Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Information

Last week, on my way to get my boy from preschool, a minivan suddenly turned into my lane giving me only a moment to steer clear. Luckily, I was able to downgrade a full-on collision to a mere scraping of bumpers. The other van and I met in a nearby parking lot, and the passenger and I got out to make sure everyone involved was okay, which was the case, aside from my frantically beating heart. I took a few breaths, and felt the headache I had been fighting all day bear back down.

As per the fender-bender custom, I walked around each car to see how much damage had occurred; my front drivers side had some scrapes but no broken lights. Theirs was in slightly worse shape, although it was difficult to tell what the already battered van looked like before the accident.

The couple, who were African, spoke English as a second language. With my insurance card and smart phone in hand, I asked to exchange information. The woman, in her mid-20s with rough skin and modest clothing, looked to the man for guidance. He placed his hands in his pockets of his khaki pants, relaxing his stance, but his gaze--the energy behind his eyes--changed as though the thoughts behind them quickened.

The man nodded to his wife and spoke. "Get the card." She hesitated. "Go," he said more firmly. "The card."

She headed to the car, but sort of danced around it, approaching the vehicle from different angles, before saying to me, "But you okay. It is okay."

"Yes," I agreed. "But we need to exchange information. It is the smart thing for me to get your insurance information."

I turned back to him. "The baby was crying," he explained.
"Yeah. You turned over a double yellow line. You can't do that. That's illegal."

His hands remained in his pockets so I nudged him for his license or some type of identification. I looked toward the wife who stood looking at her open door but had still not produced anything yet.

"Just tell me if you don't have insurance," I pressed, tired and wanting to get to my son on time. I could see this wasn't going to go as smoothly as my last traffic accident did, my only other traffic accident, where a woman hit me in the school parking lot. We snapped pics of our insurance cards, IDs, and vehicle damage and were on our way within 5 minutes; the insurance companies mostly took it from there. 

"My ID is coming in the mail. I do not have it yet, but it's coming," the man assured me.
"You don't have a driver's license?"
Pause. "No."

"Then you don't have insurance," saying this mostly to complete the puzzle for myself. I knew I couldn't walk away from this with nothing as it has been hammered into my American brain my whole life: exchange information. Exchange Information. 

My great desire for "Information" was clearly beginning to boggle them, but I insisted. "I need your information. It is the right things for me to do. When there is an accident, it is essential that we Exchange Information."

To them, I must have seemed like an uptight middle-class woman, with my messy red hair and fancy pocket computer, making incessant demands for this seemingly vital Information. They were concerned only with what was in front of them: cars are okay, people are okay...what else does this lady need??

Unrelenting, I turned to her, willing to take whatever I could get. "I need to take a picture of your license plate and ID." Again, she looks to her husband, who nods, but is having a harder time hiding his irritation at my request.

She stalled one more time before getting anything for me, and decides to offer every bit she can that may possibly satiate my need for the Information.

"We have a baby."
"Yes," I say.
 "My sister lives right over here," she explains.
"But you are okay, and we are okay," she finally offers.
"I know," I reply.

Finally, she opened the sliding door to her minivan and inside were 5 or 6 children, between the ages of newborn and 12, sitting inside. She gestured to the baby before reaching for her wallet. "See?"

The oldest boy sat next to the infant seat, pacifying the child. Another small boy, maybe 4, had been crying and a thick layer of snot was caked all around his nose. The oldest daughter shifted her eyes away from me, as I silently admired her brightly colored pink and green head-covering.

"I see," I told to the mother. Then to the children, "That must have been scary for you." Then, I walked behind the van take a picture of the plate.

The woman one last time tried to talk me out of showing her ID, but I was unwavering. Reluctantly, she handed it over, a type I did not recognize right way, but in the blaring sun I did my best to get a shot of it. My headache was persisting, and I was feeling even more sapped after the initial adrenaline had worn off. The couple seemed uncomfortable, and the man, who was clearly done with the scenario, retreated to the drivers seat.

I handed the card back to the woman and offered to reciprocate. "Do you want my license?"
Confusion passed over her face. "You have it already. I already gave!" she says defensively.
"No, MINE. Would you like mine?" She shrugged, and said "OK," like she is just going along with this ritual that I have been forcing them to participate in. I look at the man who is shaking his head, looking somber and slightly ill.
"You don't want it then?" I checked, the mediator of this whole information triangle. He said no. "We don't need."

I pulled back my card and dropped my hands by my sides, in retreat. Her next words took on a different quality, a more reflective tone. No longer trying to appease my requests or follow my lead, she had honesty in her voice.

"It's not like this in Africa," she stated simply. "You okay. We okay. It's not like this." 

I understood what she was saying. In their eyes, I was making it complicated, much more complicated than it needs to be. They were thinking of the people involved and I am thinking about the vehicles and potential repairs. I only have a moment to gather my response. I am an America-born citizen who was raised on rules and regulation and the complexities of US legal system. Even in this brief encounter, I realize that its a very different world that she comes from. Besides our bumpers, our cultures had collided and the contrast was palpable.

Under the influence of that revelation, all I could offer was this generalization, "In America, its all about the insurance companies. Insurance rules everything." Then I walked away.

After they drove off, I examined the photo I'd captured in the shady relief of my car and I realized what she'd offered me. A US Immigration workers visa...that had expired in 2005. In order to appease my need for Information over a tiny fender bender, they offered me what is probably their biggest secret and greatest burden.


Illegal immigration is not something that penetrates my world in such a distinct manner. I was raised in a town that was 97% white, and even in Portland I feel mostly shielded from racial and socioeconomic issues, that I know are present but they don't affect me in an obvious way. I am a very white woman, in a mostly white state, in a fairly white neighborhood, and our family does moderately well. I am, at least, aware of my bubble. This unexpected encounter gave me a glimpse into a life that, while only blocks from my home, is worlds away from my own.

Afterwards, I grappled with whether I'd done the right thing, and what to do next. Here is where my perpetual dual-sidedness comes in to play. On the fence where I dwell, it is difficult for me to be passionate about any one cause because I can always muster some empathy for either side of an issue.

I want all drivers to follow the rules of safety, because I want my family to be safe, and I want to believe that every one of those drivers has read the book and passed the test by demonstrating their safety knowledge and, in turn, earned the proper license. Yes, there are a number of bad drivers out there who have followed that protocol and still barrel over double yellow lines. Or get distracted by crying babies. We are always at risk on the road, no matter how many people follow the rules, as we are ultimately steering about giant hunks of steel at high speeds.

As Americans, we demand the least amount of risk, and do everything to maximize the highest safety standards. Compare our car seat standards against those photos you see of families piled on a motorcycle in Mongolia. Here, our need for (and perception of) safety is a cultural thing.

As far as immigration goes, I have not lived a life that has helped sculpt solid opinions regarding the issue, like maybe a person who has lived in Texas, Southern California, or New York City.  There are multiple angles to attack such a complex issue. Looking from a government standpoint, this family is illegal.  From a citizen and taxpayers standpoint, they could be considered irksome.  From a mothers's understandable. I have no desire to blow the whistle on this family, even if I thought I had what I needed to track them down; the thought of possibly breaking up any family is disturbing. Even if they are living sketchy lives, or the dad is a reckless driver or an abusive jerk, or even the mother for that matter. I don't know a damn real thing; my glimpse didn't get deep enough to see, and its not my job to uncover.

I hope his ID is in the mail. I hope when they got home, the husband and wife hugged each other, and he thanked her for doing her best to protect their secret. I hope they had a conversation about how things could be different, how can they take the right steps to legitimize themselves and stop living under this fear of being exposed as living illegally (maybe I'm being naive and that is impossible.) I hope that the fact they let this stubborn American stranger walk away with a photo of the wife's expired visa doesn't weigh heavily on him, and that he doesn't take out his stress on her or the children. And finally, I hope I did the right thing by letting it go. 

While I was processing this experience, I kept thinking about the possible reactions of very random people in my life. What would so-and-so have done? The young activist couple I know, a friend's military boyfriend, Blake's dad "The Judge", my own mother, sister, and best friend. Another reminder how our roles and experiences shape us, and I guess that is why I am so often on the fence. Out of 6 billion people, I just don't see how my perspective is so well-informed, so significant, because it's not. I'm just one hopeful voice in this big, wide world.


  1. Leah. This is a wonderful entry. The discussion is relevant and for some of us impassioned. Something I have kept on the down low is that for the last couple of years, a very close friend, who I have been tied with on/off romantically is technically an illegal. He was brought here by his parents when he was two. Never lived anywhere else. Educated in our public school system. He, much of the time, is angry and bitter at how complicated his life is because of what would seem like a selfless, loving act on his Mother's part, to want a better life for him. The reality is that he can't have a real job, he can't go into all bars, as some in San Diego do not recognize his passport, he cannot rent a home easily, cannot have a driver's license, cannot own a car (which is a big deal in Southern California), he cannot travel anywhere outside the inner city (essentially) without fear of being found out and deported to a place he has never lived. This is a smart man, whom you would NEVER EVER know was illegal if you met him. He is extremely literate, well read, and deserves to have a life. His life is on perpetual hold due to all the complication of immigration laws. The recent ruling by Obama may very quickly make his life better. This is a man who dreams of Paris and has to live simply hearing stories from those of us who have traveled, that he actually will let into his world. It is a complicated situation at best. "These people" are humans who dream, love and hope, like those of us who are citizens by birth.

  2. The dice were tossed and they came up no injuries. That was THE most important thing. The rest morphs into a moral/political discussion. (Is it possible to use those two words in the same sentence?) You absolutely did the right thing by letting it go. And the couple in the other car can just thank whomever one usually thanks, that they were not in Arizona. Obama's DREAM Act is an important first step. One hopes it is not undone in the future. DDDDDD