'Blink, Grandma, blink'

April 21, 1997|By Andrew Lam

"PLEASE, GRANDMA, blink, just blink, please," my mother says, but Grandma only smiles. Then she says, "Bye, bye," her wheelchair gleaming in the sunlight. "Bye, bye." It is all the English that she remembers.

"All right, Grandma," I say, taking over, "if blinking's too hard, try to nod. Nod, please, it's important. Very important."

We hold our breaths and wait. Nothing. No blink, no nod. Only that constant beatific smile. My mother throws her hands up and sighs. "This is it. We are doomed."

Grandma must learn to blink or nod her head at the right time. If she fails to do so in front the officer from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, she may die.

I am not exaggerating. Without the much coveted U.S. citizenship, she'll be cut off from the health care that had kept her alive for the last decade.

Blink, grandma, please.

The problem is that Grandma's once sharp mind has dwindled to that of an infant, peppered with sporadic moments of lucidity.

She's 87, diabetic and severely senile. Since a stroke left her partially paralyzed several years ago, she has resided in a convalescent home where attendants regularly measure her blood and inject the insulin she needs.

The INS's cruelty

As a legal immigrant who has lived here for more than two decades, she is qualified for U.S. citizenship. In 1994 Congress passed a law that exempted seriously disabled immigrants from English proficiency and civics requirements. Then, last month, the INS issued new rules removing that exemption. The INS says it will be flexible about ways that these immigrants can take the oath. Blinking or nodding will suffice.

But what seems to the INS an easy, even a charitable solution is more like cruel and unusual punishment to mentally handicapped immigrants. How can a person suffering Alzheimer's disease nod at the right moment? Can you teach a mentally retarded child to blink, pretending to understand that he's taking an oath? And can people in comas or completely gone into their own worlds possibly grasp that a single gesture has such enormous significance?

The situation would be sardonically funny in a play or movie -- Samuel Beckett, I should think, or perhaps Stanley Kubrick. But this is not make believe, this is the new American reality for hundreds of thousands of immigrant families.

Blink, grandma, please.

Of course, if Grandma is thrown out of the convalescent home she will be far from a life on the street: we take care of our own. But how well? And how long? My parents are not rich. They worked for decades to achieve a modest middle class life, complete with a home in the suburbs. But they are both in their late 60s and can't possibly perform round-the-clock care, let alone medical duties.

It comes down to this. If Grandma fails to blink at the right time she will not become an American citizen. Then the government may take away her health care. If that happens, my parents may have to sell their home, the sum of their labor, to pay for her medical treatment. Then after all the money's gone, what?

Blink, grandma, please.

This woman, gray haired, smiling in the sunlight, survived two wars in Vietnam. She had seen enough horrors to last 10 lifetimes, including having her home bombed twice by American planes. She raised four children on her own when her husband died at age 34 and, after we fled to America 22 years ago, babysat her grandchildren, cooked and cleaned.

In her mid-70s she decided to go back to school to study English. "Never give up," she often told her grandchildren, "when there is still work you must finish it."

Her strong values passed down to three generations, all now hard-working Americans. But in her twilight, my grandmother is faced with something she cannot possibly fight. The banal bureaucracy of the U.S. government.

Blink, grandma, please.

Last year, some of my aunts and uncles voted for Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigrant initiative, hoping to draw the line between legal and illegal. But they soon discovered that line did not hold. It has becomes clear to us all that the anti-immigrant purge makes no such distinctions and is going after the weakest link -- aged immigrants, those who could not vote, or have no public voice.

But will it stop there?

If we are ready to force retarded and senile immigrants to blink and nod before we care for them, then we ourselves have already shut our eyes. As anti-immigrant sentiment grows, we no longer recognize ourselves as a nation of immigrants. When a society hides behind bureaucracy to do its dirty work the only logical outcome is cruelty.

"OK, grandma, let's pretend I'm the American officer," I say. "When I read you the oath, you blink or nod, OK? Try it."

But Grandma only smiles. "Bye, bye," she says. Suddenly, she seems so small and frail and far away, fading into nothingness under that glaring California sunlight. "Bye, bye."

Andrew Lam is an editor with Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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