Kicking off this guest post series with the first part of my own US immigration story. Over the next few weeks there will be all kinds of immigration stories appearing on this blog, and if you would like to see your own featured don't hesitate to contact me. This series is in no shape or form limited to the US, I am interested in featuring all types of stories from anywhere in the world.
When I hear people discussing immigration in the US I often hear terms like “the right way” and “the wrong way” being thrown around. Or that someone came here to steal someone else’s job, or on the contrary came to find a better life. It seems that everything is black or white and that there is nothing in between: either you are a “good” immigrant or a “bad” immigrant. So I’m going to tell you a little story about someone who didn’t come here for a better life, who didn’t come here because she was particularly enamoured by the country, and who didn’t come here to steal someone else’s job. Actually this person just ended up here and just stayed here for a lot longer than she had planned to. This story is my story and I feel that it is a perfect example of how everyone’s immigration story is different, how no one’s story is “good” or “bad” and how there is no right or wrong way. Instead of looking at all of the blacks and whites let us look at the greys and pinks and blues and yellows and reds.
I wasn’t the easiest teen, but then again who was? I dropped out of school at the age of 16 because I couldn’t stand being there anymore, but by the age of 18 I realised I actually wanted to be one of the first people in my family to earn a degree. So I sat my Baccalauréat, passed, and went to university. I loved university. French universities have an element of freedom to them and you are treated like an adult, not like an annoying child. Since you are treated like an adult it is also assumed that you will act like an adult (for the most part anyway), so I went to the classes I found interesting, winged my way through my first year exams and passed with flying colours. My second year was a lot more interesting, and the third year, my BA year, even more so. That was also the year that my mother decided to take her company’s job opportunity up in California. It was the year 2000, and while I was super happy for her to go, there was no question about the fact that I would be staying put. My life was mainly in France, a little in England my country of birth, but mainly in France. I had lived there for so many years, going through school and adolescence and everything you go through and more when you are growing up.
I had never even been to the States, let alone move there. I had a couple of close friends in California, but they had their own lives and friends, and I had no intention of starting over somewhere else. France, Grenoble, was my home. I flew over to California with my mother to look for a house before her big move, liked the area, saw NIN in concert, and came home, with no desire to move anywhere except into my new apartment by the train station in Grenoble.
I hadn’t considered how my fourth year, my MA year, at university would affect me mentally, how depressed I would get after 9/11, and also how spending holidays and birthdays far away from my family would take its toll. When I read through my journals from that period I can see how I withdrew myself bit by bit from my usual life, preferring to hole myself up at home, writing about Sylvia Plath for my thesis and listening to Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley on repeat. Something had to give and I decided that I wanted to move. All of a sudden I needed to see something different, not for the first time in my life and definitely not for the last. So, on the spur of the moment I decided I was moving to the US. I spent my last summer in France with my friends, signed my half of the lease over to someone else, packed up my stuff and sent it over to my mother’s, and got on a flight with my cat.
It was September 2002 and I was 24 years old.
You become an adult in the US on your 21st birthday. If you immigrate to the US with your parents and you are under the age of 21 you will automatically fall under their immigration plan/set-up/visa etc. My mother’s work visa was fast-tracked into a green card, and her immigration lawyer made sure that my sister’s was pushed through fast too, so that it came through before she turned 21 (this was before 9/11, a lot changed after that, understandably so). My brother was 16 when he moved over to the US and got his green card pretty much immediately too. I, as an adult child of an alien, had to apply for my own green card with no idea when or if I would ever receive it.
So there I was, in the US, with no ability to work or to get a student visa/pay for tuition (and my tuition in France had been free anyway) and no idea if I would ever be able to live with my family again. Even if I had decided to move with my mother in 2000 it wouldn’t have changed a thing as I was over 21.
I went back and forth using the visa waiver program a few times, applied for a 6 month tourist visa in London and got rejected immediately because I “had too many family ties in the US and there was no guarantee I wouldn’t overstay my visa or coerce someone into giving me a job”. I flew back to the US right after that and was immediately sent to the second room (if you have ever been there before you know what I mean, I’ve been there too many times to remember). I was yelled at, told that I was obviously working in the US if I kept coming back (I wasn’t, my mother was actually supporting me at that point), and that I was stupid to keep coming back. Then, after leaving me in a freezing cold room for 30 minutes, the official stamped my passport and told me that I could stay another three months, and after that if I came back within a year I would immediately be deported.
To be honest, I really don’t want to know how many “comments” I have on my immigration file. That wasn’t the last time I was threatened with deportation. It also wasn’t the last time I was sent to that “second” room.
I was totally and utterly depressed. I missed my life in France and I wanted to start a new life in the US, but instead I was stuck in limbo, with no real direction anywhere. I spent three months feeling lethargic and anti-social, forcing myself to leave the house, preferring to stay holed up inside with my cat, my books, my music and the internet. The end of the three months loomed in front of me and I kept pushing any kind of decision-making until the next day. Then my aunt, a world traveler who had settled in Israel, converted to Judaism and started a family there on a moshav in the desert, invited me to come over and help her with her two little children. At the same time my mother pushed me to send off my Canadian citizenship paperwork. My father was born in Canada, and while he was back in Britain before he could walk, he retained dual citizenship until he died. At the time if you had a Canadian parent, dead or alive, you were eligible for citizenship, even if you had never been to the country. It was a long shot and we were told could take a year or so, but there was no harm in trying.
I ended up living in Israel for well over a year, a life-changing experience, and came back to the US with more drive, focus and plans up my sleeve, and my Canadian citizenship was waiting for me on arrival. My original plan was to stay in California for three months, go to London and work there for a while and wait for the person I had fallen in love with to join me. The latter part never happened, and for the best as he proved to be as flighty as I always knew he was, but I did move to London and spent ten months there waiting to see where I would go next.
London was both home and away. I had my first “real” job after university (“real” meaning I worked in an office and was doing something that resembled what I had studied to do), I lived in a lovely house with really wonderful people, and I was able to spend time with my family in England whenever I wanted to. It was away because while England is the country of my birth it isn’t the country I grew up in. Familiar and foreign, and London was so expensive and big and hard to actually live in. I had kind of given up on moving to the States at that point and was just treading water in London until I could figure out my next steps (and once I had given up on waiting for the boy to make his way over to England I started to think about my future in a little more depth too).
To be continued... Part 2 will be featured at the same time, same day next week!