In many ways, it was a Wednesday like any other. I was finishing up a shift at the Women’s Center in Chapel Hill, an organization that aimed to connect women with legal and financial resources in their community. I answered phone calls and greeted visitors at the center, but generally as 5pm approached, the line stayed silent and the office remained clear of any visitors.
My own attention was elsewhere; my eyes nervously darted from the clock on the wall to my cell phone jutting out of my bag to my side. I imagined my parents in the elegant but cluttered lawyer’s office, rising from their chairs, shaking hands, making their way down the hallway to the elevators. Any minute now.
When 5 o’clock finally came around, I grabbed my bag and headed back to campus, crossed Franklin Street, and made my way through the Upper Quad. As my phone rang, Dad Cell announcing itself brightly on the screen, life paused for a second. The world held its breath as I did, the sounds drifted to silence, the nearby pedestrians faded into the background.
He choked out the news in his way – straight to the point, but despondent and regretful. And I’m sorry punctuated the announcement, but his own guilt seemed out of place when there were so many others to blame, at least in my eyes.
So what was this meeting, this fateful call?
On that cold January day, my parents met with our immigration lawyer, two hours away in Charlotte, to discuss the status of my green card application. My younger brother, not even 19 at the time, had done some legal research and found out that with my family’s current position in permanent residency limbo (accepted but on the waitlist, waiting, waiting for years already), that we children would only be eligible for green cards as long as we were dependents of our parents – in other words, until we turned 21.
As it happened, I had turned 21 seven months earlier. I was in my final semester of university, worried about upcoming midterms, balancing all of my volunteer commitments, and trying to enjoy what precious free time I had left with friends.
The words resounded in my ears: aged out. Seven months prior, without so much as a warning, my green card application essentially disintegrated. I lived in blissful ignorance for those seven months, carrying on the same belief I had had for the last 11 years, that soon enough we’d get the call saying we were granted permanent residency, that I, along with my family, would be given a real social security number and the ability to work and stay in the United States.
I knew my temporary visa would be expiring soon; a technicality had extended it past my 21st birthday but I was expecting to ride out the 6-month grace period and according the government website, the hallowed green cards would likely arrive within the year for my family and I.
The actual call offered instead the stark reality – that chance was gone for me. Tears streamed down my face as I continued walking unsteadily through the quad, listening to the details, and briefly considering how I must look to all of these students passing by.
From the outside, I would have probably assumed I was the recipient of a failing grade, or else just had been dumped by some guy. Had I not cried for both of these reasons in the last few years? How ridiculous that seemed now. Unbeknownst to those walking by, at that very moment my dad was bringing up the one suggestion of the lawyer that could perhaps allow me a chance at a green card after all. To quote the lawyer, “Does she have a boyfriend she could marry?” Really?!
My younger brother could sum up better than I could the set of circumstances that led to this gaping hole in policy which allowed countless young people like myself to wait for years and years for a green card, only to find out on our 21st birthdays that we were no longer welcome in the United States.
Months before my birthday, I received the opposite assurance from our so-called immigration lawyer – he looked me in the eye and told me that I was “accepted” and that my age or visa status (the temporary one that I’d be losing soon) would have no effect on this.
Whether it was the constantly-changing landscape of immigration policy and precedents or our lawyer’s inexcusable ineptitude, we didn’t know and it didn’t exactly matter at that point. I’ll let the fact that an 18-year-old food science major having been the one who found out the truth speak for itself.
The big questions remained: would I be allowed to finish my studies? Would I be able to graduate? I had lived in North Carolina since I was 10 years old. I loved Canada and had returned almost every summer since we moved, either to visit family or work. It was an inextricable part of my identity, and yet “home “was invariably North Carolina, which held my family, my best friends, and my visions of the future.
I grew up in a small town, about 45 minutes from Charlotte, and lived a stereotypical American adolescence – from school dances, plays, the SATs, extracurricular activities, driver’s education classes, and eventually getting a car, applying to colleges, going to prom.
At 18, I began at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I learned to deal with roommates, 8am classes, and unparalleled stress, but also what it meant to bleed Carolina blue, to make the friends of a lifetime, and eventually discover my true passions and interests.
I lived abroad in Ecuador for a semester, and spent two summers working in Quebec, but these experiences always ended with the pull of wanting to return “home”. While living in Montreal briefly the summer before my senior year, I had even declined to pursue a long-distance relationship with a truly wonderful guy, because I had to go back to NC to finish school and to quote myself at the time, “I’m realistically never moving back to Canada.”
The rest of that evening unfolded in a haze. I remember walking straight past my apartment and continuing down the hall to where my best friends lived. The sobs I had held in until that point erupted when my friend opened the door. With no hesitation, she led me to her bed where she let me curl up in a ball as she made tea, and I tried to control my crying long enough to explain what had happened.
As the evening progressed, my other best friends caught wind of what happened and came by to offer their apologies and shock and sympathy. A visit to my school’s International Student’s office the next day clarified my next steps – I would be eligible for a student visa, which would have to be approved physically at a customs office, in order to complete my studies.
That weekend, my family and I drove the 17 hours up to the Canadian border to get my papers stamped. (The following Monday, a friend asked, “So, what did you do this weekend?” and with a straight face, I answered, “Oh, you know, drove to Canada and back.”) Through this visa, I’d be eligible for an OPT extension, which would permit me to work “in my field of study” but only for one year. Then, I was on my own.
I could write a novel about the emotions I have experienced since that day. I felt obviously bitterly let down by the whole system, the American government in general. I was sad, I was angry, I felt confused, and also indignant. After all, I had lived in the US for 11 years, more than half of my life, and had been waiting for a green card for nearly 7 years.
We went through every hoop, my parents having paid thousands of dollars in application and legal fees, and went through the countless steps required to prove that my father (whose application it was) would be a worthy addition to the US workforce and that he would literally be taking the place of no other American.
For me, growing up as a white Canadian immigrant meant my status generally went unnoticed in my day-to-day life, but every once in a while small reminders of my situation popped up. Among these were not having a social security number and therefore not being able to work legally in the US, not being eligible for certain programs and scholarships, and even not being allowed to get a driver’s license for about 11 months when I turned 16 due to a ridiculous law enacted to prevent undocumented immigrants from getting licenses, but which inadvertently blocked legal immigrants from doing so as well.
This is not to mention the yearly stress of reapplying for our temporary visa and facing the terrifying (but admittedly unthinkable) idea that we might get refused this time. But in the meantime, I lived the life of any other middle-class, relatively-privileged American teenager.
After that day, I explained my situation to anyone who asked and learned a great deal about the American perception of the immigration system. People were genuinely confused at how someone living here for so long could be made to leave like this, the subtext of this often being that I didn’t look like the typical “immigrant” in their minds.
Immigration was obviously a widely-discussed and debated topic at that point in time, but most of the people I knew generally associated immigration with undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. As one acquaintance exclaimed when I told her my story, “But I just don’t understand… you’re white!” Yikes.
In my discussions, many people also made assumptions about my political beliefs, mistakenly thinking that having been essentially screwed out of a green card by the system, that I must be enraged at proposals of amnesty and visas for all the undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. In fact, the contrary is true. The entire immigration system is a mess and believing that people who had followed all the directions, paid the fees, and pursued residency legally deserve their place does not equate believing that no one else gets anything. In fact, seeing the massive hurdles faced my own family made me acutely aware of how laborious and expensive the whole process was – and we were fortunate enough to have the resources to at least try.
For families trying to escape crime, violence, and poverty for a better life in the United States, these same obstacles are likely insurmountable. Even before this whole experience, I spent years working with immigrants in my community, teaching English as a second language, working at the women’s center, volunteering with kids, and it just reinforced everything I believed about the world. People are just people… everyone wants the same fundamental things: food, health, safety, a home, love. We take so many of these for granted, and these realizations reminded me again of my privilege – yes, I was getting kicked out of my country, my home.
But let’s be real… Canada is Canada. It is relatively close, I have lots of family here, it’s safe, and overall it’s pretty fantastic… I have no illusions about this. I have read stories about individuals in my situation who had been waiting for longer than I had for their residency, who had to return to countries they left when they were one or two years old, where they had no family or connections, and where safety was not a given.
A good friend of mine in the same situation as me had to return to South Korea, where he is now serving out the mandatory military service required for young men. Yes, this unexpected, shocking, and in many ways, heartbreaking thing happened to me, but I know that in the grand scheme of things, I am fine. I still get sad, mad, frustrated… but everything is fine.
Fast-forward four years. The memories of that day are still sharp; I doubt I’ll ever forget the feeling of having the carpet pulled out from under me, the safe little world I was living in being completely overturned. But Robert Frost explains it well: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
The year of my OPT extension, I had the opportunity to work full-time with people with developmental disabilities in Chapel Hill, and volunteer in a variety of clinics and schools. It was a wonderful year spent with fantastic people.
I applied to several grad schools and ultimately decided to attend McGill University’s speech-language pathology program in Montreal, because of its reputation but ultimately because of the cost (international student tuition being just too much compared to what Quebec residents pay).
When I went through customs that last time, I handed over my visa and all the legal connections to the United States that I had, but I was determined to stay positive and only look ahead to the great opportunity I was again being afforded.
I spent two years learning and experiencing a field about which I am truly passionate, made incredible friends who share my excitement and interest, and reconnected with my family here in Canada. I graduated, found a job, and now get to apply the knowledge and skills I’ve developed in my program while working with kids and their families, many of whom again are immigrants.
I miss my parents, my brother, my family, and my friends still living back “home” in NC (and those who have moved elsewhere as well!) but I recognize that the life I left behind is not the one that I would find if I were to move back.
For now, I love Montreal and have no immediate plans to leave. Life continues to be unexpected, with its continuous series of ups and downs, but I will never cease to be grateful for all that I have and humbled by my experiences at this point in my life.
I hope only that others, in hearing this one story (and certainly not the only one of its kind), gain some insight on the extremely complex reality of immigration and consider these issues with a broader worldview and a little more compassion the next time a discussion comes up.
Contact Cynthia on her personal website whatnowcynthia.