The Common Good

I Am the Immigrant

I am a card-carrying alien. Literally.

Bronwyn Lea want to trade her visa for a permanent residency green card.
Bronwyn Lea wants to trade her visa for a permanent residency green card.

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I have an official alien number, assigned to me by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.

After nearly 10 years in the U.S., my husband and I have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on paperwork and travel to keep our visas current. We have been retina scanned and fingerprinted; we have submitted exhausting and exhaustive records of every job we’ve ever held, every school we ever studied at, and the names and addresses of every person we are related to.

Now, with three children born in the U.S. (call them anchor babies if you must), we don’t want alien cards anymore. We want green cards. We want to be allowed to stay permanently in the country where our children are, without fear that we will find ourselves with no legal purchase in the country where our kids live.

But applying for permanent residency is a lot tougher than you might think.

We are English speaking, and have five graduate degrees (two from top U.S. universities), we hold jobs, pay taxes, and have three American-born children. We contribute to our community, church, and schools. We want to add value to this country, not exploit it. And yet, these things are not enough to put us on a path to citizenship.

My husband’s job involves research that affects the quality of the entire multibillion-dollar road network for our state, yet, our attorney advises us that this may not be enough to show that we are “valuable” enough to obtain green cards.

The bar for getting permanent residency is not set at the nice-person-well-educated-contributes-meaningfully-to-the-economy level.

The bar for getting permanent residency is set at the have-you-won-a-Nobel-prize-or-can-you-prove-you’re-going-to level. The is-your-work-contributing-to-the-national-interest level.

We have to prove, on paper, that our contribution is better for the entire country, not just the state we live in. Our attorney is “hopeful” that we “might” be able to show that the work done in our state affects others, and that our petition “could” have a “pleasing result."

So, when I heard that legislation championing immigration reform was being proposed, my heart leaped. A path for people with degrees from American universities (that’s us!), for families with American kids (that’s us!) Not that we would instantly be granted citizenship … but at least a path would be visible.

However, America is the land of Newtonian Politics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Immigration reform was one of many heated topics under discussion in the final weeks before last year’s election. I know emotions run high, yet I was deeply hurt by the Facebook posts by one friend from church on the hot-button topic of immigration reform. He warned about legislation that would let “them” in, about the threat to “us,” “our way of life,” “our culture and liberties.”

I stood with a leaden-heart behind him during a worship service and silently pleaded at his back: “My brother in Christ, with whom I share citizenship in the kingdom of heaven: Do you know that I am one of ‘them’? Do you know that I am the immigrant in the immigration reform you’re talking about? Do you know that without some reprieve in the current legislation, we may have to go? Your wife would have one less Bible study leader, your kid would have one less parent volunteer in the classroom, your business would have one less paying customer. Did you know it was me you are closing the door on?”

I am one example of exactly who the immigration reform is talking about. When you think about the “immigrant,” think of me too.

I am the immigrant. And I really want to walk the path to citizenship, should it open up. But if it doesn’t, and if our petition is not successful, we will take our American children elsewhere, where we will do our very best to teach them to be brave, honest, hard-working immigrants. For that is what they will then be.

Bronwyn Lea is a South-African transplant to California, raising kids at home and raising questions at www.bronlea.com

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