Immigration Series: The Ten Year Wait (Part 2)

If you missed the first half of this story you can find it right HERE.

One Friday afternoon in March of 2005 I received a call from a foreign number. I let it go to voicemail, left the office under the guise of needing a smoke break and listened to an American woman tell me that they had received my resume and were wondering if I would be interested in talking about a project management position within a large translation company in NYC. She also followed up with an email with a little more information. Since 2002 my only concern had been California, I had never even considered another part of the US. Unlike many people in the world, I had never dreamed of going to, let alone living in, NYC. NYC was that place in many TV shows and movies and the place of a tragedy that was forever etched in my brain, but never a place that I wanted to consider my home. But then again, NYC was also a hell of a lot closer to Sacramento than London was. Ever since I had become determined to move to the US my mother had sent my resume out to different contacts in the translation industry and one ended up in the right hands at the right time.

After several phone interviews, language tests, back and forths and a job offer based on the fact that I would receive a TN visa on landing (specialty visa offered to Canadian and Mexican citizens to perform jobs that no qualified American can perform), I handed my notice in and flew off into the unknown at the end of May 2005. Everything was a big risk really, for both myself and the company, but I had a one year visa, a shitty starting salary that was a tiny bit more than the pittance I was earning in London, and a possibility that I may transfer to California one day if things worked out. But then, the moment I saw the Manhattan skyline I knew I had come home. If you have ever traveled a lot, wondered where your roots are or were and wandered the soil of this earth trying to find a place to call home, then you know that feeling, a peace within your soul, a sigh of relief, of knowing that this is it. Home.

The gamble paid off. I worked extremely hard, and for quite a few years I played extremely hard, but for the first five years it still felt like I was on borrowed time. I was reluctant to get too close to people in case I would have to leave suddenly. My visa got rejected the first time I tried to renew it, and I had to do a mad rush to Toronto to try again. Every time I had to renew my visa I felt anxious, at the mercy of some immigration official who could stamp my passport for another year or see through all of the lies and deny me entrance. The company grew and merged and HR began to realize that I wasn’t going to last much longer on a temporary visa and finally gave it one last chance before they would make a more permanent gesture. I suppose everything worked out for them right then because the TN visa was extended to three years instead of one. But by then I was done. I was overworked and completely burnt out, I felt trapped but I also had no real interest in leaving the country.  I continued working in a job I had begun to resent because it was the only way I could legally stay in the country and benefit from things like health insurance.

Leaving and entering the country on a TN visa is always touch and go, even if you still have time remaining on it. The best time was the one where the official checked through my papers and waved me on through. The worst was the time I went to Mexico and we flew back through Arizona. Unfortunately my Canadian passport renewal had been held up and was still stuck in Canada so I traveled on my British passport. As my visa was associated with my Canadian citizenship and not my British I assumed that I would get a slap on my hands, but I didn’t assume that I would be threatened with deportation, told that I was an idiot for traveling on the “wrong” passport, and then after all that fined $800 for not having the right “paperwork” on me (I actually DID have all of the paperwork, including my old passport and my valid British passport)- thankfully I had the money on my credit card, because if I hadn’t been able to pay I would have been detained. They also told me that I was “lucky” because the main immigration dude wanted to send me before the immigration court, but in the end they decided to just fine me. And all I could think about after I ran across the terminal to make my connecting flight that was leaving in five minutes was: I’m very, very lucky. I can’t even imagine how they would have treated me if I had been of a different skin colour and/or nationality. I learnt two important lessons that day: never move to Arizona and never put yourself in a situation where you feel frightened of an official again. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and for over an hour they made me feel like I was a piece of scum on the carpet. Of course, part of that issue WAS my own fault, but at the same time there was no need to treat me like a criminal. It really reinforced my opinion that it doesn’t matter if you have a visa or not, you are still going to be treated like a lesser individual until you have either a green card or a US passport.

My mother checked my green card status in 2010 and we were years and years off, so she filed for citizenship and became a US citizen about 6 months later. About 6 months after that, in the middle of 2011, I suddenly received an appointment to get my fingerprints and photographs done, as well as a request to get a full physical with a USCIS-approved doctor. It was also around that time that I was functioning on auto-pilot at work, depressed, barely able to drag my feet through the door every day. I was messing up left, right and centre, and all I wanted to do was release myself of the chains that I had tied around my ankles, and soar high, find myself and my real desires again. Over the weekend of Hurricane Irene I walked out and never looked back, and by doing so I became an undocumented immigrant, part of the huge underground network in this country. I was done. I didn’t care anymore, after years and years of waiting, of doing the right thing, of watching friends marry other friends and get their statuses adjusted, of convincing myself that I didn’t need to do that, I gave up. I would find work and I would be OK.

I did both. I also began to breathe again. And yes, I paid taxes. I didn’t claim any type of state health insurance, because that isn’t possible, despite what you hear. I used the social security number I had been given with my temporary visa, the same one I still use today, and I continued to live my life, hoping that my good health would hold up and that I wouldn’t get sick, ever. And then, at the end of 2011 I received a letter from the USCIS with an interview appointment. THE interview that I had been waiting for, for so many years (TEN to be exact). I arrived there with snacks and a book and my journal, prepared to be waiting for hours, but instead I was called in within five minutes, my interview lasted 30 minutes, and I was told I would receive their decision in the mail within six weeks.

A week later, to the day, I received my green card in the mail.

I still remember the river of emotions that flew through my body, not being able to breathe, running upstairs to my apartment so that I could burst into tears, of happiness, of sadness, of pure relief. That little piece of ID opened up so many doors again, I could work wherever I wanted, I could study again if I wanted to, and most importantly, I could leave the country and come back, as many times as I wanted. A few months later my beloved Nana passed away, and I was able to go to the funeral and read the eulogy that I had written for her. I was able to hop on a plane in NYC and pop over to Sacramento without worrying about someone demanding to see my visa or immigration ID. All of a sudden I had the exact thing that I had been waiting for since 2001.

It did come with a certain price though, because the only reason that I am not still waiting for my green card today is because my mother became a citizen. Yes, there are perks with being a citizen like the right to vote against men like Trump, but there is also the fact that for the rest of her life my mother will have to pay US taxes, wherever she lives in the world. Something to think about if you ever have to make that decision. And I haven’t even touched upon the money that my mother spent on the USCIS (previously INS) over the years, sometimes even double price because they provided conflicting information on what we needed to pay and where (non-refundable of course). She didn’t have to give up her British citizenship, I doubt she would have become a US citizen if she had to, but there are some countries that require you do.

So, my story is one of many, many years of waiting. There is no grey area when it comes to immigration here, no possibility of talking to people face to face and coming to some sort of agreement. You either choose to be part of the system and become a number, waiting year after year for yours to advance one or two steps, or you do it your own way. If I am asked what I would change if I had to do it all over again I say everything. I used to say that I would only get married if I were madly in love, nowadays marriage is only a piece of paper, and if that piece of paper helps moves things along a little faster, then why not. And before you flame me for saying that, just put yourself in my, or someone else’s shoes for a year, and see what it is like. Telling a 21 year old that she cannot come back to visit her family for a year is pretty despicable in my opinion. And I had it easy. Some of the stories that will be featured in this series are a million times more difficult to digest than mine are. Mine is just unfair, and in the end it all kind of worked out.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t spent all of those years waiting and waiting because I didn’t live life as fully as I should have. But at the same time I don’t have any regrets because I now have my own family, my own family of immigrants. My children were born here which makes them US citizens, but there will always be that worry at the back of my mind that one day they will be forced to live without me, just because my and their father’s immigration status could technically be revoked at any time. And that is a story for another day and another time…

This article originally appeared on From The Inside

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