I am a child of immigrants. In the 1950’s my grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada along with my parents who were young at the time. I was born and raised in Canada. Being the child of immigrant parents was the most normal thing I could imagine. Growing up, nearly all my friends had parents who were born in another country. When I moved to the United States in 2005 it did not seem to me at the time that I was doing anything particularly difficult or new. The border between Canada and the U.S. was merely a stoppage on the highway, a barrier that is crossed all the time. I entered the United States on an R-1 visa (Religious Worker Visa) that took only minutes to receive after I handed the security officials my paperwork. It was good for three years and renewable for another two. This meant that I would not have any immigration issues at least until 2010, and even after that getting a permanent status (Green Card) was not seen as a difficult process.
However, between 2005 and the renewing of my R-1 Visa in 2008, things began to change. I knew something was different when an FBI agent had to visit with me and the chair of my church council. Nothing seemed guaranteed anymore. At one point the FBI agent had to physically touch the church wall so that he could write in his report that the church existed. Yes, he actually touched the wall to make sure! “Okay, so they are a little quirky,” I thought. The visit did get me thinking about moving ahead on applying for a Green Card sooner rather than later. With the help of my church and an immigration lawyer, this is what we did.
Thus began my odyssey with U.S. Immigration in the year 2010. Looking back on my calendar notes of that year, I see written prominently on a number of months the name of my immigration lawyer and her phone numbers. After filling out the application and getting all the materials together, a rejection letter was the first thing I received from the immigration office. This would be followed by several more. Usually it was a matter of something not being filled in correctly or some question that had not been answered. Each time my lawyer would get back to the work getting my application ready for resubmission. The key date for me in 2010 was April 11. As of that date I would no longer be a legal resident, able to work in the U.S. The date came and went and no Green Card had been issued. I requested that the church treasurer stop paying me as of that date because I was advised that it would be illegal to work and receive payment. I did not want to give U.S. Immigration an excuse to reject my application or even deport me. I continued to work but I did so as a volunteer (I had church services to lead and a class to teach at Dordt College).
By May 16, I was finished. I was working as a volunteer and not being paid. I was growing frustrated with a system. I also began to see a subtle but racist attitude among the people of my community. I told the chair of the church council I would no longer work at the church and that he had to find pulpit supply until this was resolved. He was always very supportive, having himself been an immigrant from Canada. Although people in the church and community were supportive of me, there were many people I met who thought the situation was rather funny. When I explained that without action from U.S. Immigration I could be deported, the common response was “Oh, they wouldn’t do that to you.” Why? Because I was white? They did not say so, but I knew this is what they were thinking. I became increasingly irritated. It became clear to me that many of the good, law abiding citizens of Sioux Center saw the U.S. Immigration issue pertaining just to the Hispanic community. Many of these same “God fearing” citizens would speak in support of a vile congressman who referred to immigrants as “stray cats” saying that if you fed them they would keep coming. Along with him, they did not get it.
During this time I also realized that my driver’s license had expired. I could only have a license for as long as my R-1 visa said I could be in the country. My immigration lawyer said she could write me a letter stating that since I had an application on file, I could be eligible for an extension on my license. Armed with this letter I went to renew my license at the local driver’s license office. The first question the woman asked me was, “Are you a citizen of the U.S.?” I answered truthfully, explained my situation and showed her my letter. She said she could not give me a license. I replied, “If I had said I was a U.S. citizen you would have pushed a button and I would have had a driver’s license.” Her response was, “Yes, but then you would have lied.” By this point I felt a frustration and an anger that I had never felt before. In the presence of many Hispanic immigrants who were also in that office I said, “And why do you think we lie?!” I felt humiliated, helpless, and very angry. I told the person I would continue driving despite not having a license and she could do with that information what she wanted. I stormed out of the office.
Not having a valid driver’s license is a weird feeling. You are cautious never to exceed the speed limit. You drive out of your way to go down a different street if you see a police cruiser on another. You know that if you’re caught, a fine was the least of your problems. You could be given a one way passage back to your country of birth. I was an illegal immigrant in Sioux County, driving a car without a valid driver’s license. “So be it,” I thought.
Meanwhile my application was still in process. I was informed I needed to be finger printed and have an eye scan at an office in Sioux Falls (this also had been done in 2005 and 2008). At one point my application was rejected because I had paid too much for what I thought was the fee. Another time it was rejected because the “medical report” had been opened (they had opened it). This required a new medical report with a new signature from the approved medical doctor. The approved doctor’s office was in Sioux City–45 miles away from where I live and 86 miles from Sioux Falls. The comedy of errors continued for about eight weeks. Everything finally came to a resolution when we contacted our senator and put his office on the case. Within a week of contacting the senator’s office, I had my Green Card. If only we had contacted him sooner!
Immigrating to the U.S. is not for the faint of heart. It requires patience and a willingness to be subjected to finger printing, medical exams, intrusive questions, rejection, and so forth. It is easy to succumb to anger and frustration and many times this is what I felt. The whole system seems designed to frustrate you to the point that you quit and leave. I wonder how many do leave or quit. In the end, I can’t help but think how much harder it would be to go through all this and not speak English or have an immigration lawyer working for me. Most Americans only know the issue from the limited coverage of it on the news. They only know it to be about “other” people who perhaps do not work, commit crimes, or are involved in the drug trade. This limited view is so wrong. Most immigrants work, obey the laws of the land, pay their taxes and are contributing members of the community. On that note, I remain happy to be here.
We are sharing immigration stories at iAt this week.
On Monday, John Lee shared his immigration perspective in Immigration: A Tale of Two Grandfathers. Rikki Heldt gave her testimony of hearing God’s call from behind the Berlin Wall to a teacher in Iowa in Welcome the Stranger on Tuesday.
Do you have an immigration story you’d like to share with iAt? Email email@example.com to share you story with us.