What You Don’t Know About Immigration

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In the ten years I have lived in the United States, people have often been shocked when I tell them that not only do I not have a green card, but that I couldn’t get one even if I tried.

I would love to be the holder of a green card—that elusive piece of paper which would grant me the right to remain in the US indefinitely—but as it is, I don’t and can’t qualify. There is not a single category under which I can legally apply for permanent residence.

This is shocking to many, perhaps because I defy some of the stereotypes about immigrants and immigration laws. After all, I am English-speaking and hold two graduate degrees. I am white, I am a committed member of my church, I have three children who are natural-born American citizens. I volunteer on the PTA, I do community service. I have both the skills and the desire to work, but when people want to pay me for writing or speaking, I have to decline. My visa status allows me to volunteer, but not to earn any income. (This strikes me as a pity, because I would so gladly pay taxes on any income I could earn. The perks of living in a country like the US are well worth the taxes, if you ask me.)

This is what I want you to know about immigration: being English-speaking, privileged, white, skilled, educated, hard-working, legally above-board, and socially respectable are not enough to apply for residence in the US.

As it turns out, there are very few categories under which one can apply for permanent residence, and unless your employer is sponsoring you or you are marrying in, you have to be a bit of an über-mensch (as in, a scholar of international standing, a Pulitzer prize winner, an Olympic athlete, to name some of the examples listed on the website) to qualify.

I am none of these things.

But, I have hitched my wagon to a man who holds a PhD in Engineering from a well-respected US university and works in research that affects the spending of millions of tax dollars. Our immigration attorneys tell us they are “hopeful” that his application will be successful. No guarantees. But all our eggs are in that one basket, and if he gets a green card, I—his loving wife and maker of the sandwiches—can have one too.

Until the day we have permanent residence, though, I live under the constant threat that something will happen: funding will be cut and my husband will lose his job/ he will get hit by a driver who is texting/ he will have a heart attack – and I would instantly lose my status as a legal alien in the US. I would have no grounds to apply to stay on my own merit. I would have to leave the country immediately, without time to pack up our house or bury my loved ones, and I would have to pull my American children from their schools and therapies and take them back to a country where they would then become immigrant kids.

Until the day we have green cards, I live under the constant threat of being “randomly” pulled over for hours of questioning in arrivals halls at airports (Not being paranoid. This has happened.) I live with the fear that an official will make a notation on one of our pieces of paper which we don’t understand or don’t notice, but which jeopardizes the legality of our stay here and requires us to leave the country to fix it (Not being paranoid. This just happened to us, too). We have been finger printed, retina scanned, swabbed and searched; submitted documents detailing every place we have every worked and studied, every address of every member of our families worldwide. (This has happened. Who is paranoid?)

We have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars trying to stay legal and keep our paperwork current – but still, as immigrants we live aware that something unforeseen and uncontrollable could happen to our visa status, and we would be vulnerable. Fleeing. Homeless.

I am a legal, documented, and in-every-way-welcomed-by-our-community immigrant, and yet I want you to know that being an immigrant still means I live with the fear that our paperwork is a house of cards, just waiting to come tumbling down. I am afraid of losing my home. I am afraid of being separated from my children. I am afraid that we will have spent ten years trying to build a life here, and still we will lose everything.

To be an immigrant is to be vulnerable. And if I, as a legal immigrant, feel vulnerable – how much more so are those who have a black mark against their record that they feel powerless to erase?

To be an immigrant is to fear. And if I, as a legal immigrant, feel scared – how much more so are those who would not just have to leave, but who would be punished?

To be an immigrant is to risk being unexpectedly wrenched from your family. And if I, as a legal immigrant, fear this – how much more do others?

I’m not justifying illegal immigration. We have done everything we can to stay and be legal in our efforts, and we would do everything we can to encourage and others to be documented, rather than undocumented, workers.

But I do want you to know that being allowed to stay in this beautiful land of opportunity is far tougher and more complicated than you might think. The laws which protect the US’s borders are the same laws which apply to our family. Even though we don’t “look” like immigrants, we are.

When people talk with us about immigration and hear our story, sometimes they say, “oh, we’re not talking about you… we’re talking about all those who came here illegally.” They say, “they shouldn’t be rewarded for their crimes with citizenship.” They say, “if they want to move to the US, they should do it legally and just get in line.”

What I want you to know is that there is no line. Immigration is not like Disneyland, where if you pay enough money and queue patiently for several hours, anyone can ride Space Mountain. There is not a single line that I can stand in on my own merit. Even with language and education and money and privilege aplenty, even though I don’t come from India or China or Mexico, there is no line for me. So, I’m holding my husband’s hand while he stands in that elusive, exclusive line; and we’re hoping for the best.

In the mean while, I’m telling my story because, unlike so many others who know the vulnerability and fear of living as an immigrant, my speaking out doesn’t put my status in the US at risk. I am one of a smaller group who have experienced just how narrow and broken the immigration laws can be, but who can speak about it without fear of being discovered and deported.

I want you to know what it’s like to be an immigrant because perhaps you, like so many of the wonderful, thoughtful people we have come to know in the US, will hear our story and say, “I had no idea,” and “I’m so sorry,” and “Whoa! That’s so much more broken than I realized.”

Maybe you didn’t know these things. We certainly didn’t when we first came. The system is complex and deeply flawed. And so, I thought you should know.

Do you have a story to tell about this? Please feel free to tell it in the comment section: it can be anonymous, too. Telling your story matters.

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38 thoughts on “What You Don’t Know About Immigration”

  1. Thank you for sharing, and, I’m sorry it’s been so hard and broken.

    Question – how did it work when you were working for the church? What sorts of hoops does the employer jump through to hire an immigrant…?

    1. Good question: we changed visa classifications. When J was a doctoral student, he had a scholar visa, and as the dependent of a J-1 visa holder, I could apply for employment authorization. It was expensive and I had to re-do it a couple of times, but it was legal. For the past few years, since he holds a specialized worker visa, I as his dependent am not allowed to apply for a work permit. The last is changing (this month, actually), which will now allow people in my visa category to apply for employment authorization, but that still doesn’t solve the longer term issues…

      1. And as for the employer’s hoops: it depends on the field, but usually it is along the lines of proving that you can’t hire an american to do that same specific work, or that their research is of such quality that it is in the national interest to keep them.

  2. Fantastic! I love your posts about this issue. It’s so much more informative than anything else I read, and I can trust your information to be accurate. Reading your post “I Am The Immigrant” two years ago really opened my eyes–and I like to think I’m well-informed! Thank you so much for sharing.

    I really hope you get that green card.

    1. Thanks, Liz. If only we could have our friends write letters of recommendation for us! Our eldest wrote a letter to the immigration officials on her Dad’s behalf, saying how she thought he was the best dad ever because he spent time with her. She said she hoped it would help. Best ever.

  3. Oh Bron, I feel for you…!!! People have no idea… where most of my friends own a home, I have a British passport… equivalent in money (deposit)! We will continue to pray for a miracle!!! What I don’t understand, is the otherside of it, my sister-in-law lives in America, mom-in-law got citizenship&now all her children can come over too… seems so very easy!!! Even us could get status… baffles me!!!

    1. Our kids will be able to sponsor a green card application for us once they are 21…. it’s just that we don’t have 14 years of temporary visa left to wait that long 🙂

      1. Yet it’s the under 21 kids that need their legal parents to not be deported all of a sudden. Which is why it makes so much sense to deprioritize deportations for immigrants with citizen children.

  4. I’m so glad to hear this situation. Though it is difficult for you, I had no idea how hard things are. Prayers to your family that things may change for the good.

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. As an American married to a Mexican and living in Mexico, I’m all too familiar with the flawed system. I think your story makes those flaws undeniable.

    1. I’m sure you have some stories to tell too, Julie. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    2. Julie, I’m in the same situation… American citizen living in Mexico with my Mexican husband. It’s harder now that we have a daughter 🙁

  6. I too am an immigrant. I hail from Africa. I speak English and my skin was a minority colour in the land of my birth. I am “priviledged” to have come here on an H1B visa, meet the man I have called hubby for the past 18 years and birth 2 American citizens. I was able to go through the channels and align my paperwork with theirs. Two thoughts come to mind: 1) In my heart I will always be South African.2) I now work in a school district where I get to put names and faces on the “illegal” among us. I agree that illegal status is not the best. But I see how complicated it gets. Messy. I do know this: God is the one who plans out the paces in which we will live. May He bring peace to your fear and confirmation that our status is preparation for Heaven. We are strangers and aliens in this world- and some have the paperwork to prove it!

    1. Living in the US has given me lots of opportunity to reflect on being an “alien and stranger” in this world, too 🙂 Lovely as South Africa is (and we too, will always be South African), we would love to be able to stay in the States for some time so our kids at least can finish school here… so in the mean while, we’ll keep working to align our paperwork, too.

    1. Joe, your email address at ihateillegals.com is telling.

      You are entitled to your opinion but I will say this one thing: deporting me is NOT plain and simple, and would be neither legal nor just. I am LEGALLY present in the US, and there is zero ground for deportation.

  7. I feel your pain. I do hope our ineffective congressman would pass a comprehensive immigration bill. They love to compete so much, therefore our congressman cannot collaborate anything these day. We should vote them out of office.

  8. I have an adopted nephew from Liberia. He came to the US several years ago as a young teenager on a temporary visa with 10-12 other Liberian teens who formed the Liberian Boys Choir, brought here to raise awareness of and funds for their orphanage which cared for them and other children orphaned during the second Liberian Civil War. While in the US, just before their visas expired & they were to return to Liberia, their orphanage was burned to the ground by rebels, making return to their country a frightening proposition. At a performance at my sister’s church, their situation was explained to the audience & a plea for adoptive couples was given, seeking safe haven for these now homeless orphans. My sister & her husband responded to that plea, along with several other families from their church at the time (their story has been featured by Oprah) and 9 years later we can’t imagine our family without our Liberian nephew. He is not a U.S. citizen. He has been legally adopted by my sister and her husband, but he has never been granted full legal status. It has been a mire of confusing, frustrating bureaucracy that I couldn’t begin to understand or explain. He is here legally, through the adoption process, and has been given temporary legal citizenship, allowing him to finally get a driver’s license, go to college and get a paying job, but it is temporary. I don’t know when it expires.

    1. That is such a frustrating situation! I am so sorry to hear it. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  9. I thought you might find it interesting that Marrying an American does not guarantee a green card.
    Immigrants brought here via a fiancé visa…abandoned…with no return ticket home…are not allowed to adjust their status. It’s a catch-22.

    1. Nb, you are right. As someone else pointed out to me on FB, there are many people who marry American citizens and cannot live here legally with their spouses. Marrying an American is a category under which people can apply for green cards, but so many people are denied. Please forgive that oversight.

  10. Hi Bronwyn. Such a hard thing to navigate and rings true that doing the right thing doesn’t always work at first in our broken world.Keep on keeping on 🙂 Will join you in praying that this gets resolved -and that you will have great peace despite the uncertainty.

  11. Pingback: What You Don't Know About Immigration « CauseHub

  12. Thank you for sharing your story, Bronwyn. It is indeed painful to hear all the challenging ways our broken immigration system is affecting people’s lives. The fear you speak of is real. I was amazed how much relief I felt when my husband finally received his green card.

    The rules and regulations around coming legally are arbitrary and ridiculous. My in-laws have been applying for simply a tourist visa for 8 years. They missed our wedding and the births of our children. Now, my mother-in-law will arrive this Sunday to visit us for the first time. Unfortunately, though they applied together, my father-in-law was still denied the opportunity to visit. Our only option now is to apply for him to become a resident. It’s ridiculous. He doesn’t want to live here. He wants to visit his grandkids every now and again. Broken.

  13. Thank you for opening our eyes to this problem, Bronwyn. Our company just brought one of our international employees over for training and that alone was like pulling teeth. I can’t imagine the red tape you must have to go through. I really thought there was a “line” you could just hop in, too. I pray you and your husband have this resolved quickly so you can have peace. God bless you.

  14. Thank you for sharing this. I have been very close to children who were brought here illegally and raised here in the U.S. These are wonderful, smart, very driven children who are now graduating, many of them with honors, and facing the consequences of what their parents did years ago. (Not blaming the parent, by the way, I know their desire was a better life for their kids.) Once you put a ‘face’ on immigration, legal or illegal, it changes you. (At least it did me.)

  15. Bronwyn, is there a way I can reblog this? I’ve tried to through my wordpress reader, but it won’t let me.

    You bring such a great perspective to the conversation on immigration. It almost makes me wish I was still on Facebook; I’d share it there because several of my FB “friends” viewed immigrants–particularly those who didn’t speak English well–with hostility and suspicion. This included Christians, sadly. I would hope that reading your words would make them reconsider their attitudes, if not their political opinions.

    1. WordPress.com Support

      Laura, you can copy and paste the first paragraph or two as a preview and then link over for readers to find the rest. Thanks for sharing!

  16. I too am going thru a similar situation with my husband. We went thru all the paperwork and he was told he had to return to his country and then thru the waiver process he would get his visa and come back. Then after he returned to his country they denied him. At that time we could not afford a lawyer so we used a paralegal. What a mistake that was.I have since hired an attorney but to no avail. Well it has been since Mar 2012 that he has been gone and now has given up hope that he may get to return some day and has asked me to file for a divorce so that I can get on with my life or so he can get on with his. I told him no I would not but now he won’t return my calls or text messages. I have spent thousands of dollars
    The whole immigration system needs help especially for those that are married and have children.
    I have spent thousands of dollars and still have nothing to show for it and no husband either.

  17. Pingback: What You Don’t Know About Immigration (by Bronwyn Lea) | Laura Droege's blog

  18. Thank you for putting words to some of our feelings and what we go through.

  19. We were in the same situation, wasting lots of money and time, until we had enough and now we are happy Australian citizens 🙂 No regrets!

  20. You are right… Many of do not know just how broken the system is. As I was reading this I stopped half-way to lift up you and your family, as well as other immigrants, in prayer. May God be with you in this land you love. Oh, and welcome to the U.S. of A.

  21. I had no idea how broken the system is. Unfortunately, your voice will be received over the echos of ill/legal desperate foreign tongues. This is a far cry from the Utopian hope Ellis Island and Angel Island represented for so many. Thank you for speaking out!

  22. this is 100% the hell we are going through right now!! So we not alone in this frustration!

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