Yes, I am white. Yes, I am highly educated with a successful business.
And yes, I, too, am now an undocumented immigrant.
In July 2001, before the Sept. 11th attacks, my family left our home country of
South Africa and came to the United States to open a branch of our international
training company. Since my husband and I have advanced degrees, extensive
business experience and were able to make a substantial financial investment in
America, we were both granted what's called "L1 visas."
Our company, specializing in advanced reading & information management
training skills, was a mature 25-year-old business that had clients in the banking,
transport, education and government sectors. We soon discovered that average
reading skills in America are less than competitive with other developed
countries, and this strengthened our resolve to make a difference. Volunteering
at our children's schools and at many non-profit organizations in our chosen city
of Charlotte, North Carolina, became our new way of life. We totally immersed
ourselves in our community, making lifelong friends and feeling more and more
like Americans every day.
We established fundraising programs for community shelters and for the arts in
Charlotte. We developed multinational cultural understanding and reconciliation
awareness programs and programs to support AIDS awareness. And at the
same time, we developed a specialist intelligence data analysis training course
for the U.S. military and were soon commissioned to present this training at the
Pentagon, NASA, Defense Intelligence Agency, US Air Force, Navy SEALs and
the intelligence battalions of the US Marine Corps. This unique and exclusive
proprietary intelligence data analysis program became essential to the defense
of the nation and was described as saving American lives on the battlefield. My
husband was awarded a 0205-Tactical Intelligence Officer "plank" by the Warrant
Officers of the Marine Corps for his "contribution to the enhancement of the
intelligence analysis capabilities of the USMC." Navy SEAL teams also benefited
from this training and went on to terminate the nation's greatest enemy, Osama
bin Laden, and to stage a series of daring and successful rescues around the
Yet today, after 10 years of living legally in America, we have become overstays
-- "illegal immigrants" in the common derogatory vernacular. After building a
successful business, buying a home, immersing ourselves in the community and
educating our children to become contributing members of American society, we
have been denied permanent residence and the U.S. military has been instructed
to terminate our training because we are "illegal." We have become victims of a
dysfunctional legal immigration system that is badly in need of reform.
Mine is the story of a family who did not flee their home country for a better life
in the US. Neither are we refugees or destitute, but rather a family of privileged,
educated, skilled individuals with two gifted children who believed they could
contribute to the American Dream with their advanced reading skills training
company and offer their own children a first world educational experience.
Instead, we've become victims of a legal immigration horror story of deception,
criminal fraud, financial ruin, discrimination, pain, uncertainly, insecurity and
devastating implications -- not only for this family's future, but for the future of
legal immigration itself.
I am at a loss as to why this country would choose to stop this training,
deemed "essential to the analytic capabilities of the US military" and which "is
saving lives on the battlefield" rather than simply correcting an immigration
injustice. Or why, after 10 years of us paying taxes, buying a home and being
exemplary citizens in every conceivable way, we are deemed unsuitable
for permanent residence. It can only be described as a spectacular failure of an
immigration system that is both dysfunctional and inhumane and in serious and
urgent need of complete overhaul reform. And our story is not unique. There
are thousands of entrepreneurial families in this predicament today. Many have
chosen to slink away into the shadows and self-deport, leaving who knows how
many U.S. citizens to join the ranks of the unemployed.
What kind of nation tolerates a 4.0-GPA high school student, identified
as "talented" by the Duke Talent Identification Program, to be ripped out of a
senior year at high school, or a gifted Dean's-list college senior to be forced into
abandoning the last year of university without graduating? Yet after 10 years
of education in the American education system, at taxpayer expense (yes,
mine and yours!), this is the position both my children find themselves in. What
sane nation pays to educate people before expelling them?
What humane country asks that a family lose their home, their livelihood,
abandon their life-changing business activities and income to support and
educate their children, and walk away from everything they've invested here over
10 years? One would think that the most difficult step should be to get into the
U.S. in the first place and that permanent residence for contributing, tax-paying,
property-owning and business-owning immigrants would be a natural follow-
through. Yet it appears to be easier to enter America on a visa than to stay here
with permanent residence. Is it a case of fleecing immigrants of their expertise
and investment and then rejecting them once they have lesser "value" to the
A few months ago, I learned of the story of Jose Antonio Vargas and his
media campaign, Define American, which seeks to elevate how we talk about
immigration. Elevation and conversation is sorely needed.
Even though I am now an undocumented-documented-immigrant, or if you
prefer, an illegal-legal-immigrant, I love this country. It is my home. And I will not
stand by and watch an immigration system destroy lives and families. While I
still have an ounce of breath in me, it will be to see comprehensive immigration
reform in this country -- that a more humane and functional system of immigration
be introduced to benefit not only the country as a whole, but all immigrants at
every level, of all racial and economic backgrounds.
Am I the face of a failed legal immigration system? Or perhaps the reason so
many choose to come to AMERICA without papers?