They packed their life into a U-Haul, piece by piece, all they would take with them on a journey where they would leave so much behind.
In went the Virginia marriage license for Sadhana Singh and My Ford Noel. The license was one of the only official forms the Alexandria couple owned on which they were not identified as “alien” or “temporary.” In marriage they were just two people in love, calling each other “baby” in public, texting too many heart emoji, picking out the names for the children they didn’t yet have.
With that piece of paper were their college diplomas, the ones they had been able to earn because of two programs designed to protect hundreds of thousands of immigrants from deportation.
One was called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA: It provided protection to people brought to the United States as children, like Sadhana, 32, who came from Guyana, a small South American country, at 13.
The other was called temporary protected status, or TPS: It provided the same benefits to immigrants from countries devastated by war or natural disaster, like My Ford, 33, who came from an earthquake-ravaged Haiti at 24.
Into the U-Haul went the couple’s computers, which they had been using to track the uncertain fate of those programs. In the midst of the immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, another has been playing out for immigrants who have long lived in the United States. Since 2017, the Trump administration has been working to end protections for those with DACA and many with TPS.
Those efforts have been thwarted by lawsuits and rulings by federal judges, but only for now. Congress has tried to come up with a permanent solution, but nothing has worked. For some 670,000 people with DACA and 400,000 people with TPS, the future is unknowable.
Into the U-Haul went the couch the couple had sat on as they tried to plan their lives anyway. Maybe, Sadhana and My Ford told each other, a deal would be reached; they could stay at the jobs they loved, hers in communications at a scholarship program, his in management at a logistics company.
Or maybe both programs would end, and they would have to settle for lives of working for cash under the table, driving without licenses, fearing each day that they could be deported.
Or maybe, they finally concluded, there was another option. One that would rid them of all these maybes.
Last into the U-Haul on this June day went their safe, which had been guarding their chance at that option: two visas that would allow them to live and work in Canada. My Ford had accepted a job at a food manufacturing company, giving him and Sadhana a chance to become permanent residents.
“A life without restrictions,” My Ford called it.
“To finally be free,” Sadhana said.
But as the U-Haul door slammed shut, what she was giving up for that freedom was standing beside her, bent over and coughing.
“How are you feeling?” Sadhana asked her father.
He had come from Georgia to help her pack, despite this deep, wet cough he’d had for months — another problem to go with his back pain, his shoulder pain and his knee that needed surgery. After decades working in construction and living without health insurance, he had the medical problems of someone much older than his 59 years.
“All right,” he told her, shrugging.
“All right,” Sadhana said. They had less than 16 hours left together.
Because her parents are still undocumented, they would not be able to follow her to Canada or visit her there. She would have to leave them behind at a time when President Trump was rebranding America as a country that puts its own citizens first, threatening to close the border, ramp up raids and deport millions. And because of a law that temporarily bars undocumented immigrants from returning to the U.S. once they leave, Sadhana will not be allowed to return to the country for 10 years.
She stood between her husband and her father, her future and her past. The next morning, My Ford would drive the U-Haul north to a four-bedroom house he had rented for them in Ontario. Her father would board a bus and leave for Georgia. Sadhana would be alone in Virginia, trying to gather the strength to follow through on the plan: Take a flight to Toronto. Show her new visa. Leave behind the country her parents had hoped would give her a better life, so she could give the same to her own children one day.
“I am happy to go and I want to go,” Sadhana had reminded herself in her journal.
“I need to focus on what I am gaining (complete freedom) and not what I am giving up,” she wrote, too.
“Feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, exhausted, inundated, suffocated, anxious, uncertain,” she wrote another day. “I feel like I am fraying at the edges.”
She turned away from the U-Haul and headed into her apartment. She crossed the living room, her footsteps echoing in its emptiness. She plopped down on the hardwoods and dug her nails into the soft part of her thumb.
“I just need a minute,” she said, and she tried to take a deep breath.
The first time she left everything behind: 1999, when she landed at JFK Airport in New York at 13 years old. Her aunts lived in the city, and she had visited them before: a few weeks taking in the bright lights and bustle of America, then back to Guyana.
She’d grown up riding bikes, watching Bollywood movies, being the pink Power Ranger while her younger brother was the blue. Her mother stayed home. Her father worked as a chauffeur at the airport. She didn’t know about the whispered conversations they had in their bedroom at night, her father fretting that his precocious daughter was too smart for Guyanese schools, that she deserved more.
Only when Sadhana found herself on a bus leaving New York did the permanence of this trip begin to sink in. Her family arrived in Georgia with a plan to overstay their tourist visas.
Her mom found work at a fast-food restaurant and enrolled the kids in school. Before long, Sadhana had given up her Creole English accent for an American one, swapped Bollywood for ’N Sync, stopped using her first name and told her classmates, “Call me Ashley.”
In 2002, when her 16-year-old friends were getting their licenses, she said she wasn’t ready to drive.
In 2005, when everyone wanted to know what colleges her impeccable grades had earned her admission to, she said she was still waiting to hear back.
For nine years after high school, Sadhana languished, living at home, working as a lab technician for an archaeology company and sinking into a depression she struggled to explain. Even when President Barack Obama announced DACA in 2012, giving Sadhana and her brother access to work permits, Social Security cards and driver’s licenses, she couldn’t afford college. Undocumented students are barred from receiving federal financial aid, and in Georgia, they must pay out-of-state tuition.
Then a co-worker told her about TheDream.US, a scholarship specifically for DACA and TPS recipients. (The program was co-founded by Donald Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post, who would later bring Sadhana’s story to the attention of Post reporters. Last year Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the current owner of The Post, and his then- wife, MacKenzie, donated $33 million to TheDream.US.)
Sadhana agonized over her application essays, trying to summarize all her parents had hoped for her — all she had wondered if she should still hope for herself.
The second time she left everything behind: 2014, when she enrolled in Trinity Washington University in the District, her tuition completely paid. At 28, she moved into the dorms and threw herself into her classes. She missed her mother’s Caribbean soup, watching movies with her father, having her brother as her best friend. But in four years, she completed seven internships and earned only one A-minus.
What had once been her biggest secret became her elevator pitch, the story that opened doors in a city increasingly aware of the plight of DACA recipients. She sat on panels and attended marches. She spoke to journalists and wrote op-eds. She met then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and visited the White House.
“I need to know,” she would say, “that the country that I call home sees me as a human being worthy of life, and not as an invading alien. How much longer do you think I have to wait?”
She was surrounded by people who seemed to think the answer was: not much longer. The 2016 election was almost over. While Donald Trump had disparaged undocumented immigrants and denounced DACA as unconstitutional, Hillary Clinton had hired DACA recipients onto her staff and met with them to learn about their lives. She had vowed to protect from deportation not only them, but their parents, too.
But Sadhana would wait to feel optimistic, she said, to see if anything real happened once Clinton was in office. Come election night, she had homework to do. She stayed in her dorm with the map of incoming results a mostly ignored tab on her browser.
Only when she refreshed the page late in the evening did she realize she wasn’t going to finish her assignments. She thought about calling home, but couldn’t bring herself to pick up the phone. She could only stare at her computer, watching the states turn red.
“How did you get so beautiful, young lady?”
Sadhana saw the comment beneath a selfie she had posted to Facebook on a spring night in 2017. She could tell the guy who wrote it was in her scholarship group, but she had never met him. My Ford Noel. It looked like he lived in Florida. What could be the harm?
“Thank you,” she messaged him. “That was very nice of you.”
For hours they typed back and forth. The next day, he changed his Facebook status to “In a relationship.”
This was how their romance would go on: him certain and ready, her smitten but hesitating.
He came to visit, and he wanted to move to Washington. He moved to Washington, and they moved in together. They moved in together, and he wanted to get engaged.
She was awed by his stories of growing up in an orphanage in Haiti, coming to Florida after surviving the earthquake and working three jobs so he could earn a GED, three associate’s degrees and a bachelor’s.
At a time when there was so much uncertainty in her life and in the country, he was solid, unshakable. “You take your time,” he would say. “I know we are going to be together.”
This, she realized, was what she wanted too. But when she called home to tell her parents, they were devastated.
They did not approve of her dating a black man. They especially did not approve of her dating an undocumented immigrant.
For months her mother would call her, crying. Then she stopped calling altogether. Sadhana still spoke to her brother and her father, who always sounded deeply worried. “How,” her dad asked, “will you ever become a citizen?”
She invited them to her graduation in May 2018, where she earned summa cum laude and received the Saint Catherine medal, one of the university’s highest honors. They didn’t come.
She called to tell them she got a job at the scholarship program that had made college possible for her. She called to say she and My Ford were engaged.
She sent her brother photos of the summer wedding her parents refused to attend: the small ceremony, the fancy lunch with their friends, the moment during their photo shoot in a park when kids from a day care across the street came outside holding up pieces of their alphabet mat that spelled CONGRATS.
Kids: She wanted them, and at 32, she wanted them soon. Four of them. My Ford kept saying they should have 10. He wanted to gush the parental love he had never been given. She wanted her children to be carefree in a way she never could be in America.
But how could they give them that kind of life amid so much uncertainty? They didn’t want to become like so many families, where the parents are undocumented but the kids are citizens. They wanted the basic, boring parts of adulthood, such as getting a home loan and investing in a 401(k).
But America, My Ford told his wife, was never going to give them those things.
“We stay here, and suck it up until a certain president is gone, or a certain group of people has majority? You think they will change something?” he said.
“I’m a human being,” he said. “ I want to be able to make plans. I want to live to my full potential.”
Soon Sadhana began saying these things, too. “I don’t want to put my life on hold anymore,” she explained as her husband applied for jobs in Europe and Canada.
“We need to be in a stable place to plan our lives,” she told her brother when he came to visit in November 2018.
“I think you should come for Christmas this year,” he told her. He still lived with their parents and had been trying to change their minds. A few weeks later, he called to confirm. Sadhana and My Ford could come to Georgia for the holidays.
The whole flight there, her emotions boomeranged between relief and anxiety. After all of this, her parents were finally going to accept her? Accept her husband?
The smell of her mother’s cooking hit her as soon as she walked through the front door.
Then her parents appeared, their arms reaching out. Her father looked at My Ford and went in for a hug. A moment later, her mother hugged him, too.
“Are you hungry?” her mom asked.
Sadhana sat down beside them, trying to put out of her mind what she already knew. By next Christmas, they would be in Canada. My Ford had accepted a job.
Sadhana’s father sagged against her kitchen counter in his flannel pajama pants, sipping Lipton out of a red plastic cup. All her dishes were on the U-Haul, which was now somewhere in Pennsylvania, according to My Ford’s last text.
In two hours, her father would be gone, too.
For a month he had been staying with her, watching her deconstruct the life she’d made for herself in America, while her husband got settled in Canada. My Ford had been granted permission from the United States to return to Virginia and help her pack — a privilege Sadhana wouldn’t have once she officially moved. So she went out for goodbye drinks and goodbye dinners. “We’ll come visit,” promised friends who weren’t undocumented.
Her father went with her to Trinity, where she was recognized again and again. People shook his hand and introduced themselves with titles like “dean” and “president.” He could tell they had guided her in a way he never could.
He met her bosses and co-workers, who were allowing her to keep her job at TheDream.Us and work as a remote contractor. They want her to partner with Canadian universities and businesses eager to recruit college-educated workers from the United States with DACA or TPS.
Meanwhile, they would try to get her an H-1B visa, which might allow her to get a waiver, which might override the 10-year-ban on her return to America. It was unlikely, but they said they would try, and they would hope. Sadhana didn’t let herself say she would hope, too.
Instead she and My Ford started imagining a website, an organization, a podcast — some way they could help other undocumented immigrants follow in their footsteps.
As they prepared to leave the country, huge waves of children and families were trying to enter it — so many that the federal shelters that housed them were canceling classes and legal aid because of a lack of funding. The border issues were tangled up with DACA in Congress, where in early June the House passed a bill to give DACA recipients a path to citizenship. “Oh, happy day,” Pelosi told reporters, while Sadhana’s co-workers warned scholarship recipients the bill would never pass in the Senate.
“I am so exhausted,” Sadhana wrote in her journal the next day. “I would like to sleep for three days straight.”
Soon she was coughing as bad as her father, lying awake at night on the air mattress she had squeezed into the living room. Her brother and mother came to see her, having only a few days to visit and say goodbye before they had to return to their jobs in Georgia. The whole family ended up inside, bingeing on Bollywood music videos and passing around Vicks VapoRub and DayQuil. Her mom made them Sadhana’s favorite Caribbean soup.
Then came the packing and the painting and the runs to Goodwill, and now there was one hour until Sadhana’s father would be gone.
“You got everything?” she asked him.
“Yeah,” he answered. “You got everything? You got your keys, you got your phone?”
“Yeah,” she said. “You got water?”
As she steered out of her apartment complex, her phone rang.
“Hello, Mom,” Sadhana answered. “I’m carrying Dad to the bus station now.”
“I just feel sad for ya’ll,” her mom said.
“I know,” Sadhana told her, keeping her eyes on the road.
At the bus station it started to rain, wetting her cheeks before any tears could. She reached up and adjusted her father’s collar. He reached up and pushed a strand of hair out of her face.
When the Greyhound pulled in, he wrapped his daughter in his arms.
“I’m really going to miss you,” she told him.
“We had a good time,” he said.
Then he let go, climbed the steps and disappeared behind the tinted windows.
Two days later, she woke at 3:15 a.m. She changed into a delicate floral dress she’d picked out for this day. She thought the outfit made her look relaxed but professional. Like someone customs officers would want in their country.
“Air Canada,” she told the Lyft driver who took her to the airport 3½ hours before her flight. She dug her nails into her thumb. She texted My Ford some emoji that captured her emotions. A bunny dancing. A bunny crying.
“Do you have a visa?” an airline employee asked.
“I do,” she answered, handing it to him.
She’d gone over each step in her mind dozens of times. Counter, security, gate, plane, customs, baggage claim, better life.
She thanked the employee for her ticket and lugged her suitcases around a corner. She passed a gift shop selling, red, white and blue hats and T-shirts.
“Maybe I should get something that says ‘USA,’ ” she said. She took a few more steps.
“No,” she said. “I think I have had enough.”