I went to Niagara Falls once. I actually saw those amazing waterfalls from the Canadian side: water crashing down the side of a mountain, the spray more a steam, soaking you, like heavy condensation. And the noise! I wonder if that noise just becomes part of the background after a while.
We drove up to Canada in early June 2006, it must have been June 1st as my TN visa expired on the 3rd. 12 years later and June 3rd is still engraved in my memory, an anniversary laced with dread. We stayed at a hotel near the Hard Rock Cafe, having driven up from New York City in the company BMW, loaned to us for the occasion.
We hit a storm about halfway into the 6 hour trip. We had been speeding down the highway, making great time on the empty roads when the rain came down. Vertical sheets of water struck us from all sides, the type of summer storm that comes in with a bang, and leaves as suddenly as it arrives, blue skies in its wake. My friend and manager, who was driving, navigated it like a pro race driver, only the whitened knuckles gripping the steering wheel blew his cover. We still made it to Buffalo in good time despite the Pennsylvania storm hiccup.
We had a laugh, and we saw Niagara Falls. It was an adventure. I just wish I had been able to appreciate it rather than stress out about whether my visa would be renewed the next day or not. Too many experiences marred by an overhead, looming anxiety for something I had no control over. I have to search deep into my memory for the sound of crashing water and the mist rising from everywhere, coating everything is a glistening humidity. But I don’t need anything to remind me of that ball of angst that had taken up residency in my stomach, because it’s still there, it will always be there as long as I live in this country.
The next morning we drove up to border control. I handed my papers over: passport and visa, diplomas and work papers, and the border patrol official sent me to the office and denied my visa. Just like that. I didn’t have an evaluation of my French university diploma in English, not from an INS-certified university in any case. Funnily enough no one had asked for this the year before when I arrived in NYC from the UK. The visa had been issued without that piece of all-important paperwork then. But that was a moot point, I was told that the NYC had made a mistake and that I would not be granted a new visa unless I provided this evaluation.
They let me back into the US as there were still two days left on my visa. We decided to move forward, as we were already at the border, found a Kinko’s that had an internet café section, and evaluated the situation. Remember, this was 2006, and we didn’t have smartphones, and it was a Sunday. We had really thought that we could just get this done over the weekend without missing any time at work. I can’t believe how naïve I was. We looked up the best place to get the evaluation done in the nearby vicinity (Toronto University was our only choice), and after a few phone calls I purchased an $800 flight from Rochester NY to Toronto (literally an across the border hop), booked a hotel room, and printed out a map of where I needed to go the next day to get that important piece of paper. And then I was on my own.
I was so lucky I had recently been approved a line of credit, because if I hadn’t had that extra cash there is no way in the world that I would have been able to afford any of that. My yearly salary was $34,000, and I lived in NYC. I was lucky to have a few dollars left at the end of the month, let alone $800 to fork out on a 30 minute flight.
Coming into Canada was a breath of fresh air, the passport control manned by smiling individuals who said “welcome home”. Maybe I should have just stayed in Toronto. I remember it as colorful, warm, like a smaller version of NYC.
I ate at the hotel restaurant, alone, too nervous to read or write, longing for a drink, but replacing it with a packet of cigarettes instead. I needed to keep a clear head. I had an early night, stomach in my heart. In the morning I took a bus to the university, and paid $320 to fast track my evaluation, begging them to do it within a few hours rather than a day or two. There was no guarantee I was going to make my flight back to the US later that day, no guarantee they would be able to find the time to do it.
I drank coffee in a little cafe, en terrasse, unable to enjoy my second time in Canada in two days, a country of which I am a citizen thanks to my father, but have to this day only visited three times. That day luck was on my side as I received a phone call a few hours later, picked up my evaluation, and headed back to the airport with my heart pounding in my chest.
When you fly to the US from Canada border control is in the airport before you board the airplane. I was practically waved through, new visa in hand, although the weekend had cost me well over a thousand dollars... My manager and friend, the one who had accompanied me initially, fought for me with the company and managed to get them to reimburse half of the flight but they honestly should have paid for the whole thing. The visa I was on was a TN visa, a temporary visa available to Canadians and Mexicans who do jobs that an American can’t. So for example, as someone who speaks multiple languages fluently my company could have written up a really good job description of why I was providing necessary work that someone else couldn’t do. But no, instead they had my job title down as something they deemed to be technical work only I could perform. A job title that had nothing to do with what I actually did do. Luckily for me no one asked me about my job that time, they just stamped the visa and let me through. My visa was denied the day before, and on the following day I was waved through, safe for another year… Nothing really made any sense at that point, but it didn’t really matter.
Being on a TN visa at that time required that I leave and come back once a year to renew my visa. The company I worked for hired many non US citizens, which is pretty normal for that industry. This meant that they had a set quota of H1B visas a year that they could request and if they could get away with another type of visa that’s what they did. With my Canadian citizenship and the fact that my mother was already sponsoring me for a green card some person in HR assumed a TN would be fine. I don’t blame the immigration officials for what happened that time around, they were only doing their job. I do blame my company for not providing me with the correct tools to renew my visa correctly. If you hire someone from abroad you do your best to ensure they can renew their visa properly. We aren’t talking about a small agency here either. I still remember the nightmares I had for years running up to June 3rd, wondering if I would have to stay in Canada and work from the Toronto office, have my best friends pack up my apartment, break my lease, look after my cat...
When your visa is temporary so is your life. How can you contemplate things like marriage and children when you don’t even know if you will be allowed back to your now home in a few months? How does it feel when the company you have been working 12-18 hour days for turns its back on you because they can’t be bothered to deal with something like getting you a more permanent immigration solution? You manage million dollar accounts but they can’t even foot an $800 flight bill? It’s funny because at the time I was annoyed, frustrated, and upset, but I just assumed that this is how it had to be. I was lucky to be in the US, lucky to finally be able to live in the same country as my immediate family. With hindsight I can see just how messed up it was. If a large corporation can’t navigate the immigration process correctly, then how can you expect the everyday individual to do so?
The following year I bought my own return ticket to Toronto, making sure I did it a few days before June 3rd, just in case. I stayed in a hotel by the airport, worked in my room on the Monday and went back to catch my flight on the Tuesday.
There was no waving through this time. The official sat me down in his office and left me for 30 minutes, and came back and sat there, staring at my documents and then at me. He had me explain in detail what type of technical manuals I wrote and asked me to provide technical words that he wouldn’t know. My brain felt like it had melted, zapped by anxiety, and I bumbled my way through a lame example involving a how to install a toilet manual. Even now I cringe when I remember, feeling 1 foot high beneath the gaze of this man, lying through my teeth, knowing that my luck had most likely run out. It hadn’t, I was finally let through to board my flight back home. On my third renewal I was told I needed to start thinking of a more permanent status, and by that point my nerves were frayed anyway. I couldn’t do it anymore. Miraculously my company had decided to file for an H1B as I suppose I had finally proven my worth, but the following year the TN specifications changed anyway, it became a 3 year visa and was renewed by the company attorney with USCIS without me having to leave the country.
When I finally left the job in 2011, completely burnt out, it also meant that I no longer had the right to be in the country. Six years on and I was still just temporary. I stayed because I didn’t want to leave, but at this point I wasn’t even temporary anymore, I was residing in the country without legal paperwork. By that point I didn’t even care anymore, my green card application seemed to still be years off and it just felt easier to blend into the shadows and live my life that way.
The more I write about immigration, the more I remember events that I let myself pass away as “normal” or “just part of the process”, when they shouldn’t have been. I have started keeping tally of certain numbers as I remember them. There may of course be moments that I have forgotten over the years too.
- Visas denied: 2 (one tourist visa on the grounds that I had too many ties – family – in the US, and one TN)
- Times I have been told I would be deported by officials: 4
- Amount of money spent dealing with immigration processes: thousands, both for me and for my mother
- Times I have been told I am banned from re-entry for a year: 1
- Amount of tax paid in the US: thousands and thousands of dollars (including the time when I didn’t have a visa or green card)
- Times I have been yelled at by officials until I cried: 5 (that I vividly remember, it could be more)
- Times I have been sent for secondary interrogation on entering the country: more than 20
- Times I have been threatened with the immigration judge: 2
It drives me mad when people sit around talking about the “right” and the “wrong” way to do things. There are no “right” or “wrong” ways when it comes to dealing with the US immigration system. The company I worked for had no issues fudging the truth to avoid having to do the paperwork for a more permanent working visa for me, the system was broken a long time ago, and it’s just getting worse and worse today. I suppose I could have paid someone to marry me, or married a friend, like so many other Europeans I know have done, but I was so afraid of adding even more attention to my immigration case and being denied. And if I married I lost my mother's sponsorship too. I was stuck.
While this administration and the media focus their attention and rabid rage on the poor, the refugee, the asylum seeker, and the person who is simply looking for a better life, instead of focusing on real immigration reform that everyone will benefit from, the system will remain completely broken. There ARE ways of fixing it, but it’s clear that those in power have no intention of actually doing that.