I remember when I was sixteen and had lost my Green Card. Maggie, my Chinese American roommate sat next to me, confused as to why I had suddenly burst into tears, but quietly passed me some Kleenex and tried to calm me down. As I read the instructions on how to apply for a replacement card, the memories of the years, the paperwork, the lawyers, and the struggles my parents went through in order to obtain that one ID card flashed through my mind. I was mortified at the thought that my request for a replacement could be denied. Would I be able to stay in school? Would my scholarship be taken away? If so, would I be allowed to stay in this country? Where would I go? This country had become my home, I had no connections with family in Colombia. My thoughts raced to the worst. What would become of me, of my education, of my career, and future? How would I tell my parents? I was at boarding school at the time and the last thing that I wanted was to place yet another burden and worry on my parents’ shoulders. How was I going to find the money for the application fee? How would I know if I filled the application out correctly?
The fear overwhelmed me, but lucky for me, my housemaster came into my room for her nightly check-ins and goodnights. Seeing how upset I was, she comforted me, told me she would contact the school’s lawyer and help me find out what needed to be done. Since I had lost my wallet on a school trip, and since the school’s administrators were aware of my family’s financial necessity, the school agreed to cover the $500 dollars for the application, the processing, and legal fees. Fortunately for me, the issue was resolved quickly and now my family has US citizenship. Nonetheless, many immigrants are not as lucky with their residence and citizenship applications.
For example, just recently, I visited Lisa in downtown Los Angeles. She lives in a church that was part of the new sanctuary movement and has offered her housing for the past six years. Immigrating to LA from Guatemala, she was charged exorbitant amounts of money to obtain a work permit. After her work permit had expired, the judge refused to renew it and instead gave her a deportation order. The church was the only place that offered her protection from unfair immigration laws, from lawyers seeking to exploit naive and fearful immigrants, and from the hostility of ICE.
Although my family was able to seek help from my school and from lawyers recommended by churches in Miami, Lisa did not initially have the resources and ability to find appropriate legal assistance to resolve her case. Even though she has an American born daughter and paid hundreds and thousands of dollars to obtain a work permit and residence card, she was treated like a criminal and denied the ability to live and work legally on our country. Some say that enforcing immigration and border laws is necessary to keep our country safe from potential terrorists or foreign criminals. But instead, innocent, poor, and disadvantaged immigrants like Lisa are suffering the consequences and being treated like criminals as already wealthy lawyers, politicians, and corporations reap the benefit of cheap labor and exploitative legal fees.
Our immigration laws have created human rights violations where law-abiding civilians are denied the ability to live and work. The only difference between Lisa and me is that I was lucky enough to have considerate judge and the correct resources. Yet Lisa encountered deceptive lawyers and harsh judges, and as a result has hid in a church for several years. My life could have easily mirrored hers, yet I was the lucky one even if my family did go through scary and confusing moments as they applied for citizenship .
Her story reminds me of how immigration issues are not only the problems of undocumented individuals. The immigration problem is an issue that affects me, affects everyone regardless of legal status. Lisa has already lost so much to our broken system, and too many people have been confused and deceived by our laws.
How much longer will it take until we accept that our laws are not appropriate, just, nor fair? And how much longer will we wait until we fix it?
*Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identity.