn't say, hey, you can't do that?

Yelena Khanga

But he didn't insult me. He didn't mean to insult me, he loved me. And as I told you, he was punished for this love. [CHUCKLES]

Emanuele Berry

I would have trouble with that one. [CHUCKLES]

Yelena Khanga

I know. I know. I know it sounds terrible to you. I know.

Emanuele Berry

Yelena moved to America in 1989. She was 27 years old, and she built a life for herself there. She worked as a journalist. She made friends, black friends. She loved to go to black churches and listen to gospel music live. She went to salons that actually knew how to style black hair. And she found her black Prince Charming.

Yelena Khanga

He was perfect. He was perfect. He was playing tennis. He loved jazz. He liked classical music. He was just perfect for me.

Emanuele Berry

They dated for a few years. Yelena was sure he was going to propose. And then one night, he invited her out to a fancy restaurant.

Yelena Khanga

So I got dressed. I prepared. I knew how I will answer him. So we go to this restaurant, very fancy restaurant. And the reception, they tell us that, we are sorry, it is packed. But there is just one place near the bathroom.

And he says, no, no, no, we're not taking it. And I said, no? Why not? He says, well, I want to sit near the window. I said, well, it doesn't really matter-- window, bathroom. I mean, it's clean. The food is the same. Because I wanted to hear the proposal, OK? I didn't care where we were sitting.

Emanuele Berry

Fair. Yes. Yeah.

Yelena Khanga

So he said, no. And he said, Yelena, you don't understand. Our grandparents were fighting, they were dying for the right to sit at the window, not at the bathroom. And I said, you know, in Russia, unless you bribe, you won't get a table, regardless of your color. As long as you're green, you will get it. So please stop feeling so insecure.

And he said, you know what? We would never understand each other. You're black outside, but you're white inside. You don't understand what we went through. And that was the end of our proposal.

Emanuele Berry

Was that the end of your relationship?

Yelena Khanga

Yes. Yes, yes, because it showed that we were so different. And he said that we would never understand each other.

Emanuele Berry

She agreed. They had different pain points. In Russia, she hadn't experienced the kind of institutional racism he had. And she said her boyfriend couldn't possibly feel the things that upset her as a Russian the way she felt them.

Emanuele Berry

Do you feel like you fully understand African-American-- the sort of pain points? Or no?

Yelena Khanga

I understand them, but I don't feel them. That's the difference. The things that upsets, let's say, African-Americans, I can see why that upsets, but it doesn't hurt.

Emanuele Berry

When he said to you, you're black on the outside, but you're white on the inside, what was your reaction to that?

Yelena Khanga

I thought he was stupid. I said, how could I be black and white inside? I mean, I am who I am. And the things that I went through, you don't understand.

Emanuele Berry

Did you guys ever talk about race before the argument that you had in the restaurant? Was that a conversation you guys had, or not at all?

Yelena Khanga

No, he-- no, we didn't talk about that. No.

Emanuele Berry

Did it surprise you when it came up in the restaurant?

Yelena Khanga

Yes, it did, because I still don't believe that if they didn't offer us a place near the window, it meant that it was racism. I still don't believe so.

Emanuele Berry

So for you, it feels easier just to sort of give a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, or be like, I can't know for sure what the intention was, so I have to let it go.

Yelena Khanga

Yes, I don't know for sure, and I don't want to think about it. I don't want to damage my nerve system by thinking about that. I will never know the truth, number one. Number two, it can be both. Number two, it can be both. And number three, what difference does it make?

Emanuele Berry

It's so interesting that you say that, just because I feel like it's a thing we do all the time in America is that we replay out these moments of discomfort for each other in the black community over, and over, and over again.

Yelena Khanga

What for? What for? What are you gaining? If you told me that I did that and, as a result, this restaurant was closed, for example, or as a result, this waiter was kicked out, that makes sense. But why going through that again, and again, and again, without any results? Why scratching the place until the first blood on your body?

Emanuele Berry

But I think part of the reason we do it is to recognize that this is happening. Like, we must acknowledge that this is happening. We can't pretend it's not happening.

Yelena Khanga

Yes, I acknowledge it. But again, if I would sit down at home and start, oh, they did it because I'm Jewish, no, they did it because I'm black. No, they did it because my grandparents are American. No, they did it because of that, and that, and that. You know, there's no end to that.

Emanuele Berry

I think for many black Americans, there's a curiosity, a need to understand and explore that constant unease we experience. Because I'm black, is my doctor giving me proper care? Because I'm black, am I here to fill a diversity quota? Because I'm black, am I being pulled over? Part of what it means to be black here, part of what draws us together is investigation of that discomfort. There's communal reassurance in that.

I know that black people are not a monolith. Yet, the fact that Yelena didn't have this curiosity surprised me. But it also made sense. Yelena didn't have an echo chamber of injustices growing up.

I can talk to my hairstylist, my trainer, my family, and say, hey, this thing happened. Yelena had no community to share with, nobody to co-sign. Her problems were not those of black people, but her own.

I want to be clear. Being black is not some joyless exercise for me. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I'm not moping about. But Yelena's right about one thing-- thinking about race all the time is exhausting. But I can't let it go, and I tried to explain to her why.

Emanuele Berry

I feel like part of it is like, there are small things that I feel like, in some ways, add up to one really big problem that just still hasn't been solved. That it's like, it's small things that add up to feeling like you don't belong here, that the country that you've always existed in doesn't want you. And I don't know. I feel--

Yelena Khanga

See, I had this dream that, yes, somewhere there was another world where I belonged to. And this is America. Now with you, I don't understand where your dream house is.

Emanuele Berry

I don't know where my dream house is. I don't know exactly where this place is.

Yelena Khanga

Back to Africa, right? Are you talking about going to Africa? I don't think so.

Emanuele Berry

I don't even think it's necessarily back to Africa. I think I don't know if this place exists. I think it's just this place, in some ways, still doesn't accept me after all of this time, and that maybe this is as good as it gets, and maybe there isn't another place or a better option. Do you think it's silly that I think about these things so much?

Yelena Khanga

Yes. I think it's silly that you think about it so much. There are more important things in your life, that you don't have to waste your time on things that you cannot change. And you don't have to change those people. If that's how they are, I don't think you have to waste your life on changing them. You just drop them and go on with your life.

Emanuele Berry

Don't worry about the things you cannot change. Sometimes, I think Yelena's right, that I'm silly for obsessing over this stuff. And I wonder if maybe she's better off for not having spent her entire life puzzling and picking over every interaction with white people, that maybe her grandparents moving to the USSR helped her bypass parts of America's particular brand of racism.

But maybe I never really had a choice. Race, specifically black and white, is such an integral part of living in this country. Yelena insists I have bigger things to worry about. But honestly, I can't think of anything that affects me more. Being a black American is what keeps me from feeling like I truly belong in this country.

Emanuele Berry

Have you ever felt like you belonged somewhere? Have you ever found that place?

Yelena Khanga

You know what? For me, it's not where, it's more with whom. That's what was important for me when I lived in the United States. It was important that I was surrounded by people I really loved. It doesn't matter where I am. As long as I'm surrounded by love, that's all that matters.

Emanuele Berry

I wish that surrounding myself with people I love solved my problem. I am surrounded by people I love. A lot of those people are black. And as long as I feel threatened on behalf of all of them, I can't stop wishing there was a better place for us.

Yelena's better place turned out to be right where she started. She lived in the USA for 12 years and might have stayed, but then she met her husband-- a white Russian man. And they moved to Moscow where he did treat her like a princess. It was hard to find a black salon in Moscow back then, so he would fly her to Paris just to get her hair done.

Ira Glass

Emanuele Berry is one of the producers of our show. Thanks to Yelena Demikovsky, who's making a documentary about black Russians that includes Yelena Khanga. Coming up, a guy gets kicked out of a thing he had no idea he could get kicked out of. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Nowhere Man

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Get Back to Where You Once Belonged, stories of people who do not feel quite at home where they are, searching for their place and their people. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Nowhere Man.

So this story is about somebody who felt like he really had found his place in the world-- a job he was good at, a group of people that he liked and admired. And then he got kicked out, and kicked out in this way he didn't even know was a possibility. Reporter Jeremy Raff explains.

Jeremy Raff

Raul Rodriguez is like a lot of the dads I grew up with in Texas, but somehow even more so. He fixes his own truck, kills his own goats. And when you walk into his living room, there's two buck heads on the wall, a big TV, and in the middle of it all, the thing he's most proud of, on a little shelf encased in plexiglass.

Raul Rodriguez

This is my Department of Justice badge or the Immigration Inspector badge that was--

Jeremy Raff

It's kind of surprising that Raul ended up working for immigration, given how he first met those guys. He grew up in Mission, Texas, right by the border. He'd go back and forth between Mexico and the US all the time.

And when he crossed, the border agents would always stop him, bust his chops, ask for his papers. He'd always show them-- here's my birth certificate, born in Brownsville, Texas. But they were jerks about it. By the time Raul was a teenager, he says it was like a ritual.

Raul Rodriguez

The officer usually kind of looks at you and then starts saying, OK, what's your name? Says, you know why we're bringing you in here? And I go, yeah, pretty much. He wanted to know if I'm a citizen or not. And I says, well, I am. And he says, well, we know you're not. And I says, OK, well, show me. Oh, you know, we can't show you.

And I tell him, come on, man. I've been here many times, and it's not right for you to harass me like this. I don't know why, because I don't look the part. I don't look as US citizen-y enough as you want me to. My features are very Hispanic, very Mexican.

Jeremy Raff

Eventually, after a bit, they'd let him go, every time.

He was going back and forth across the border so much because his parents were in Mexico, and he lived with his aunt and uncle in Texas. It wasn't a great situation. His cousins never really accepted him. They beat him up. At family functions, his aunt and uncle would introduce their own kids first, then him. He says he was an afterthought at best.

Raul Rodriguez

I got called from bastard to a Negro, because I was different from their color. I was very dark, compared to them. They were very light-skinned. And I don't know what the translation would be, a arrimado. Do you know what I'm talking about? Arrimado, that word, arrimado, it's a relative that just stays there, like a leech.

Jeremy Raff

When Raul would visit his parents during the summers, he'd beg to stay. He hated living in Texas, but they always sent him back. Your mom gave birth to you on the US side so you could be a citizen, they'd say. It's going to be better for you there. Trust us.

Eventually, Raul says, it did get better. After high school when he joined the Navy, the structure, the order, the authority, he liked it, which led him to law enforcement. After the Navy, he became an immigration officer, just like the officers who harassed him when he was a teenager. He even got assigned to the same bridge he used to cross back then. Some of the very same officers who doubted his citizenship were now his co-workers.

Raul Rodriguez

I had this one inspector that's a female. And when I showed up for work for the first day, I told her, remember me? She says, no, I don't remember you. Oh, you used to take me inside, and you wanted to break me. And she says, was I mean? I go, yes, you were very mean-- tried to intimidate me a lot. And oh, I'm sorry.

Jeremy Raff

From the beginning, Raul was a very thorough officer. For example, one day this guy comes through who Raul knows really well. He used to work with him in a furniture factory. The guy was like an uncle to him. He's coming from Mexico into the United States. Raul checks his papers, and it turns out the guy had a tourist visa, which doesn't let you work. Raul revoked the visa-- took it away, didn't let the guy in.

Raul Rodriguez

For a while at one point, they called me El Gacho.

Jeremy Raff

Kind of like "pain in the ass".

Raul Rodriguez

Because I wouldn't let anything through. I had to do it. I didn't let anybody slack.

Jeremy Raff

Raul wasn't just thorough. His wife told me, there are a lot of slugs in federal government. Raul wasn't one of them. He's an above and beyond guy, a standout. And he stood out more and more, because it's pretty well documented Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, had some ugly instances of corruption, bribery, drug smugglers infiltrating.

By contrast, Raul was a total Boy Scout. He even won an award. In 2006, a woman approached him while he was buying cigarettes at the gas station. She asked him if he would look the other way while she smuggled in a kid and pushed a little piece of paper in his hand with her number on it. Raul set up a sting. And the next time they met, he wore a wire. She was later arrested.

CBP gave Raul its integrity award, one of their highest honors. His bosses flew him to Washington for a big ceremony. Raul got to wear his finest uniform. His kids were there. They got to see him walk across the stage and shake the commissioner's hand. And they gave him a plaque, which these days sits in a place of honor, near the deer heads in his living room.

And in his personal life, too, he was totally by the book. He was taught not to fraternize with anyone breaking immigration laws. It could cost you your job.

Raul Rodriguez

So you have to cut ties with anybody that's had that kind of a history. Well, everybody has people who are illegally in the US, so you have to cut those out.

Jeremy Raff

Anyone he was close to who was undocumented, he cut out of his life-- friends, family members. Raul didn't make exceptions.

Raul found his home-- customs. It's actually remarkable how much Raul refers to the people he worked with as family, as a brotherhood.

Raul Rodriguez

I finally belonged to somebody, to belong to something. And it feels good to be wanted, to be accepted, when you never did when you were an outcast, or when you were just there.

Jeremy Raff

They did all the things families do-- a combination of responsibilities, but also fun. They threw barbecues. They went to baptisms, birthday parties. They hung out all the time. Then one day in April, 2018, Raul goes into work. He's starting his shift.

Raul Rodriguez

And I see the two managers come in. I says, oh, man, there comes the two chiefs. Everybody, be careful. Make sure you're not on the phones, and stuff like that. They go into the office. They set up, I guess. And I'm doing my work and stuff. And one of them comes out and says, hey, Raulito, and come to the office.

Jeremy Raff

Raul had no clue what this was about, but it looked serious.

Raul Rodriguez

They never called you just for nothing. And they don't come in twos just for nothing. They have to have a witness. They open up an envelope, and that's where it says-- it says we're going to have to pick up your gun, your weapon, and your credentials. The paper says you're no longer, as of this date, a law enforcement officer, until pending further investigation.

You know, investigation? What for? I've never done anything wrong. He says, we don't know nothing about that. He says, we're just giving you the notice and here to pick up your weapon and your badge. And so I take off my belt. I give them my belt. And I take off my badge. And I take out my credentials, and I gave it to them.

Jeremy Raff

Raul's head was spinning. He'd worked there for 18 years. He was close to retirement. Had he done something illegal and not known about it? Something small he'd forgotten about? He scanned his memory, and he couldn't think of a single thing. Raul walked back out into the main office. Everyone was looking at him, kind of sideways.

Raul Rodriguez

I was embarrassed, because I had to do that walk of shame, walk amongst my fellow officers without a badge and a gun. And people were just looking at me, saying, hey, what's wrong? What's wrong? I said, I don't know, man. I don't know.

Jeremy Raff

He sat at his desk for a minute, and then he called his wife. She works at another branch of Homeland Security. He was quietly freaking out, so he went home. He and his wife went around and around, trying to think of what it might be. For the life of them, they had no clue.

Raul Rodriguez

About a week later, the OIG, the Office of Inspector General, wanted to meet with me at the courthouse building. They take us into a room, one of those typical cop rooms that has the small table. And it has the dark window, where you know that they're watching you from the other side.

So agents come in, and they read me my rights. So I said, OK, this is criminal. And so he says, are you familiar with this piece of paper? And they slide it over to me.

Jeremy Raff

From his 18 years as a customs officer, he could tell right away what it was-- a Mexican birth certificate.

Raul Rodriguez

I just didn't know whose it was, until I actually read it. So I started reading. I see my name, Raul Rodriguez. And I see my parents' names, Francisca, Margarito, and my grandparents' names--

Do you recognize it? I go, I've never seen it, but I know that it's mine because it's got my name, my parents' names, and my grandparents' names. But I don't recognize the date of birth. That's a different one from the one I have now.

Jeremy Raff

On this birth certificate, not only was his birthday different, but more importantly so is his place of birth-- a village outside of Matamoros, Mexico. If this thing was real, then Raul was not American. Raul was confused. He had his birth certificate from Brownsville, Texas. He'd been using it his whole life. It didn't make sense.

The agents explained. Raul had applied for a green card for his brother. As part of the application process, they'd looked into Raul's own citizenship documents. And in their research, they'd stumbled onto this, this Mexican birth certificate. And here they were.

Raul was like, look, this is not the first time someone's scrutinized my citizenship. We'll get to the bottom of it and clear it up. He told the agents, you know what? Let me get my dad in here. Right then and there, he called his nephew and got him to drive his dad over the border.

They all met just a few hours later at a Starbucks. Raul sat with his father and the two investigators at a table inside. No one ordered coffee. Raul's dad, Margarito, told the investigators the story that Raul had always heard, that Raul's mom crossed the border so he'd be born in Brownsville.

Then the investigators showed him the Mexican birth certificate. Margarito looked down at the table. He admitted that, yes, Raul was born in Mexico, at home. Yes, his birth date was in 1968, not 1969. Yes, Raul was a Mexican citizen.

Anita

He had been texting me during the day.

Jeremy Raff

That's Raul's wife, Anita. Because Anita also works in immigration, she knew how serious this all was.

Anita

He texted me back a message that indicated that it was regarding his birth. So I said, well, where are you? And he told me where he was. And I said, OK, I'm on my way.

Jeremy Raff

She rushed over to the Starbucks.

Anita

And when I got to the location, him and his dad were walking out. They were both crying. And I heard my father-in-law, suegro, telling him, "Lo siento mijo, lo hice por tu bien." I'm sorry, son. I did it for your benefit. And I just-- my heart sank.

And I feel bad now, because I literally unloaded on my father-in-law. I told him off. And of course, Dad just says, we did it because we thought it was best for you, to give you a better opportunity.

And he has had a great opportunity. If it wasn't for what they did, I wouldn't have him, and I wouldn't have my kids. I'm thankful for that. But at any point, they could have said, wait, I need to tell you this. And they never did.

Jeremy Raff

Raul's sister saw it differently. They don't blame their dad, Margarito. They tried to convince Raul that what their father did was forgivable, even understandable. Back then, unauthorized border crossings were an unremarkable fact of life. The border fence, the agents, surveillance blimps, that all came later, especially after 9/11.

Margarito told me he regrets getting the fraudulent birth certificate now. He prides himself on being honest. And he said he's ashamed to face Raul, but it didn't seem like such a serious offense at the time. It's hard to get exact numbers, but one investigation in the 1990s found 900 fraudulent birth certificates registered by midwives in South Texas, same as Raul's.

The undoing of Raul's citizenship set off a chain reaction in his family. Raul's son, who he'd had from a previous marriage, had gotten his citizenship through Raul. Here's Anita again.

Anita

What happens to him? What happens to my daughter-in-law and my grandkids if he gets deported? But people aren't thinking about that. You know, it's that ripple effect.

Jeremy Raff

Raul broke the news to his son, Raul Jr., that afternoon after he left the Starbucks. He explained the whole thing. Raul's citizenship was no longer valid, so neither was Raul Jr.'s. Now they were both undocumented.

Incredibly, Raul Jr. Had just applied to become a CBP officer himself. His interview was coming up in a couple of weeks. Now, of course, that wasn't going to happen.

Raul's lawyer told me that when someone like Raul signs up to serve in the government, like by joining the military, or working for CBP, the government doesn't look too hard for reasons why they can't. It's when the person asks for something in return, like a green card for a brother, that the government takes a closer look.

After that day at Starbucks, Raul and Anita immediately made a plan for how to fix all of this. Raul could just apply for a green card, because his wife is a citizen. It would be a hassle, but they would get through it. So they filled out the application. And Raul, in his Raul way, was super upfront about everything. He knew what he was up against.

He'd made a false claim to US citizenship, said he was an American when he really wasn't. But there's a clause in the US immigration code that says if he didn't do it knowingly, the government can exercise discretion. He and Anita were hoping that USCIS, the agency that issues green cards, would see this all as a big mix-up, granting the exception, and they would be done.

They thought it would happen quickly, actually, which wasn't the case. For a long time, they didn't hear anything-- so long they started to get nervous. They started to look for help from public officials. After all, Raul is a veteran law enforcement. They reached out to their congressman, then Ted Cruz, the senator. That's not the full list.

Anita

I told him the other day. I said, you know what? I said, we both voted for Trump. Why don't we call him and say, hey, help me out, pres. I voted for you. And I said, ah, no, better not. He might come down and deport you. And then where would we be? Even at the AOC, the Ocasio-Cortez, I sent her a message before we contacted you. She never responded.

Jeremy Raff

Everywhere they looked, people were turning their backs. That thing about how customs officers aren't supposed to hang out with undocumented people, that was Raul now. So all his friends, the co-workers he referred to as family, they almost all abandoned him. In theory, his wife Anita shouldn't even be hanging out with him. One person who did reach out to him-- that lady who used to bust his chops in the bridge when he was a kid. Raul explained to my producer, Nadia Reiman.

Raul Rodriguez

She thought I was having financial troubles, and so she called me up, and she offered to give me money.

Nadia Reiman

But she didn't say anything to you about, like, you know, your citizenship or anything like that?

Raul Rodriguez

No, I told her. I told her, I guess you were right.

Nadia Reiman

What did she say?

Raul Rodriguez

She just started laughing. She says, ah, Raul, don't say that.

Jeremy Raff

Another friend who stood by Raul and still sees him is John A. Garcia, the Jag. It's his initials. They met for breakfast at a Mexican place across the street from an immigration detention center for kids.

The Jag is allowed to see Raul, because he's retired. He left customs last year. He said it was too stressful. He wanted something more relaxed, so he became a drill sergeant at a boot camp for kids who get in trouble. They gossip about work, who got a promotion, about that guy with the dog breath.

John Garcia

About his hygiene en la boca.

Jeremy Raff

And the Jag's encounter with that woman in the cargo lane.

John Garcia

You remember la flaquita? In Los Indios?

Raul Rodriguez

Gloria?

John Garcia

Gloria?

Raul Rodriguez

Uh-huh.

John Garcia

She slapped me.

Raul Rodriguez

Oh, she did. Nhombre.

John Garcia

Yeah. Ooh, she just lit up the freaking dynamite, man. I was coming back.

Jeremy Raff

So much drama. Eventually, after about 40 minutes, they finally start talking about Raul's situation, about how he's afraid to even leave the house.

Raul Rodriguez

Like right now, I don't have any status at all. I can get stopped right now, and I can get deported, pretty much, or set up for deportation. It's on my side, se ve un poquito mas. It's a little bit more difficult to deal with because, if I get stopped by Border Patrol right now, I'm a goner. I have no status. So right now, can I really go out? I go out, but I'm looking over my shoulder.

John Garcia

You're like all these other people.

Raul Rodriguez

[BLEEP]

John Garcia

You're in the same boat, you know?

Raul Rodriguez

Exactly.

Jeremy Raff

Raul tells the Jag he's been waiting way too long for an answer on his green card. He's starting to get really frustrated. He feels like the government's singling him out because he was a customs officer.

He thinks they're trying to cover up that they employed an undocumented immigrant by mistake for so long. He says this over and over. He said it to me lots of times. But the Jag's not sure he's right. He says, maybe the government wants to show they don't give anyone preferential treatment.

John Garcia

Unfortunately, if it ever comes out, they're probably going to have to show that, hey, well, we gave him what he deserved like everybody else, you know? What if he breaks the law? We're going to give him an exception. Everybody is going to say, wait a minute. You can't do that.

Jeremy Raff

The Jag does try to make Raul feel better. He tells him he's sure he'll get US citizenship, eventually. He asked Raul if he's talking to his dad. He isn't. The Jag says he should.

But ultimately, what leaves an impression on me is that he talks about Raul's case like any other, like an unfortunate undocumented person. Raul sits there, taking it all in, but looking like he doesn't really agree.

Raul and Anita had been waiting for nine months when they finally got called in for the green card interview. Anita said it was a jarring experience. These were officers like the guys they both worked with, who were the first ones to jump in when things got tough. They'd had each other's backs for years. If anyone would get that Raul had done nothing wrong, it would be them. But that's not what happened.

Anita

We were treated like criminals. They took a sworn statement from each of us. They took two from him, like they were trying to trip him up, or trip me up, or something. And I don't blame the specific officers that did the interview. You do what you're told. If I didn't need my federal job, I would have told them all to go to hell.

Jeremy Raff

It's about as dramatic a reversal as you could imagine. Raul was a hard ass, rule following law enforcement officer who'd learned he'd been violating the very rules he'd been enforcing for almost 20 years. Did it change him? Did he see things differently? Did the rules seem fair, now that he's on the receiving end of them?

We talked about this a lot. Raul says the cases he's thinking about now are the ones where he stuck to the rules and didn't give people a break. And as a result, they suffered, badly. Like there's this one case, a brother and a sister, they were both really young.

Raul Rodriguez

They were being smuggled. We had to call the consulate and arrange transportation back to their home countries. It turns out that this little boy, he was coming to donate an organ to his sister, who was dying in Houston. He was going to donate one of his kidneys, and we couldn't even let him through to save this little girl's life.

And the little boy was like, man, I gotta go. I have to go. And they said, no, he can't. And we had to turn him back. He starts crying, and crying, and crying. And, what's wrong? Hey, what's going on? Why are you crying? He said, I left my Bible over there. We'll just give you another one. He said, no, no, that's my Bible. [EMOTIONAL] Oh, man. [CRYING]

Jeremy Raff

At this point in the interview, Raul got out of his chair, got some water from the kitchen.

Raul Rodriguez

I'm sorry, man.

Jeremy Raff

Take your time. Take your time.

Raul Rodriguez

Oh, man, just-- man, I haven't cried in a long time, dude.

Jeremy Raff

You're good.

Raul Rodriguez

Anyway, I just had to turn him over. And now I did, I feel like [BLEEP]. He was doing it for a good reason. He was doing something-- he felt he was doing something good, and then he was being treated like a-- like that. You know?

Jeremy Raff

This is a story he's always felt bad about. But it feels worse now, I think, in part because he can relate to the kid a little more, to someone trying to do the right thing caught on the wrong side of the rules. It's also a story where following the rules makes you do a thing that also feels very wrong.

Jeremy Raff

You placed a lot of faith in the rules.

Raul Rodriguez

Yeah.

Jeremy Raff

Because when you did these difficult things that you had to do-- deport a teen or turn back this organ donor child-- it was sort of like, essentially, the rules are the rules. I can't do anything about it. And now that you're on the receiving end of that, do the rules seem more arbitrary to you, or meaningless, than they used to?

Raul Rodriguez

No, they don't. I still believe that the rules are the rules. They still apply, and I have to abide by them. I still have to follow the rules, regardless of what the outcome is or what happens. And that's the frustrating part, is that they've gone overboard on my case, on my situation. They're doing things differently with me, because of who I am.

Jeremy Raff

USCIS won't comment on ongoing cases. But I ran this by four immigration lawyers, and they said everyone is being treated badly. They didn't think Raul was being treated worse than anyone else.

One in Texas, who has a lot of experience in this exact kind of case said, sure, two years ago, Raul would have gotten a green card. But since President Trump, basically everyone with fraudulent birth certificates is denied. In fact, if anything, she said, he's lucky they didn't lock him up or put him into deportation proceedings.

There's lots of ways this is hard for Raul. His wife, Anita, she told me she thinks a lot about how Raul never wanted to grow up in Texas with his aunt and uncle and cousins, how, if he'd had it his way, he would have stayed in Mexico with his mom and dad working on the farm. In the end, somehow the choices his dad made deprived Raul of a home on either side of the border.

Anita

All those years that my husband was here growing up with his aunt and uncle, suffering without his mom and dad-- when he'd miss his mom, he'd always tell me, I wish I had been born in Mexico, because then I could have stayed with my mom and dad. And now at the age of 50, he finds out that he could have had that. And they lied to him this entire time. It's like, now what? Was it because they didn't want me?

Jeremy Raff

Raul hasn't talked to his dad in months, since that day at the Starbucks.

Raul Rodriguez

It totally changed how I see him now, to where I thought he was my hero. Even though I didn't grow up with him, I took him to heart. I strongly believed in what he told me and what he said. And one of the things was that, better be as honest as you can I don't know. I don't know if I'll ever see my dad again after this.

Jeremy Raff

Has he reached out?

Raul Rodriguez

No, not at all. I don't think I want to see him ever again.

Jeremy Raff

Months tick by, then a year, with no decision by the government about Raul's green card application. Then on October 29th of last year, Raul got a letter from the government. His green card application was denied.

They said Raul had made a false claim to US citizenship, said he was an American when he really wasn't. It also pointed out that he'd committed voter fraud by voting as an undocumented immigrant. Of course, Raul thought he was a citizen at the time. He thought voting was the right thing to do.

Raul's world has shrunk down to a few acres that he and Anita own. He keeps goats, cattle, a bunch of chickens. He watches the news in the morning while he walks on the treadmill. His badge and integrity award are still above the TV.

He and Anita had dreamed of retiring in their 50s and driving around the country in an RV, maybe visiting their kids at college, or on a base if they decided to join the military. Now they can't leave town. There are Border Patrol checkpoints on all the major roads heading out of the valley.

After a career of working double shifts and overnights, he finally has time to himself to think-- maybe too much. The stress of being undocumented is getting to him. He only sleeps for two or three hours at a time. He and Anita started fighting. Raul worried for a while they were headed for divorce.

His lawyer told me that Raul could be in this limbo for three or four more years, before exhausting his appeals. Raul told me he's thought of just giving up and leaving. It would be drastic, but it would bring this to an end.

If the courts ultimately deny him a green card and he's ordered to leave the country, he told me he would go. He'd obey the law. He said, I'm going to practice what I preach. He'd move to Mexico.

As a former border officer who'd arrested smugglers, confiscated loads of drugs, he's worried the cartels might come after him. They would still see him as a US Customs and Border Protection guy, the way he wishes everyone else would.

Ira Glass

Jeremy Raff is a reporter for The Atlantic. He also did a print version of this story and a short video documentary where you can see Raul and Anita. It's at The Atlantic website.

[MUSIC - "WHERE SHOULD I GO (PERTSONA)" BY ANEGURIA]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Lilly Sullivan. Our staff includes Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Emanuele Berry, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Noor Gill, Damien Graves, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katehrine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Christopher Svetala, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, and Julie Whitaker. Our managing editor is Diane Wu. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to Tonya Medley, Jorge Just, Jaime Diez, Lisa Brodyaga, Jodi Goodwin, Dan Kowalski, Stephen Yale-Loeher, Rachel Rosenbloom, and Laura Bingham. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of nearly 700 shows for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. Everything he knows about management, he told me he learned from one of the actors in West Side Story.

Yelena Khanga

He told me you take a bottle, you break the bottle, and with this, whatever is left, you just put in their face.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.