We’ve all heard of the stories of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as babies — culturally American but legally not. But what happens if you’ve been in the US legally for decades, but still can’t obtain a green card to stay in your home country because of holes in the US immigration system that the government has no plans to fix?
ISSUE: Fall 2012
STORY: Ada Tseng
In 2006, Ana La O’ — at the time an undergraduate at UCLA — wrote a cover story for the alternative weekly newspaper LA Citybeat titled “The Hidden Classes,” about the first wave of undocumented immigrants that could afford to attend California public colleges after 2001’s AB 540 law allowed them to pay in-state tuition rates. The students she interviewed had been brought over to the United States as kids and educated in the American school system, yet they were unable to work legally and in danger of being deported to countries they hadn’t lived in for 15 to 20 years.
“It was the first time that I had spoken to people who had the same kind of psychology that I did,” says La O’, who moved to the U.S. from the Philippines when she was 11 months old. “I totally understood everything about being culturally American, but not having the same rights, feeling in limbo, and working toward this degree without knowing what I could actually do with it when I graduated.”
Except that La O’ was not an undocumented (what some call “illegal”) immigrant. By 2006, La O’ had been living in the United States legally for 21 years. Yet, for the next five years, she would continue to struggle to get a green card, until she was so fed up with the holes in the United States immigration system that she voluntarily self-deported in 2011, leaving her family and friends to move to the Philippines. Being plopped into a country she hadn’t lived in since she was a baby seemed like a better option than the hoops she would have to jump through just to be considered for – let alone acquire – a green card, after 26 years of living in this country.
La O’s parents had come to the United States in 1986, around the time of the People Power Revolution in the Philippines. Her mother, afraid of the political turmoil, convinced her husband to take their three young children to America temporarily. La O’s parents ran a real estate company in the Philippines, so they were approved for the E-2 Treaty Investors visa, allowing them to enter and remain in the United States as long as their business was investing a certain amount of money and meeting requirements that proved the company was a benefit to the U.S. economy.
Over the course of the years, the La O’s had two more children, and continued to manage their company in Northern California. With five kids that were culturally American (two born as citizens), they decided to look into a path toward naturalization. The E-2 visa they’d been on all these years is a type of visa that can be renewed indefinitely; however, it never accumulates time toward getting a green card. Therefore, the La O’ family was never able to switch their status to become permanent residents.
For La O’ and her two older siblings who were born in the Philippines, that meant that once they turned 21, they aged out of their parents’ visa and were forced to start from scratch if they wanted to stay in the U.S. At 21, La O’ applied for an F-1 international student visa — alongside arrivals who were coming to live in the U.S. for the very first time — so that she could complete her studies at UCLA. Like other international students, after she graduated, she had one year of Optional Practical Training (OPT) before she was required to find a company that would sponsor her for an H-1B workers visa. Otherwise, she would not be able to stay legally.
When it comes to immigration, there are certain scenarios we often hear about. There are the people who acquire a green card abroad — often petitioned by a family member or employer – and then fulfill permanent residency requirements for three to five years until they qualify for citizenship. There are the people who were persecuted in their home country and given asylum. And there are the undocumented immigrants at the center of recent high-profile political debates: the people who either entered the country illegally,
overstayed their visas, or were brought over as children. The latter group had a small win on June 15, 2012 when President Obama announced he would halt deportations for young undocumented immigrants who would qualify under the 2001 Federal Development,
Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
But we don’t often hear about the kids that are brought over as dependents on non-immigrant visas (acquired by foreigners like La O’s parents who didn’t plan to stay permanently, aka “immigrate”), who grow up with similar struggles as undocumented immigrants even though they have technically been abiding by the law the entire time.
After college, La O’ was relieved to find an H1-B sponsor company. For the first time in her life, she was legally allowed to earn money in the U.S. Ironically, she was hired by an immigration firm to write petitions for clients applying for O-1 visas and EB1-EA green
cards. Her job was to persuade the government to let “aliens with extraordinary ability or achievement” into the country — and as a result, she was being slapped in the face with her own immigration struggles on a daily basis.
“Sometimes I was actually writing about people with extreme expertise,” says La O’, “but other times, I was drafting up these really fluffy letters with lots of superlatives and feeling bad about it.”
Even though La O’ despised her job, she was pretty good at it. “It could have been the weakest case, but I would have to creatively spin it to make someone’s career seem bigger than it was,” she says. “And when the person would get approved, I was like, ‘Dammit, you get in because you’re a mixologist of extraordinary ability?’”
To make matters worse, the firm was sponsoring a number of non-immigrants, and La O’s coworkers had a bet going: “Who was going to get their green card first?” Without fail, La O’ was always ranked last, even though she had been in the United States the longest – by over a decade — and was by far the most culturally American.
“It was because of my specific visa category,” La O’ explains. “I was an H1-B holder with only a bachelor’s degree, so I would need five years of progressive work experience in my field – something related to my English major. Then, I’d have to transfer to another company in the same field, get them to file a labor certification, and only at that point could I apply for my green card.”
So, to recap, in order to even have a shot at staying in the country legally, La O’ — who, again, had been brought over as a 9-month-old and lived in California for over two decades — would have to stay in this job she hated for five years, then apply for another job in the same field (that she now had no desire to pursue) and find a company that is not only willing to hire a non-citizen (in this struggling economy) but also apply for a green card on her behalf. If she failed to do so, she couldn’t stay in America past her current visa’s expiration date.
La O’, who had spent her entire life shackled by her determination to follow this country’s immigration rules, started to fear that the United States might end up rejecting her anyway.
“Situations like this happen all the time,” says 26-year-old Aiden Heeseung Han, referring to illogical immigration scenarios where seemingly arbitrary technicalities can result in gaping disparities in legal status.
Aiden is the older brother of Heejun Han, the singer who gained mainstream fame for finishing ninth on the most recent season of American Idol. The younger Han put a public face to immigrant struggles by being open about the many years he and his parents had to wait before finally receiving their green cards. But in interviews he left out an important part of his family story: to this day, his older brother Aiden is still unable to get one.
Aiden remembers that he was the one who pushed for his family to move to America. Even while growing up in Korea, he was a huge fan of NBA basketball. He also remembers seeing an unidentified music video of African Americans dancing in a club, and for some reason, his pre-teen self was hooked.
“To me, Korea felt restrictive,” remembers Aiden. “I felt like I’d get bigger chances in the U.S. I wanted to study there, pursue a career there. I just knew that something was going to happen for me in America.”
The Han family came to the United States in 2001, when Aiden was 14 and Heejun was 11. Approved for an E1-B Treaty Trader visa through their paper company, their parents uprooted them to Bayside, Queens, N.Y.
Unlike La O’, who grew up in an affluent neighborhood in the Bay Area where none of her peers had immigration issues, the Han family had a lot of company.
“When I came to America, I remember thinking I’d be surrounded by blond-haired, blue-eyed girls,” says Aiden. “But my high school was about 70 percent Chinese, 20 percent Korean, and 10 percent Indian. Half of them were ESL students. We were in a community that was packed with immigrant families struggling to keep up.”
Aiden’s parents went through three separate lawyers to try to work out their immigration situation. They kept getting told that their green card would come “next year,” but year after year would pass, with no results.
“Savvy parents can hire good lawyers,” says Aiden. “But the reality is that many immigrants are just too busy trying to make ends meet, and they don’t pay attention.”
Despite this, Aiden wasn’t worried. “I thought we’d get it at some point,” he laughs, “but I was only half right.”
After seven years, his parents were finally granted a green card. As a dependent, Heejun also qualified for a green card (without which he couldn’t have auditioned for American Idol in the first place). However, Aiden, who had just turned 21, missed the cut-off date by a mere two months. As a result, even if his family were to petition for him to get a green card, he had already been knocked into a lower preference category, the “unmarried sons and daughters over 21” group, where the wait can potentially take decades.
Therefore, Aiden had to take a path similar to La O’, applying for an international student visa and attempting to “immigrate” independently of his family. It would still take a decade or so, but at least he could stay in the country legally in the meantime.
Despite the fact that there is still no legislation equivalent of the DREAM Act in place for individuals like La O’ and Aiden, they are both quick to point out that the stakes for undocumented immigrants are much higher.
“The truth is my situation was not impossible in the way that it is impossible for an undocumented person,” says La O’. “If an undocumented person decided to go back to their home country and apply for a visa legally, they’d have a lot of issues. Depending on
how many years they had spent in U.S. illegally, they trigger bars that can ban them from the U.S. for up to 10 years, even if their visas are approved. I probably wouldn’t have the balls to leave if I was an undocumented immigrant with no way of returning nor financial
If La O’ wanted to return to the U.S., she could come back whenever she wanted. She’d just have to apply for a tourist visa first.
La O’ had options. She just didn’t like her options. Like many children of immigrants, La O’ grew up with the ideal of the American Dream, and the thought that America could limit her dreams is not something she was accustomed to – nor willing to accept.
“It basically got to the point where I was in the United States, which felt like my home, but I wasn’t allowed to be the person that I wanted to be,” says La O’. So if quitting her job and changing career paths were a priority, La O’ would have to self-deport. In 2011, she
made the difficult decision to give up her visa, leave her family and friends, and move to the Philippines.
Today, La O’ is working for Eairth, a fashion company in Manila that specializes in handmade, individually dyed garments, which has given her the opportunity to cultivate a passion that she wasn’t able to pursue professionally in the States.
Though she still feels very American, La O’ says, “I guess what’s different now is that the world feels bigger. Maybe I want to end up somewhere else. My new goal is to not think about limitations.”
Similarly, Aiden’s future career goals allow room for globalism. Ever since high school, he has dreamed of building his own hotel, so he transferred from the City University of New York to New York University’s Hotel Development program so he could pursue his dreams on an H1-B visa. Aiden recently started his first hotel project in New Jersey, but in his ideal world, while America would be his base, his work would allow him to travel to all the major cities around the world.
“At this point, I’m so used to being discriminated [against] that I’ve learned how to not be discouraged,” says Aiden. “I don’t want to think about green cards. I’m just concentrating on my work, and when the time comes, I will worry about it.”
And if all else fails?
“I’ll marry an American girl,” he jokes. “I’m pretty sure I’ll find someone.” Aiden smiles. “I’m a pretty good-looking guy.”