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Sundries
...a sweatshop of moxie

Monday, May 01, 2006

My Immigration Experience

(Welcome The 26th Parallel readers!)

Since May Day is here, and so are the pro-immigration rallies, I wanted to give you a little extra something, which you may not find being reported by mainstream media.

It is the tale of my immigration to the United States in 1998.

First, some background for first-time readers:

My two foreign-born parents originally emigrated to the United States in the early 1980s.

It was decided on my behalf to allow me to remain in England, so that I might continue my education at an independent boarding school -- which had accepted me the year before, after a battery of exams, interviews, and more exams.

Yes, it was a gruelling procedure, but one which ironically prepared me for every future interview which followed -- a springboard for maturity and self-possession, when your very future life is on the line.

By the way, I was 9 years old.

Remember when you were nine? Well, hold that thought. We'll come back to it.

So I lived my life in parallel to my parents, who sent for me at least 3 times a year plus the whole summer, and even sometimes, more often than that, if THEIR parents sprung for the tickets.

Fortunately, my grandparents made that sacrifice for me, since they accepted my parents' decision to come to the US.

They weren't crazy about it at first, but then, no parent is, when they lose a child to an ocean.

They couldn't understand why both my parents, who were given every advantage in their homelands, would give all that up, to start from nothing, in America.

I guess it's hard to understand that nothing is truly your own, if someone always reminds you, you got where you are with help.

America is the ultimate apron-strings cutter, in that way.

Nevertheless, this is why my dad arrived, that first time, with 300 dollars in his wallet, and set out to conquer the medical field, one excrutiatingly difficult, fraught with envy, misunderstanding, and suspicion step at a time.

My mother put her own medical career on hold, and went to work in a bank, and together at night, they would sit in their University-provided pokey bed-sit flat, and sleep, exhausted from the travails of the day.

See, the thing of it is, both of them were almost wealthy compared to what migrant workers have to go through, and the miseries they have to endure.

They had a home. They had clothes. They had food. They had a job.

Not a very nice home. Not the Saville Row suits dad was used to. Nor the haute cuisine restaurants my mother grew up around. Nor the jobs either were qualified by intellect and education to do.

And of course, their family were rent asunder, since I was away from them.

They suffered -- a whole heck of a lot, but for some people, their toil and tears are not worthy of the same respect, because they had it better than most.

Now I want you to flash forward to 1998.

This father of mine, who in the decade and a half since those early struggles, had built up a network of small clinics, was living the American dream at its finest.

In the nation where prosperity is king, he was an emperor.

My mother had built up her own practise, after she originally had been his first secretary/office manager/bill collector in those early days, and was a very happy lady, at long last.

It was January 1998, and things couldn't have been better, since at last I was graduating from University, something which in my educationally-driven family meant the world.

Suddenly, I was awoken by one of the scouts (a college servant assigned to you), with the chilling words:

"Your mother is on the phone. She doesn't half sound worried."

It was January 1998, and my life was about to change forever. My father had had the first of what would be two heart attacks, in succession.

I was in the midst of the trickiest year of my University career, and couldn't leave, though with every fibre of my body, I wanted to.

It was during those hard, soulless nights, when my father struggled for life, that I made the conscious decision:

As an Oxford University graduate, my options in Britain would lay before me like an open sesame of choice.

But my place was with my family...in the United States. Forever.

The next day, I took the Oxford Tube (a coach service to London), and entered the slightly ugly, post-modern building in Grosvenor Square, that is the US Embassy in Mayfair.

The queues were endless.

There were queues for native-born Americans.

There were queues for foreigners seeking information from consular officials.

There were queues for passport and visas.

And then, there were queues for nervous would-be emigrants, just like me.

Because I was born in a prosperous country, my chances to emigrate to the US, were that much harder -- but I recalled that interview when I was 9, gulped air, and took the application.

I took the Oxford Tube back to college, and filled it out on an old-fashioned type-writer, which even then, was a relic.

I entered the US Embassy again. I was stared at by the stern Marines in their dazzling uniforms again ("Hi", I sallied. No reply). And off I went, into another queue.

A few days later, I received a fat envelope. In it, were all the documents I needed to produce, for the next stage of my emigration process.

They included, apart from requesting birth certificates, in tedious bureaucratic language:

- A fully documented written history of your life to date, signed and notarised (to ascertain your language proficiency?)

- A copy of your police record, without priors hopefully

- A copy of where you intend to stay in the US, when you arrive

- A copy of your bank statement

- A copy of your American hosts' (if applicable) bank statement

- A copy of your educational, and professional record to date


This took me about a month-and-a-half to procure. During the build-up to the most important exams of my life, mind you.

Again, I took the Oxford Tube, and went yet again to exchange nervous banter with those smart Marines.

This time, I got a reply. They were beginning to recognise me. Maybe.

I handed in my packet.

(In case you wonder, I did so in person, instead of posting, JUST IN CASE. I had my mother's mistrustful-of-post offices personality)

A month later, I got a reply.

My interview was set in two weeks. The first of two interviews, although I didn't know that yet.

I arrived looking as shiny as a new quarter...but not too. You have to show them you're prosperous ENOUGH to be given respect, but humble enough to fit in as a new immigrant in the US.

The examiner/interviewer was a very stern American diplomat with a short, clipped, salt-and-pepper moustache.

On his wall, a diploma from the University of Michigan. On his desk, a miniature football helmet in blue and grey, which I later found out was that of the Detroit Lions.

Oh Lord. A man from the Heartland.

Not some wise-cracking, but pull-no-punches New Yorker. Not a laid-back, but professional Californian. Not a hot-tempered, but affable Texan.

No. A Midwesterner -- the scariest American of them all.

They've got "no-nonsense" tattooed on their foreheads in invisible ink, which only desperate would-be immigrants, can see.

To my astonishment, he didn't grill me about my documents. They were in order.

The interview lasted all of 15 minutes (the wait, almost 2 hours), but I was given more stuff to fill out/do/see to.

Apart from everything, there was this one "to do" demand, which I remembered from my childhood:

Every immigrant who enters this country legally, that is, is given his entry visa in his homeland or other country, must have a full medical physical by a Embassy or Consulate-vetted physician.

(Such a physician, I found out later, was usually an American expatriate, or an American-trained doctor, whose background had been fully inspected by the US Embassy in question -- this reduced the risk of being bribed, apparently)

The list was not long.

In London, proper, there were about 5 or 6 physicians who were charged to give out the battery of physical exams, to prove that you were a solid physical specimen worth of American residency (although, of that I cannot be sure, since I was healthy -- but maybe others who are not, are approved just the same).

I went back to Mayfair. By now, the Marines grinned at me. Ah hasty, optimistic youth. It always wins out in the end.

I waited about a month. Another interview was scheduled. This time, I went in looking like a million bucks. A winner, in the land of winners.

I got an African-American gentleman, who was bemoaning the Monica Lewinsky scandale royale, since he was a supporter of President Clinton (he said, I thought, rather candidly, but which I liked for his honesty).

Throughout this conversation, though I looked like I was off my guard, I was not.

I remember being offered some sweets by that headmistress, when I was 9, and having been coached by my mother to refuse.

No hardship, since I hate candy anyway.

But you see, interviews are tests, and in tests, you sometimes get trick questions.

And if you're not prepared, you will fail before you even know it.

So, I looked him straight in the eye, and said, "I'm not a very political person", and he smiled. And it was true!

Politics is a candy, I've never liked.

Some 30 minutes later, after quizzing me as to my reasons for leaving (which I told him very simply, that I felt my place was at my parents' side, as they grew older), I heard these words:

"Congratulations. You have been accepted to enter the United States as a resident alien. After 5 years time, you can, if you want to, apply for US citizenship."

Even as I write this, my eyes well up with tears, and I get a Gordian-sized knot in my throat.

Those of you who were born in this country, you can never know how it feels to hear these words.

You will never know the hurdles we immigrants have had to jump, to be able to set foot in this country.

You will never know how many applications you have ripped, because the typewriter messed up and it got all blotched and inky.

You will never know how lonely it feels, making those queues in those forbidding embassies and consulates, being stared at by menacing, jar-headed Marines.

And you will never know the elation, the relief, the inexpressible happiness of being allowed to come to this country, legally.

Because, my friends, it's difficult. It's almost a process of Herculean proportions.

That's why people overstay their visas, or cross the Rio Grande, or die trying in containers.

Ever since Ellis Island greeted its last lonely, frightened immigrant, we have had to endure these indignities, through a battery of tests which are all aimed to see if you have what it takes to be an American.

Not everyone went through what I did. Not everyone felt the same way I did.

But you can be sure, that every one of us, knows what it means to come to America.

America is the interview, and every day is a trick question.

The only difference is that I, like so many others, didn't cheat and copy the answers.

I am not anti-immigrant. How could I be? I am an immigrant myself.

But for every one who didn't go through what I went through, I feel it is a slap to my face, and to that of all like me, because I did it the right way.

Just like my parents taught me to, when I was 9.

P.S.: Dad is fighting the fight with his health, still. But thanks to my hasty, optimistic youthful decision to emigrate, I have had some never-to-be-forgotten times with him, and with my mother, for which I will always be grateful to America, to have been given.

I am in America's debt. Forever.

14 Comments:

  • Gracias, Victoria, for this wonderful post.

    By Blogger Val Prieto, at Mon May 01, 03:21:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Gracias, Victoria, for this wonderful post.

    My pleasure, Val. Believe me, my pleasure.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon May 01, 03:38:00 pm GMT-4  

  • That is exactly why I feel such admiration for legal immigrants. Their desire and effort is so massive as to earn the deepest respect.

    I feel nothing for those you sneak into this country and demand the same respect. It's just not there.

    By Blogger Paul, at Mon May 01, 05:10:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I too am very proud to be a naturalized American citizen!!! You could not have picked a better day to write this particular post Victoria. This is the greatest most welcoming country in the world, period! The illegal alien movement is very misguided and their threatening tactics are going to backfire as the American silent majority will lose their patience with them and push for a tall wall across the entire border. Every time I see an upside down American flag flying below a Mexican flag I get furious at these ungrateful jerks who have allowed their movement to be controlled by leftist radicals.

    By Blogger Jose Aguirre, at Mon May 01, 06:09:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Legal immigration should be facilitated, encouraged, and broadened as widely as possible.

    Illegal immigration should be prosecuted, those that exploit illegals should be arrested, and reasonable measures should be put in place to make sure that illegality isn't preferable to legality when it comes to immigration.

    Americans by choice enrich our nation, help fuel our collective prosperity, folks sneaking across the border pose a threat and a burden that must be faced.

    Glad you chose America, choices like yours are what keep America beautiful.

    By Blogger XWL, at Mon May 01, 07:02:00 pm GMT-4  

  • You so eloquently touched upon the forgotten group in this whole saga, the LEGAL immigrant.

    Exactly how are legal immigrants supposed to feel when others come illegally and demand instant resident status, I've thought?

    You've answered my question.

    By Blogger Robert, at Mon May 01, 07:10:00 pm GMT-4  

  • That is exactly why I feel such admiration for legal immigrants. Their desire and effort is so massive as to earn the deepest respect.

    The respect comes, no doubt, for all these things, but also for daring to do something right.

    Because let's face it:

    What I did, takes time, money, and intense scrutiny to your background.

    All the references I put in my application, I heard later, were called and questioned about me.

    What the Embassy was trying to do, was not to make sure I was perfect, but to make sure I was legit -- that I said who I was, that my past blemishes were accounted for, and that I was cognisant that at the end of all of this, there might be a big fat "no" waiting for me at the end.

    So for everyone who wins the immigration lottery, or who steps into those menacing cavernous consulates, with just their hearts in their mouths, I give you my respect too.

    I feel nothing for those you sneak into this country and demand the same respect. It's just not there.

    But this is, Paul, where you and I diverge a little.

    Sure, I don't like people who came here illegally.

    But for example, could I not give respect or even human warmth to a guy like Jorge, who posts here, and who said he didn't go through the official channels to come to the US?

    Of course I could.

    I know that for every illegal who came here to do bad, there are 10 who came to do good -- and surely he is one of them.

    It's just that if you don't have standards, and rules, and strictures in this modern world, what is the point of making me go through what I and others did?

    That surely makes a mockery out of me, my personal pain and struggle, and I don't like that.

    I am sure other Americans who came here legally, don't either, and that's why there is an 80% disapproval of illegals in this country of immigrants.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon May 01, 09:11:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I too am very proud to be a naturalized American citizen!!!

    As a Pedro Pan kid, Jose, I thought about you, because my parents did what your parents did, in reverse.

    They left me in my homeland, so that I didn't have to struggle beside them in the early days, when they ate only Ramen noodles in their graduate dorms.

    But it means that anyway, we grew up, if only briefly for a time without our parents -- a pain of abandonment which no explanation can ever put right.

    You could not have picked a better day to write this particular post Victoria.

    It's this exact day, after I turned on WSVN channel 7, that I decided to write this post.

    I had been dilatory this weekend, because I am getting ready for the bathroom fitters tomorrow (which if you see a delay in posting on Wednesday, you'll know why).

    I just couldn't let those Homestead shots be the only vision you thought of immigrants, on May Day.

    I'm sure you noticed VERY few Cuban flags in Homestead...although I'm sure there were a few more Cuban flags in the Orange Bowl, I'm sure.

    This is the greatest most welcoming country in the world, period!

    It's also the country where it's best if you came from nothing.

    That's not my case -- but I still have travelled enough to know that even my country, could not provide me with what America gives me.

    Endless possibilities.

    The illegal alien movement is very misguided and their threatening tactics are going to backfire as the American silent majority will lose their patience with them and push for a tall wall across the entire border.

    That's my great fear. I confess, I don't want a wall.

    Fortunately, I heard there is a strong advertising campaign being waged through song and television, called "No mas cruces" IIRC, which warns possible Mexican illegals from crossing (cruces) the border, and thus risking being brought back dead, lying under Christian crosses (cruces).

    An interesting scheme. I hope it contributes a little!

    Every time I see an upside down American flag flying below a Mexican flag I get furious at these ungrateful jerks who have allowed their movement to be controlled by leftist radicals.

    Please, I get furious with men who don't take their caps off in a baseball game! How do you think I get, when I see upside down US flags?!

    Ugh.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon May 01, 09:19:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Legal immigration should be facilitated, encouraged, and broadened as widely as possible.

    Heh. My blog always makes you sound uncharacteristically grim when you comment on my blog! ;)

    Seriously though, are you in favour of the Bush Guest Worker programme?

    'Cause I am not. It's amnesty by another name.

    (His rationale, of course, is that this would prevent the coyotes to burgeon, and would provide the US government with a chance to emit tamper-proof ID cards, which would circumvent the whole illicit ID card cartels. I'm not so sure about that)

    Illegal immigration should be prosecuted, those that exploit illegals should be arrested, and reasonable measures should be put in place to make sure that illegality isn't preferable to legality when it comes to immigration.

    Yes. About some of it. :)

    Americans by choice enrich our nation, help fuel our collective prosperity, folks sneaking across the border pose a threat and a burden that must be faced.

    That's the deal.

    Sure, I want cheap food, and tomatoes, but the realities of hosting illegals in this country are far more wide-reaching than thought.

    And just because one illegal person doesn't take "advantage" of the system, doesn't mean there are not whole networks of others who do.

    Glad you chose America, choices like yours are what keep America beautiful.

    Mwah!! You made my day. :)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon May 01, 09:25:00 pm GMT-4  

  • You so eloquently touched upon the forgotten group in this whole saga, the LEGAL immigrant.

    Lou Dobbs had on a Mexican-American who was against illegals (her folks came in legally), and he just about tore into her, for what I presume he considers some kind of solidarity betrayal.

    Loathesome.

    When that British girl was arrested at MIA, after having made a bomb threat on a plane, some years back, you think I spared a tear about her, just because she's my own?

    (To her credit, she apologised on camera, sheepishly, and said I'm sorry, I was stupid -- that I liked a lot)

    Exactly how are legal immigrants supposed to feel when others come illegally and demand instant resident status, I've thought?

    You've answered my question.


    Well, it's just one answer, out of a myriad of possible answers, but yes.

    I stand by what I wrote. Thanks for the linkback, Robertico! :)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon May 01, 09:28:00 pm GMT-4  

  • hey, Vic mentioned me without me butting my head in here first, cool!!

    Seriously though, I was trying to post since yesterday, but blogger was up to no good. Those damn Mexicans took the day off blogger too? ;)

    Let's see. I came to this country when I was 15 years old. Not because we were living a confortable life and decided, ahh what the heck, let's go there and see what that is all about. We were living in Venezuela in 1989, seeing the economy deteriorate before our own eyes, my father lost his job, and we had a decision to make. We go back to Colombia, our mother country and see what family a friends can help us with, or we risk it all and move the the US, my folks always thinking of what was best for me, in terms of schooling and stability. Now, of course we would have prefered to have gone through the proper channels, but you know what? At that time, getting a resident Visa from the US was taking about 8-10 years. The other option was getting a Turist Visa and overstay our visas. That's what we did. My mom and dad worked their asses off so I could attend a Catholic High School.
    Because of my grades, I was offered a Scholarship to St. John's University. One catch though, since I didn;t have any papers, they could only give me about half. Great, my parents kept working very hard and I graduated Magna Cum Laude in 4 years. I finally obtained my Resident Visa over 3 years ago, and this year I will proudly become an American citizen. I never received any goverment help, never went to a hospital, never got a dime for school, and that's fine with me. Now, should I feel any different than Vic, Jose, and the others, huh Paul? now, you say, that's only my story, what about the rest of them, up to no good?

    Well, my father-in-law came to this country illegaly. He worked hard, never got in trouble, got his visa through his work, and brought over here his 5 children. One of them is a Sargent in the US Army, doing his second tour of duty in Irak, and literally took a bullet for his "new " country (he'll be ok, thank God). One of the other kids married his high school sweetheart from Colombia who followed her here (yes, you guessed it, he came here illegally). Now they own a house and 2 businesses, with over 20 employees altogether. I could keep giving you examples of that, but that would take all day.

    Of course I know, and my parents know that what we did was not the correct way, I KNOW THAT. But the question I pose is this. Fine, you don't want amnesty, it's ok, illegal immigrants shouldn't demand this. But what do you do? what do you do? There are 3 options, 1 - you do nothing, as before. 2 - you round them up and deport them, hmm to that I say good luck, really. 3 - you have to legalize them somehow, maybe not amnesty, but some kind of program. What would you do?

    (By the way Vic, really sorry for the long response)

    Regards,

    Jorge

    By Blogger dotJorge, at Tue May 02, 03:02:00 pm GMT-4  

  • An excellent post Vicky. It was a touching account of your immigrant story, thank you for sharing it with us. It's a great example of the variety of immigrant stories that brought people across the ocean.

    We are having a parallel story here whereby many Portuguese and South American construction workers are being deported after they came on tourist visas and found jobs in the country.

    Most have homes, cars and children in school. Some had to pack up and sell everything within 2 weeks. Many of them have stories of when desperate to stay put in refugee applications with unscrupulous advisors.

    For the most part Canadians have been in favour of respecting the laws but would like a better program to allow in demand workers into the country.

    By Blogger Renato, at Wed May 03, 10:10:00 am GMT-4  

  • As my spouse and I go through the whole immigration process (I'm a US citizen), I can completely relate and understand your story.

    We tell the same story to anyone who asks us about this issue - we tell them how disrespectful it is to others who did it the legal way.

    Thanks for this post.

    By Blogger La Ventanita, at Sat May 06, 02:42:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Bloody Brilliant! Well said, Ma'am, and related in your typical pleasant manner.

    ; )

    Is Dad retired now, or do other Medicos have him on enough restrictions that he could swear he's carrying a hospital bed around with him?

    Always a pleasure to read your longer posts, Victoria. Chock full of the good things.

    By Anonymous benning76, at Fri May 12, 08:03:00 am GMT-4  

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