'Here We Are' Recounts Struggle At The Heart Of Immigrant Family's Story
NOEL KING, HOST:
The journalist Aarti Shahani is an immigrant. She was born to an Indian family. They brought her to the U.S. when she was a toddler, and New York City became their home.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: We lived in a really crappy apartment (laughter). OK, it was, like, a one-bedroom roach den. And I literally - I can recall, also, waking up more than once when I was a child and having a roach crawling on my skin.
KING: As a kid, Aarti gradually realized her parents couldn't do much about that.
SHAHANI: And I recall my parents this one time, I think, wanting to complain to our landlord about the heat not working in the winter. And I can recall my father telling my mother to not put something in writing 'cause he was afraid of us leaving a paper trail.
KING: They were afraid because her family was in the United States illegally. They had overstayed their tourist visas.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Aarti Shahani has come a long way from that New York childhood in the 1980s. Her family gained legal status through a relative. She won scholarships to a string of elite schools and today, as a U.S. citizen, covers Silicon Valley for NPR News. Yet there is an excruciating struggle at the heart of her immigrant family's story, which our colleague recounts in a memoir called "Here We Are."
SHAHANI: My father left his homeland when he was a teenager to be a migrant worker in Beirut to support his family of 13. Dad spoke six languages. He could do math in his head, like, calculate big numbers. But when he went to go look for work in New York City, what he found was, hey, you can shovel for $4 an hour. And I think it was hard for him because, you know, like, we were undocumented. Then we got our papers, and then he finally felt like he was on the fast track to his American dream. I mean, he opened up a store, a small business, on the very same street where he shoveled snow. You know, that's a huge accomplishment. And then, one day, my father is arrested for selling watches and calculators to the Cali drug cartel.
INSKEEP: Aarti Shahani says police raided her father's store in Manhattan. Prosecutors alleged that people were buying his products to launder drug money. She says the case against her father seemed weak - he was not part of a Colombian cartel - yet his lawyers urged him to plead guilty so that he would spend only a few months in prison.
SHAHANI: The sentences were supposed to just be the sentences. And then as a second surprise punishment, my family was put into deportation proceedings, meaning, specifically, my uncle and then my father.
INSKEEP: Shahani dropped out of college to aid her father's defense. And her story says something about the law, particularly immigration law. She found a better lawyer who applied a new legal precedent. And her father, who had been on the verge of deportation, was suddenly able to stay.
SHAHANI: And it was the happiest day of my life because I was ready for a protracted fight where my father would linger in a cell and possibly have a major medical issue or die in that cell because his health was so unstable or be deported. And the next time I'd get to hug him would be over in India, a country in which he hadn't lived since the 1950s. That's what I was braced for.
And then, lo and behold, because of an amazingly savvy legal argument that really has nothing to do with justice, it has to do with law and argumentation, my father was released and I got hold him back in New York City.
INSKEEP: So let me ask you a question about this because it's possible to hear your father's story and think that everything is very clear and counts against him. He's not an American. He came here illegally. He committed a crime, and the law says he should be deported. But you're telling me that, in reality, every one of those things was more complex than it seemed. He was - he felt American. He did attain legal status. He did not think that he committed a crime. And all he needed was a better lawyer. Is that right?
SHAHANI: Law in the criminal justice system is typically not about innocence or guilt; it's about risk and reward and who you can hire to fight your battle. We did not have great representation. And the reason I know that as a fact now is that - fast-forward decades later, and I had a chance encounter with the judge who'd set my father to jail. And that judge - the first words out of his mouth when we met was, young lady, your father should never have taken that guilty plea. What a mistake.
INSKEEP: The judge said that?
SHAHANI: Yes. That judge didn't buy that they were drug cartel members, but he saw that they were between a rock and a hard place, and they didn't play their hand well.
INSKEEP: I want to note that after you secured your father's release, he never fully recovered. He did have an opportunity to return to India, to the country of his birth. He grew ill there. And you describe the extraordinary effort that he made to come home - that America was home - to die in the United States. After the way he was treated in the United States, what do you think made him want to die here? What made this home? Take your time.
SHAHANI: You ask that and it just reminds me that...
INSKEEP: It's OK.
SHAHANI: ...That in many ways, I mean, this book, yes, it's in part, you know, a case study and plead to my fellow citizens, hey, look at this immigrant family's story and think about what we're doing in this country. But it's also - I mean, this book is a eulogy for my father. I didn't get to ask him, hey, Dad, why'd you decide the pass here? (Laughter) That would be an amazing conversation to have...
SHAHANI: ...You know, maybe in my prayers. But, you know, the body knows and the body holds on until it's ready to let go. And I think that my father is someone who spent his life, you could say, effectively stateless. And America is where he had lived longer than anywhere else. It is where he saw his children thrive. He did not thrive, but his children did.
It surprised my father that the most ambitious of his children was his youngest daughter. He would have thought it'd be his eldest son per old-world norms. But, you know, for example, I've been to a few very nice schools. Among them, I went to graduate school at Harvard. My father went to my graduation and, man, like, just beaming with pride because whatever legal category he was put into, whatever bad immigrant category he was put into, he knew he was the backbone and connected to the so-called good immigrant who got to go and have that diploma, who got to go and shake those hands, who got to be seen and recognized for something.
INSKEEP: Aarti Shahani, thank you so much.
SHAHANI: Thank you.
INSKEEP: The book is called "Here We Are," a memoir.
Do you have a tissue in there? Can someone bring you one?
SHAHANI: I have a sleeve. It's OK (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDMUND'S "ABOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.