Our dream arrived one day in a nondescript envelope. Inside were two plastic cards for my wife and me granting us permanent U.S. residency. Getting my green card was the culmination of a lengthy journey filled with long periods of unemployment and multiple changes in visa status.
Few native-born Americans experience or even understand the frustration, uncertainty, fear, joy and relief that marks the journey from immigrant to legal status. If the process works well, it can take years. If it doesn’t – and I have friends for whom it didn’t – it can consign people to a desperate life in the shadows, unable to fully participate in the country they have come to love.
As the debate over immigration reform rages across the country, I often hear that immigrants should come to this country “the right way.” It’s not as easy as it sounds. For me, the right way took 16 years, cost me about $20,000 in legal fees and required at least 10 visa classification changes. Most of these classification changes meant trips back to my native Trinidad and Tobago to submit applications, proof of sponsorship and financial documentation to the U.S. Embassy. Returning through customs was always nerve-wracking. Did I have all the right paperwork? Did I say something wrong in my interview with the immigration officer?
At the same time, my wife and I were building a life here. We paid taxes, accumulated physical possessions, became active members of our community and formed deep relationships with native residents and immigrants alike.
I came to the United States on a full academic scholarship, graduated with honors and went to work for a company that sponsored my H-1B work visa. When I entered graduate school, I couldn’t work for the first year because a delay in processing my return to an F-1 student visa meant I didn’t meet the eligibility requirements for my graduate assistant position.
Having learned from the experience, I did after graduation what many immigrants with disposable income do: I hired an immigration attorney to help me through new rounds of Optional Practical Training and H-1B applications.
When my wife got her doctorate and took a teaching job in Louisiana, I left mine and moved to an H-4 (spouse of an H-1) visa while we started the process of becoming permanent residents. Being on H-4 meant that I was not legally allowed to work for another two years during the prime of my career. There was even a brief period in which I was not allowed to re-enter the country because her university was unclear about its responsibility in the immigration process, a common issue among employers who serve as sponsoring entities.
But I never lost sight of one important truth: I was lucky. My road has been easy compared with millions of other immigrants in this country. We had the benefit of financial support from families and universities, we earned degrees and had assistance in navigating the system that many immigrants, especially low-skilled laborers, never get.
This point was driven home when I began working as a production manager on the Rational Middle of Immigration, a series of videos exploring the immigration issue. The series aims to provide the basis for informed discussion about sensible immigration reform.
During filming, we met undocumented immigrants who live in the shadows while working tirelessly, sometimes in sub-standard conditions, for low pay. They cling to obscurity as their best defense against deportation. Many have come here fleeing violence. The path that I followed to legal status isn’t available to them. A lesser-skilled undocumented worker who returns home to “get in line” for a visa may never find a way back in. Instead, they make what they see as the only reasonable decision, regardless of whether native-born Americans consider it “right.”
People come here for a chance to be treated fairly and rewarded for hard work. Having millions of immigrants living and working in the shadows hurts this country socially and economically. But before we can solve these problems, we must understand them. Immigration reform is complex and nuanced, and it poses difficult questions about our laws, our economy and our views of fairness and humanity. Ultimately, it’s a question of what America is and where it is heading.
Although my immigration struggles felt overwhelming at times, they never weakened my desire to stay in the United States and make the most of the opportunities that were afforded me. Life in America has brought out the best in me, challenged me, and made me shine in ways I never expected. I think there are many others who deserve that chance.
Riley, a Daytime Emmy Award-nominated producer, is a production manager for Rational Middle Media.
Read the article at Houston Chronicle online.