I am an immigrant.

I was born in England and grew up there.  At twenty-one I moved to the United States and have lived here since.  I am now a citizen of the United States, but my proof of that is a Certificate of Naturalization, not a Certificate of Birth.  By my Oath of Allegiance I must serve the United States when required, but under the Constitution I may never serve as President.  I am, and shall always be, an immigrant to this nation.

The Summer before my final year as an undergraduate, I came across a poster about scholarships offered by the Fulbright Commission.  I hadn’t really thought about studying abroad before that.  I had thought about post-graduate studies, but everything I’d heard about how that worked, whether at Cambridge or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, turned me off.  Seeing that poster, though, I had one of those “If not now, then when?” moments.  If I didn’t at least look into the opportunity of going to the United States at that time, I think I knew I never would.

So I submitted an application.  Of course I also had to apply to some graduate schools and take the GRE test, but the Fulbright Commission’s office in London was very helpful to me in figuring out how to do that.  In the end the Commission offered me a minor scholarship.  It was modest, but it would have paid for some of my travel expenses and I was grateful to have been offered it.  However, it came with a big condition: a ‘J’ student visa.  I was told that such a visa was issued only for a limited number of years and would require me to return to the UK after I graduated.  Since I wanted to keep my career options open, I declined the Fulbright offer.  By that time I’d been accepted by Princeton’s Physics Department and that offer included an ‘F’ student visa, allowing more flexibility once I graduated.

My first year in New Jersey, though, I almost fell afoul of that visa’s conditions, when I made plans to go home for Christmas and didn’t realize that I needed the school’s dean for foreign students to sign a particular box on the back of the approved visa application form.  Thankfully an advisor pointed that out to me and I managed to get hold of the dean for her signature the day before my flight.

A couple of years later I actually lost my visa paperwork and was in a panic until the school could replace it.  We foreign students had been strongly advised to keep it with us at all times, given the risk of detention and perhaps deportation even for those of us on legitimate student visas, so I carried my documentation folded up in my passport in my pocket everywhere I went.  At the time I was singing in a choir at Hunter College in New York, and after one rehearsal I noticed my passport lying on the floor near where I’d put my coat.  It looked like my passport had simply fallen out of my pocket, but to my horror I realized that my visa paperwork was missing.  Thankfully nobody challenged me on my immigration status because I wouldn’t have been able to prove I was in the country legally.

After I graduated and I was set to do some lab work while I looked for post-doctoral positions, but I needed to go back to the UK to renew my visa.  However, they were in the middle of changing their visa application process from requiring an in-person visit to doing everything by mail.  Since the Embassy wouldn’t guarantee a turn-around time for the application, which involved mailing in my passport and waiting for it to be mailed back, I had to change my return flight to the US, losing a month of work.  It was actually easier to get a new visa, a few years later, as part of a trip I had planned to India, except that the information on the US Consulate’s Web site was completely out of date so I had to redo all of my paperwork and get new money orders for the fees.  Then there was the visa I had renewed in Vancouver, except that to get information about the Consulate there, I had to call a particular number from a coin-operated pay ‘phone and have enough quarters to listen to the whole message at a rate of four dollars per minute.  A co-worker noted that he never knew the US Department of State used the same technology as ‘phone sex chat lines.

After over a decade of visa-related headaches, I was finally in a position at the University of Connecticut Health Center where I could apply for the holy grail, a green card.  The application paperwork took more time and filled more pages than my doctoral thesis.  The fees were more money than anything I’d spent on myself in my life until then.  It required a doctor and a lawyer.  I even contacted the office of US Senator Chris Dodd, who was a big supporter of the University of Connecticut.  I’ll never know of it’s anything other than a coincidence that the day after the Senator’s letter was sent to Immigration Services, my green card application was approved.

For all that the seventeen-year-long process of going from that first student visa to naturalization and citizenship was complicated, confusing, frustrating and expensive, I’ve been lucky.  The process gave me headaches, not nightmares.  I was never challenged to prove that I had the legal right to be in this country.  I had access to financial and educational services.  I have pension plans and I get statements in the mail accounting for the money I’ve paid to Social Security.  I could call campus safety or the police and never worry that they would be more interested in me than in the reason I’d called them.  Portions of the Patriot Act aside, I need not live in fear of unreasonable government intrusion.  I can go to Prince William County or to Arizona and the color of my skin will not prompt anyone to ask to see my papers; even my accent would be considered charming or cute, not cause for concern.  I look just like the majority of white Americans, but I am, and shall always be, an immigrant.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] ten years ago, when I was working for a university research group, I went through the long, difficult and expensive process of applying for a green card.  A large part of that, I realized, consisted of proving that I was a productive, contributing […]

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