When “Getting in Line” Becomes a Long Nightmare

The story of Òmìnira (pseudonym) shows the diversity of undocumented youth in the U.S., whose struggles are often attributed to the Latino (or Mexican) immigrant communities. Òmìnira is a DREAMer from Nigeria who faces the challenges of an undocumented status as a result of an immigration system and its actors which pray and benefit from the vulnerability of migrants. Unfortunately, Òmìnira did not qualify under President Obama’s Executive Order issued in June 2012 (Deferred Action) which would have granted her a temporary permit due to the age requirement. Today, she faces an uncertain future as a result of the political standstill on immigration reform.

I am thankful to Òmìnira for reaching out and sharing her story through Mundo Citizen, as it is one that highlights the complexity of an arbitrary immigration system. It dispels the ‘get in the line’ or ‘follow the law’ argument anti-immigration proponents like to spout in their attempt to defend a system that fails to account for fairness, justice, and simply… humanity.

When “Getting in Line” Becomes a Long Nightmare

by Òmìnira

I am not supposed to be undocumented.  After all, I followed the rules. As the anti-immigration proponents would have it, I tried to get “in line.” So interested was my family in getting in line that we have so far employed the assistance of four (4) different immigration attorneys. But as reality would have it the legal immigration process or “the line” is arbitrary and complicated, and for these very reasons it is easy for lawyers and legal representatives to prey on the legally vulnerable.

Let me explain.

When I was 14 years old my father was granted political asylum in the United States. My father has been a political journalist since the 70s and was a member of an underground opposition group protesting Nigeria’s successive military dictatorships. For this, my paternal grandmother and my eldest brother were shot, our house set on fire (my right leg sustained a 2nd degree burn, I call it my battle scar), and my father sentenced to jail, in absentia. When the asylum application was granted, my family was in a host country and two years later (at 16 years old) we came to join my father in the United States. For the first time in a long while we were not only safe but also free to start a life, any life.

Or so we thought. At the time, the lawyer working on my father’s case advised him that it was not necessary to file a separate derivative asylee relative application for us since he had listed my siblings and I on his granted asylum application. A grave mistake! This same lawyer was later suspended on three occasions including, finally by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BOIA). He was charged with violating several rules requiring an attorney to represent his clients competently. But by then the damage was partly done, we had missed the two-year filling period for the derivative application.

My family then turned to lawyer #2 following recommendations from a number of people. Lawyer #2 ran an international humanitarian organization. After reviewing our case, he advised that since the two-year filling period had passed I had to file an individual asylum application based on my fathers granted case and in this application we would explain the delay in filing. And so we filed the application. Another big mistake. During the interview with the Asylum Officer, (which the lawyer failed to attend), we were asked why my father had not filed the derivative asylee application instead given the nature of the case. In the end, the Asylum officer sent a referral notice stating that:

Although you have established changed circumstances materially affecting your eligibility for asylum or extraordinary circumstances directly related to your delay in filing, you failed to file your application within a reasonable period of time given those circumstances.

Unsurprisingly, I was thereafter served the dreaded Notice to Appear (NTA) before an immigration judge. To prepare for court, we asked lawyer # 2 to represent us at the court at which point he revealed that he was not in fact an immigration attorney but actually a notary!!!  (A 2009 article by The Washington Examiner finally exposed lawyer #2 for running a fraudulent immigration practice following a number of complaints).

In desperation, my family searched for a new attorney. Many did not want to take the case but finally we engaged the assistance of lawyer #3.  As advised, my family checked to make certain that he was in fact an immigration attorney and engaged him to help us sort through my immigration mess mess.

Lawyer # 3 explained to the immigration judge that he would file the proper derivative application, explaining the delay and also an immigrant relative petition based on my father who was now a permanent resident. This request was granted and we accordingly hurriedly provided lawyer # 3 with all the documents and signed papers. After 4 years and 4 hearings lawyer # 3 asked for an individual hearing, against the suggestions of the judge. A disastrous mistake! You see lawyer #3 never filed the I-130, filed the I-730 but never gave an explanation for the delay, and instead tried to file an adjustment of status based on my father’s granted asylum application, a process, which is not legally possible!!! During the trial, the government attorney and judge seemed baffled that he had not filed the 1-130 all this time, when it seemed the most logical thing to do. After a tense debate, the judge finally denied the case based on abandonment (the lawyer couldn’t find my biometrics just as in an earlier hearing he had failed to send the court my medical information, although these were later found in his files).

I was ordered deported. The ultimate nightmare had arrived.

It is hard to explain the emotions running through me in the hours and days after the deportation order or to express the perpetual frustration, fear, and immense sadness of trying again and again over 8 years to get it right and never quite succeeding. Nor is it easy to explain struggling to accomplish things like getting an education, opening a bank account, or obtaining identification, when for all intents and purposes the system maintains that you shouldn’t exist, you don’t exist, and your existence itself is a crime (illegal). The fact that I’ve tried to follow the rules doesn’t matter, my failure at the hands of others seemingly speaks of my criminality. Yet it is so easy for politicians to brandish me and others like me, people seeking life, liberty, and happiness as simply illegal.

Edited Photo Credit: photo credit: Michael Fleshman via photopin cc
Edited Photo, Credit: Michael Fleshman via photopin cc

In the end I was not deported. With the help of an incredible attorney, lawyer #4, a Motion to Reopen my case was granted as well as an administrative closure. This has allowed my father (now a U.S citizen) to apply for an immigrant visa for me. This is a BIG relief yet my dreams and goals remain elusive. The immigrant visa will take about 6 years to process and in while I know I have the skills to do so much, all I can do is wait: wait to work, wait to travel, wait to live. Ironically, when the immigrant visa application is complete, I still must leave the U.S. in order to adjust my status thus invoking a 10-year bar to re-entry.

And so I wonder, why not abandon it all?  Give it up and walk away. Perhaps by giving this all up I might have a chance to live not just exist somewhere else. I really truly wonder….

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My claim to a hyphenated identity

‘Where are you from?’

That is a simple question, isn’t? Well for some of us, the answer is not so straight forward.

My experience in London in the past four months has included fascinating dialogue with people I have come across. It is one thing I have come to expect from such a global city where you are bound to meet people from so many places around the world. Such interactions have sparked in me the need to explore my conception of identity as part of my own self-discovery process. Primarily because most of us conflate place of origin and ethnicity with identity. If I claim to be from a certain part of the world, what does that mean about the way others expect me to look, speak, act and be? In engaging in this inquiry, the first realization I have made is that the answer to the question of ‘Where are you from?’ is very telling not only about one’s own perception of identity but also of the one imposed by others.

My standard response to this question when I first arrived was ‘I am from Mexico’. However, I did not anticipate the confusion this simplified answer created. I was also faced with having to explain why I speak English with an American accent.

I began to be confronted with a part of myself I have been denying since my ‘return’ to Mexico. I suppose that part of the process of incorporating back into Mexican society after living my formative years in the U.S. included embracing my mexicaness to avoid being perceived as an outsider. Once again, I was posed with assimilating and adapting to fit in into a new host society. I did not find it safe to publicly embrace the American identity I had formed growing up in the U.S. because of the negative discourse about those that emigrated from Mexico and those that return due to a deportation. I felt I needed to hide any evidence that would label me a foreigner.

Despite my best efforts, my American accent was also picked up in my spoken Spanish. I was not saved from having to excuse it by saying,  ‘… well I really don’t sound Mexican when I speak Spanish because I grew up outside of Mexico’. Then, I hoped for no further inquiry because I did not want to explain why I was back in Mexico.

However, my response of ‘I am from Mexico’ attached with such a disclaimer was still excluding a part of me. The fact is that I am far from being ONLY Mexican. I simply had to look at the way I carried my life on a day-to-day basis. That little inner voice that we all carry with ourselves every single moment speaks to me in English. At my previous job during team meetings, even if they were conducted in Spanish, I would write my meeting notes in English. I would read the news in English as well as listen to American radio stations. I still watch American shows. I keep networks of friends in the U.S. who I communicate in English. I continue to celebrate Thanksgiving and NFL Superbowl becomes an excuse for organizing family and friend gatherings.

I also acknowledge Mexican Independence Day. I speak in Spanish with my parents. I can only pray and listen to mass in Spanish and Mexican food continues to be my favorite cuisine. I am Mexican by ethnicity and nationality but I lived most of my life in Los Angeles as an American. When you factor all these variables, what conclusion can I arrive about my own identity? Am I more Mexican or American?

Coming to London did not save me from this identity dilemma.  My answer to THE question now has a second part; ‘I sound American because I am ALSO American?’. I am culturally American. That is the truth I cannot hide any longer. Interestingly, most people agree with that. They understand. Your home is where you grew up. Where you set up roots. Where you formed your identity. Unfortunately, immigration laws fail to acknowledge that.

Regent Street, London
St. Regent Street, London   Photo Credit: Nancy Landa

So when I am asked about my identity, I now explain that by nationality I am Mexican, that culturally I am American. That you can be removed from home if you are undocumented. That one day you can get picked up by immigration officers and be thrown back to what is supposed to be your home. That when you are back in this foreign place where you hold a nationality, you are questioned as to why you do not speak as someone that grew up there, or why you think or act differently. At the end of this complicated explanation, the inquirers would then understand the injustice of restrictive immigration laws. They understand why I am here studying global migration.

Mexican Embassy, London
Mexican Embassy, London   Photo Credit: Nancy Landa

I return to the question – how can such complicated experience be captured in a single label? It seems that the only thing left to do is to accept that I have a hyphenated identity (1). I am Mexican-American. That is the identity I declare for myself moving forward, whether or not there exists a document to validate it. Because who you are should not be dictated by a government or a society. Because it is my choice to embrace the worlds that I am part of, even if it means engaging in a fight for inclusion and belonging. Just because there are immigration policies that do not permit me to return to the place I grew up and was once my home, it does not mean that my identity also remained on the other side of the border. It goes with me everywhere I go and it has followed me to London. It just took me to answer a simple question in an honest manner to realize it.

The problem is that we are trained to have a simplified view of a complex social construct as is identity. It is easier to place others in categories that match the ethnic check boxes we are used to seeing in government documents. The problem is that when you adopt a label that is not easily understood, it can be quite threatening. But I dare to say that is precisely the reason why such conceptions need to be challenged. Because if we are not able to embrace who we are, we cannot expect our friends, our communities and governments  to do so either. The process of claiming our own rights begins with each of us embracing the truth of who we are.

(1) I came across the concept of hyphenated labels and identities in my reading of the following book which discusses the claim of American identity by immigrant children/youth that arrive in the U.S.: Stepick, A. and Stepick, C. (2003) ‘Becoming American’ in N. Foner (ed.) American Arrivals: Anthropology Engages the New Immigration, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 129-161.
 
Published in Pocho.com on February 3, 2014
 
Updated 3-Feb-14

Guest Voice – The “Voluntary Departure”

Meet Fredi, who shares with us his experience as a returned Dreamer. I talked about him in a previous post, the Dreamer I met at my “Coming Out” in Tijuana during the book presentation of Dreamers.

Fredi: Thank you for your courage. My hope is that this continues to inspire others who are here in Mexico willing to “come out” about their experiences.

With Dreamer Fredi at Dreamers Book Presentation
With Dreamer Fredi at book presentation of “Dreamers.La Lucha de Una Generación Por Su Sueño Americano”(Spanish Edition) written by Eileen Truax  | June 13 2013

It was May 2, 2011. It was also my sister’s birthday and it would be unthinkable for me to leave and not stay to spend time with her. But I had to depart in order to meet the deadline set by the immigration judge four months earlier. The deadline was set for May 4. Prior to my immigration court date, I had talked to my family and decided on a “voluntary departure”. It was the most difficult decision that I’ve ever made in my life. This meant not seeing my parents and sister, and moving to a country that I barely remembered from 20 years ago.

That day, I found myself returning to Tijuana. Early memories of Tijuana were from the day we crossed the border as undocumented immigrants… the helicopter was hovering over us. We were covered with cardboard and all I could see was the high beams of light. Man, it was a miracle because the helicopter (or “mosco” as we called in Spanish) moved away without detecting us.

That early Monday when I was scheduled to leave, I woke up early to pack my clothes and some books. My close friends picked me up. I hugged my mom and reassured her that everything was going to be OK. It was heartbreaking! I told her about my plans of working hard and pursuing my PhD. I told her about my plans to return to the U.S. as an international student which I’m still working on. Those last words gave her peace. She knew that I would work hard. Prior to that day, she had witnessed those long sleepless nights while working to finish my Master’s Degree and it paid off. I was able to complete it prior to my “voluntary departure”.

As we drove to the US-Mexico border, I was thinking about my life of 20 years in the United States and how I saw it changed in so many ways. I lived 45 minutes away from the border in Vista, CA, located in North San Diego County. Flashback memories crossed my mind; buying a soda can for 25 cents at the ampm gas station for the first time or even hiding every time I would hear a helicopter because I thought that they were chasing after us. I also remembered those first days of high school and how challenging it was to learn English. I had memories of my experiences of racism when students did not want to work with me because of my accent or when a white student threw a whiteout at me and laughed about it.

We crossed the border with mixed emotions. I was sad to leave my family but was happy because I was about to see my brother who had been deported two years earlier. My life at that moment was filled with uncertainty, not knowing what was to come.

I felt lonely and hit rock bottom with days of depression. I thought I was the only Dreamer who was forced to return because I was not able to find a person with a similar situation. I was wrong. I began to hear stories of Dreamers and other deportees. But to this day, I still don’t feel like I belong. I feel out of place. Some people make fun of my word usage and can tell that I’m not from here. To this day, not many people know about my experiences as a Dreamer because of the stigma of being labeled as a “criminal” or “illegal.” People have a huge misunderstanding of returnees and all feed from mainstream media.

There is much more to say about my experiences back in the U.S. and here in Mexico. I know there are many who I can relate to and who share similar stories. I’m taking this opportunity to let it out because it has been hidden in depths of my heart and soul for too long. Hope to continue with this and be able to share who I am. For now, this is it. Thank you to those who took the time to read my story.

Much love and respect,

Fredi II