My Immigration Story

March 25, 2015

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.

Dig Deeper

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 to share you story with us.

About the Author
  • Mark Verbruggen is a pastor at First Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center, Iowa. Beginning in the spring of 2017, he will be leaving Sioux Center in order to become pastor at Living Hope Christian Reformed Church in Sarnia, Ontario.

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  1. Thanks for your story Pastor. It would be interesting to know how your parents became citizens of Canada. My father, an immigrant from the Netherlands, had a sponsor, which was a requirement in the early 1900’s. National security (also security for individual citizens) is the issue today that they did not have to deal with in the earlier days of the nation. May God provide some wise leadership for our nation to help develop immigration laws that are just (and use common sense).

    1. Yes my grandparents would have had sponsors as well. It seems that back in the 1950’s the whole system was much simpler!

  2. Thanks Mark. I never realized the extent to which the word “Services” in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was Orwellian (I’m thinking in particular of your line, “The whole system seems designed to frustrate you to the point that you quit and leave. I wonder how many do leave or quit.”)
    Maybe it’s xenophobia that’s being served.

    1. Politicians on the far right or left pander to the fears that their supporters carry in their day to day life. Xenophobia works because it sets up a straw man which can be blamed for things in their own life that are not going well. In this case “immigrants”.

      1. I’ve experienced some of the hassles you have had in my dealings with immigration over the years, so I agree with your comment. What’s so curious is that this situation exists in a country that describes itself as a nation of immigrants and has engraved on one of its most iconic national symbols the lines “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me”. It seems the system is designed to keep these very people out.

        1. Thanks for all the comments.

          Something I did not mention in the article (but I will now!) is this: at what point should Christians dare to become more of a prophetic voice speaking out against a politician who clearly does not want to fix the immigration issue? I have no problem with people being loyal to one political party but when the congressman representing that party does not have any desire to work for justice and fairness on this issue (and perhaps others), when should the christian community be challenged to consider voting for someone else? This might mean voting for a party one does not like and has never supported, but maybe that is what we should consider doing. Many Christians in Sioux county never think beyond party politics.

          Ideally, it would be great for a person to come forward who is not so tied to the “tea party” base. Let him or her run against him. Polls show that most Americans are not happy with congress and their work, yet ridings continue to send their personal dysfunctional member back to Washington election after election.

          1. Mark, I think that you are a little too harsh on judging the motives of Rep. King. He may have a different philosophy on “justice and fairness” that you refer to, but I don’t think that you are correct to intimate that he does not want immigration reform. I am also displeased with some of Rep. King’s actions but I would allow Christians to decide which party platform meets the values that they adhere to. That is why some voters vote straight party tickets and others like myself will vote per individual. Each of us needs to evaluate that according to our own conscience and the biblical norms than we believe in. May God’s Spirit lead us on all issues that we deal with in His world.

  3. Such good food for thought, and hearing a first-hand account of the frustrations of trying to do things right–even while illegal–helps to humanize an issue that is all too often only heard about through soundbites and 30-second news clips. Thanks so much, Mark, for sharing your story with us! I am struck by the thought of how many times Israel is commanded to care for the foreigners, the sojourners, the aliens throughout scripture. How are we loving our neighbors–whether immigrant or native born–as ourselves?

  4. A former student of mine sent this my way; I am a Canadian who has been working in MPLS for the last 6 years. I am currently going through very similar immigration struggles and resonated all too well with your article. Additionally, I understand the frustration of the responses people provide to my plight and what it reveals about the lack of understanding about immigration in the first place. I am waiting to hear back from my third appeal to try to obtain a permanent visa but am being denied because as a Christian school teacher, I do not make enough money to be considered valuable to this country. It’s quite the process – thanks for sharing your journey!

  5. This is a great story. Thanks for sharing. It takes patience and lot of prayers too. Especially now that the immigration policy is extremely strict in terms of applying a visa especially citizenship. An immigration lawyer is also a big factor. It is costly at times, but they can be a big help. TL Brown Law is a firm that I consider consulting with. I hope I can get mine too.