"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
The sun shone brightly, and I was glad to be outside, though I felt my anxiety begin to soar as I parked my car. As I walked toward the building, praying silently, I noticed a yellow warning road sign, “Dead End.” While the sign forewarned the end of the road, I wondered what other new immigrants visiting the office of Immigration and Naturalization Services might think of the placement of the sign. It was a tip from a friend that led me into the parking lot that day. She said, “There is an immigration office in Lincoln where you might be able to get some information.” It was three-and-a-half years into my immigration process nightmare—I was fully awake, eyes wide open and still feeling helpless. You know the feeling you have after waking up from a nightmare, thinking, “Good—it was only a nightmare.” For my 16-year-old son and I, this nightmare never seemed to end.
I was a Canadian with four postsecondary degrees and a vocational counseling career that brought me to Lincoln, Neb., in 1996. But as the sign said, there were more “dead ends” than open doors on our road to a green card and permanent residency.
There have been many times through the years when I’ve listened to discussions about immigration on the radio and I wanted to scream, “HAVE YOU BEEN THERE PEOPLE?! Do you have any idea what it is like to accomplish what you think is such a simple road to living legally in the United States?” Walk a mile in my Caucasian, English-speaking shoes. Let me tell you of the time, money and energy it takes, not to mention the frustration, fury and fear. This is my story, and even as I tell it, I relive the anxiety 17 years after I began the process.
If you want to learn about immigration reform, talk to those who have been through the unbelievably complicated process. I can tell you how virtually impossible it was in 1996 to get information on how to obtain a permanent residency card, otherwise known as a green card. Going online I found nothing but a confusing array of application titles and numbers. As I navigated the endless sea of arbitrary digits, nothing made sense.
I remember talking to an American friend when I was well into the process. In reply to her question, “How is it going?” I spewed out the numbers of various forms I was working on. She gave me a moment to catch my breath and then said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” She had no reason to learn this language; I HAD to learn it. However, I could find no one to teach me. I tried calling an Immigration number and never once spoke to a person—it rang busy every time. Eventually I quit calling.
One day I found the Omaha Immigration Office address, drove there and waited outside in the stifling fall heat. It felt degrading to have to stand in the humid Nebraska heat, like some unwelcome animal begging entrance. But as I looked around at the others waiting, I realized we were all willing to do what we needed to do. Eventually my number was called and as I faced a middle-aged female immigration worker, I realized that I did not know what to ask and she did not know or care to explain the process of moving from the legal work authorization I possessed to a green card and permanent residency.
A point of interest here is that often I hear Americans talk about citizenship without realizing that no one can apply for citizenship until years after having a green card and a permanent resident status. As I drove away, I remember thinking, “Not only will this be difficult, it seems impossible.” What a hopeless feeling that was.
I began to research other options, looking for others who were going through the process. A colleague shared with me that she had learned the hard way that filling out the wrong forms and/or sending in the wrong fees led to significant delays and expense. She advised me to work with a lawyer right from the beginning because they understood the process and knew what the correct fees were, since the online fee listing was wrong!
My employer found an immigration lawyer with experience in this field. Thus began a long, tedious process through which I wondered, “God, how long will this go on?” Like the suffrage movement that sang the doxology when the vote was granted to women, I am certain that there are many others who petition God for immigration graces.
If I had a nickel for every prayer that my team of prayer partners and I prayed, I would be a wealthy woman. I have often wondered if the INS employees felt the grace and urgency prayed upon them or if they just continued to clock in and out, oblivious to the lives they impacted every day.
Dotting our Is and crossing our Ts, the immigration lawyer and I prepared papers worthy of dissertation caliber, only to receive an undated, unsigned form letter from INS, with no office phone number, asking for the same information we had already submitted. We wondered if anyone had even bothered to examine the detailed documents we had submitted. I paid my lawyer to compile the exact same information once again, hoping and praying we were moving onto the next stage. It was the uncertainty and the lack of communication from INS that was the most frustrating.
Countless times during the five-year immigration journey, my son and I were fingerprinted as part of the process. A curious event happened when, as residents of Lincoln, Neb., we were asked to go to the Hastings location to be fingerprinted once again. Thinking this must be a special branch of INS, we got up at 4 a.m. in the middle of the week, my son packing his university accounting books to study as we waited for our appointment. In fact, he studied every time we went to an immigration office, as it was often a three- to four-hour wait. I watched as those who came at 2 p.m. were sent home at 4 and told to return the next day.
We arrived at the Hastings address in the dark and waited for the office to open. At 8 a.m. with no one else waiting, the door opened, a woman led us through the office out through a dusty garage to a small barren room where she arranged some old-fashioned fingerprinting pads. Still hopeful, I thought this was a great opportunity to ask where we were in the process. “I don’t know anything about that,” she replied. Surprised by her answer, I looked at her badge: “Animal Control Officer.”
I remember thinking that if there was a triage system based on some criteria, maybe there would be some hope. Perhaps categories comparable to the medical model of dead, badly injured and easily treated. Maybe there could be a green category with an efficient streamlined process; where an application is completed, processed, background checks done in an expedited manner. A yellow category may be for those who require more extensive checks to be done, interviews completed in addition to the paperwork and background checks. The red category is the one where there are so many red flags in the file, pending some miraculous turn of events, chances are good the application would be denied.
In that dusty Hastings garage with the sweet Animal Control officer, I realized there was no difference between me and anyone else; we were all in the red zone, with a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through the process, and I thought, “Are you kidding me? This is the process for the road to residency?”
There is a point in the process when an applicant is in no-man’s land: too far gone in the process to remain on the work authorization you entered the country with; not far along enough to get a green card. In this interim time I was required to file eight separate applications for temporary residency, work, travel visas for my son and me with eight checks of various amounts attached. This packet was mandated to be processed in 90 days. Ninety working days passed, and travel to Canada was pending for a conference.
I went to the INS office to make sure everything was OK and the clerk behind the glass told me to come back next week. She told me that all my forms were lost. Not to be turned away without some answers, heart pounding, I said calmly, “My checks were not lost in the process because I checked my bank and all eight checks were cashed.”
She replied, “If you go to the bank and get the numbers off the back of the check and bring it to me, I can check my files.”
Surprised at my surge of determination, I stated, “I will not pay the bank five dollars per check to help you find the forms you lost. I have paid a significant amount of money for all my applications already. May I remind you that you are mandated to process these forms in 90 days and you are already outside 90 working days. This has been a long and difficult process, and I need my forms. I am here today because this office does not answer the phone. There is no one to answer questions or provide information, and I SPEAK the language—I can understand what you ask me. This office is incompetent and inefficient, and I have been waiting for years for your office to process my application. I am tired of waiting. I will not go to the bank. I WILL stand here until you call your supervisor and FIND my forms.”
I watched her as I spoke and was surprised to see her nod her head in agreement. To her credit, she called a supervisor who found the lost forms but of course was unable to issue my travel documents, telling me to return next week.
Shaking and sick to my stomach, I walked out to the parking lot. Too stressed to return to work, I drove to a state senator’s office where my university student son was doing an unpaid internship. After years of begging me to “get me some status, Mom, so I can work and make some money,” the senator’s office graciously offered him an UNPAID internship whereat least he gained some valuable experience. As my dependent, he was not legally authorized to work in the United States until we obtained our permanent residency.
The staff at the senator’s office listened to me vent. “Actually, the immigration office does not take our calls either, and we know how frustrating this is,” they said. I did not know whether to laugh or cry. They did offer me one option, to speak to someone in another office, which I did and then returned home. More prayers and miraculously, the following week, I got our documents.
Why should it feel like a miracle when the office that is mandated to provide what it provides actually provides it?
One year before we received our green cards in the mail, we were asked to appear in the Omaha INS office for more fingerprints and a stamp in our passports granting us the green card approval.
Once more, his auditing books in his lap, my son sat studying for three hours (one of the shorter waits in the immigration office) before we were called to the wicket. By this time, I was well versed and had brought our documentation with every piece of information that Immigration would even think to ask for—and what I took on all our trips to Canada, wondering anxiously after sleepless nights, every time, if we could be denied entry even though all our papers were in order and I was compliant with every detail.
When our number was called, I leapt to my feet, thinking, it is almost 4 p.m. and we won’t have to return the next day to wait again. The immigration officer looked at me and said, “You are a little too enthusiastic, and you need to go back to your seat.” Crushed and believing him like he was God, because in my world, he and his colleagues possessed that ridiculous amount of power, I stood incredulously looking at him, too tired, disappointed and broke to return to my seat. He smiled and said, “I just wanted to have fun.”
The immigration worker told us that it would take one more year from that date to receive the green card (five years total from the date we started the process). We gave more fingerprints, got our stamps in our passports and returned momentarily to our seats. Tears flowed with the ugly cry refusing to be managed, and my son looked at me. “Now what are you crying about?” he asked.
“It’s just a relief,” I said. “No one knows how difficult this has been.” All these years of stress, missing my mom’s 75th birthday party in Canada because I was afraid I might not have the proper paperwork to get back into this country, hearing my son beg me not to jeopardize his school status by going to visit family in Canada, asking me when he could work for pay, the sleepless nights wondering if and when and how this would all turn out.
And all the money for so many complex applications, for the lawyer; I even wondered if the stress would make me sick physically, costing me more money.
So when you hear the discussions on immigration, I would ask that you pause before you draw any conclusions. Mine is only one story, and it has a happy ending. I am grateful for the opportunities my son and I have had in this country, and I am proud of the contributions we have made through work and volunteerism.
I know that those who marry an American citizen have an easier time in the process. But short of marrying an American, the other options are limited and difficult.
I have heard many stories, and they are not all that different from mine. My hope is that we can be open and willing to become a part of the solution to the immigration problem. Don’t make assumptions; be informed and knowledgeable; ask questions; listen. I believe every problem has a solution, and my favorite one is a win-win that keeps this nation safe and allows an efficient, timely immigration process for those who choose to seek residency here. Take it from me—no American would find this process acceptable if they understood it.
For more on Canadians immigrating to the U.S.: http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/canada-politics/two-ways-u-immigration-reform-could-affect-canadians-162046456.html.