Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Journey from Non-immigrant to Illegal Immigrant to Permanent Legal Resident

Illegal immigrants have been prevalent in the news recently and I've been biding my time to write about this.

What comes to mind when you think of an illegal immigrant? A Mexican sneaking across the border? A wave of Syrian Muslims invading Europe? Latinos who refuse to learn English but take jobs from Americans and take advantage of the welfare system? Those are popular stereotypes of illegal immigrants. But just like any stereotype, they're not 100% accurate. You see, until yesterday, I was also an illegal immigrant. Or, if I was to use the more technical term, I was 'out of status'.

Let's explain what that means. I came into America quite legally. I entered at an airport with my shiny new student visa in my passport. At the time, the plan was to go to school, graduate as soon as possible and head back home to the familiarity and security of St Vincent. However, as usually happens when I make plans, God laughed. After I graduated, I applied for and was granted OPT (optional practical training). That meant that I was able to work for a year, while I was still on my student visa. During that year, I fell in love twice - with my job and with Mr Caramel. All of a sudden, it seemed that my life was now in America. My boss was kind enough to be willing to sponsor me for a work visa. However, due to all the technicalities and hoops of that process, my lawyer at the time told me that I didn't stand a chance. Meanwhile, I saw one of my very good friends shell out thousands of dollars to a top rate lawyer, go through the long process for a work visa and get denied. I started to get worried. My OPT was quickly running out.

By the time Mr Caramel and I were engaged, I had very little time left on my OPT. We knew we were going to get married but we also knew that once my OPT ran out, I would be out of status. We decided not to get a quick courtroom wedding for several reasons. We only plan on getting married once. So we wanted it to be a beautiful wedding. Also, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a courtroom wedding is not valid and we wanted to abide with the rules of the Church. Finally, we knew we loved each other and were going to get married but we didn't want anyone to say that I married him for my green card (more about that later). So we trusted God, planned our wedding and set a wedding date for almost 5 months after my OPT ran out.

And so, in the middle of the summer of 2014, my OPT card expired and I was officially 'out of status'. Or, an illegal immigrant. Life as an illegal immigrant was definitely not easy. My drivers' license expired and without legal status I could not renew it. So now I had a choice. Legally, I shouldn't be driving. But if I didn't drive, I couldn't work. If I couldn't work, we wouldn't be able to save up for the thousands of dollars required for my green card. So I continued driving. And literally every time I got in my car, I prayed. I prayed that I wouldn't get pulled over or get into any accidents. Because I would be in BIG trouble if I did. I continued paying taxes every month, knowing that I could never be a beneficiary of any form of government assistance if I wanted my green card.

Mr Caramel and I spent hundreds of dollars on lawyer consultation fees. All the lawyers wanted thousands of dollars to take our case - not including the other thousands of dollars that would be needed to apply for the green card. Mr Caramel and I simply did not have that kind of money and we knew it would take us quite a while to save up. We reached out to just about every kind of agency - Catholic Social Services, International House, etc. For one reason or another, they couldn't help us. Finally, I was flipping through the Catholic News Herald and came across a story in which the Latin American Coalition was able to help a man facing deportation. It was a long shot - I'm not Latino. But I figured, what was one more no? However, the very nice gentleman that I spoke to had once dated a Caribbean girl and agreed to help us. He put us in touch with a lawyer in Miami who would file our papers from there, for the low price of $1000. We still had to come up with the hundreds of dollars for the medical exam and the thousands for the application fees.

Mr Caramel and I scrimped and saved. We filled in piles of papers. I was questioned, injected and tested for the required medical examination. We collected documents on every aspect of our life. Then we said a prayer, crossed our fingers and submitted everything - including all our savings. And then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. And as much as I tried not to, I worried. Would I have to leave the country for my visa interview (read, more expense)? Would I get pulled over for something minor while I drove on my expired license? I had nightmares about being taken away from Mr Caramel. I obsessively checked my case status - Charlotte's office was backlogged for over five months.

And one day, out of the blue, right after our lawyer had said to expect to wait about five more months, our notice arrived in the mail. Our immigration interview was scheduled for October. And so began more collection of information. We had to collect any document or evidence that could show that we were really married and not committing marriage fraud. Yup, we had to prove to the US government that we were really married. On the day of our interview, yesterday, I was so nervous I was literally sick to my stomach. But fortunately, the interview was a lot less painful than I expected and I should get my green card in the mail just in time for our one year anniversary. What better anniversary gift is there? After about a year and a half as an illegal immigrant, I no longer have to worry about being separated from Mr Caramel. I can drive legally. I can travel. And I can silence all the persons who said or suggested that I got married for my green card.

I know that there are many persons who think that it's so easy to become a legal resident. Or think that all illegal immigrants are illegal because they want to be. But it is so difficult. It is expensive. It is time-consuming. It runs your nerves ragged. And there are no guarantees - so many people get denied. So the next time you might be tempted to make an off-the-cuff disparaging comment about 'those illegal immigrants', stop and think. The person sitting next to you in church. The neatly dressed person ahead of you in line at the bank. The person in the next office cubicle. They might also be 'out of status'.

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