Saturday, March 29, 2008

The truth about legal immigration in the US

An immigrant family arrives to the US at Ellis Island

A hopeful immigrant holds some of the paperwork needed for his spouse visa

OK, recently we've decided that part of the reason this blog exists is to bring light to some of the facts, myths, and injustices in the world of US immigration because our lives have been permanently affected by them.

So first, we've got to clarify what it takes to immigrate to the US. In the olden days, people could arrive to the US on a ship, full of hopes and willingness to work hard, sign their name to a register, get a medical check-up, and start a life full of promise in the US. It is no longer even remotely this simple.

According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are four ways a person can immigrate to the US:
  • Be one of the rare winners of the US State Department's Diversity Lottery. This only applies to people from certain countries (most of the world's largest ones are excluded), and requires experience in a particular occupation or academic training.
  • Get sponsored by an employer. Note: Only applies to high-skilled professionals in extremely specific fields, like certain doctors, scientists, researchers, or religious workers. The employer has to get special approval from the US government certifying the need for a foreign worker.
  • Be a very wealthy and successful investor ready to start or take over a capital enterprise.
  • Be immediately related to a US Citizen or Permanent Resident.
As you can see, this system leaves out a lot of people. It leaves out the British art school grad who wants to work at Starbucks, learn the culture and become a typical American. It leaves out the Brazilian architect who wants to bring her skills to the US for a better future. It leaves out the hardworking Bulgarian baker who has a dream of starting his own bakery in the US. And obviously, it leaves out the low-skilled Mexican and Central American laborers willing to work long hours in construction, factory work, or landscaping to keep the US economy afloat.

Probably not eligible for a US immigrant visa

Sorry, no visa for you, either!

For those fortunate to qualify under one of these four categories, entering the US is still often unreachable. That last category I mentioned, the US relative category, is a very common way for people to apply for a visa. However, even having a US relative doesn't often get you into the US on time to make much of your dreams.

Example: If you are a citizen of the Philippines and you applied for a US immigrant visa through your brother in 1986, you would still, to this day, be waiting for your visa. That's 22 years of waiting! (See the Visa Bulletin for this data)

In other words, for the vast majority of people on Earth, immigrating to the US legally simply is not possible.

While I'm not condoning illegal immigration, I simply want to point out how truly difficult it is for the well-intentioned, hard-working dreamers of the world to immigrate to the US.

For a more graphic approach to what is written here, I refer you to the incredibly clever flowchart devised by, aptly named, "What part of legal immigration don't you understand?"

Friday, March 21, 2008

And we thought CHICAGO was the Windy City...

It's a good thing we took all those nice photos of the city on Sunday, because right now it looks completely different. Monterrey got slammed with a surprise windstorm on Tuesday. No rain, hail, or precipitation. Just 75 mph winds and so much dust that the city's air-pollution detectors hit 10 times the danger level before they finally clogged and shut down. The city maintains its claim that there was no indication this was about to happen, so people like me and Carlos just went about our normal lives (or "Spring Break") until it became clear we were in the middle of some near-apocalypse.

The power got knocked out to nearly the entire city around 10 am. Then the cell towers went down, too. Carlos and I decided to go to the local shopping center (it's like a half-mile away and approximately 10 weeks old) to pick up some essential groceries. That's when we realized it was probably not the smartest move, as the outer perimeter of the mall had already sustained tons of damage, like blown-out windows, caved-in walls, fallen signs, etc. But, this is Mexico. Money is to be made at any opportunity and any cost, so the interior of the mall was still open and running on backup power.

We got our groceries and went home to discover that there ARE things to do in the absence of electricity, such as discuss the effects of pre-Conquest indigenous society on modern-day Mexican culture, outline useful rules for countable/uncountable nouns in English, and talk about why "Joey" was never a successful spin-off from "Friends". By the time night fell, we still had no electricity, no cell phone service, and fortunately we'd had the presence of mind to fill buckets with water earlier, because the taps were running dry, too. After an adventure in cooking by the light of a Pope John Paul II vigil candle, we were confident the wind had died down, and hopeful that our utilities would be back by morning.

When we woke up, we were just as utility-less as the day before, so we took the bus downtown to the central bus station, during which time we saw just how powerful the storm had been. Carlos has to find a new gas station, because the nearest one is currently squashed underneath its heavy roof, which evidently collapsed during the storm. Power was out at the central bus station, but we managed to get on a bus to the nearby border city of Laredo, Texas / Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. We did some shopping, and I briefly crossed the border to check out the other side. This was my very first encounter with the border, and I did not care for it. It's depressing to actually see and cross the line that has the potential to keep me and Carlos apart. Laredo, Texas itself is a strange place - I never once even spoke English there.

When we returned to Monterrey, electricity was still not working in much of the city, but fortunately it had reached our sector, and we were finally able to return to regular life.

All this to say, we're still doing fine here! Good luck to all the Midwesterners dealing with snowstorms (again).

Below, a video of the destruction. We had no idea.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A tourists'-eye view of Monterrey

We've lived here for nearly 6 months. It was about time we got out and saw the best it has to offer people when they're not busy working. See the pretty photos here.

We got started in the Macroplaza, which is pretty easy to do because it's huge. Here is the Palacio de Gobierno, the State Capitol building. Apparently important stuff goes on in here. I just like it because it's one of few really elaborate older buildings in the city. (1860s I think)

Then we wandered around the Macroplaza a bit more, and tried to get a shot of us with the Cerro de la Silla in the background, a shot we've been needing for a long time. This is the mountain that best represents Monterrey, due to its unique saddle-like shape.

We walked over to the Plaza Morelos, which is a gigantic pedestrian thoroughfare lined with shops. The shopping choices themselves aren't that spectacular, but the concept is pretty fun. Plenty of street vendors selling wrestling masks and Playboy bunny outfits, too.

We spent awhile in the Museum of Mexican History. It's a nice walk through the history of the republic, from the pre-Columbian Aztec cities, through the conquest, colonial ages, revolution, industrialization, and the modern age. Honestly, I think the Mexican Fine Arts museum in Chicago does a more fascinating treatment, but this one was definitely more detailed and informative. Gave us both a refresher on Mexican history, since it's been years since we properly studied it.

Next, we took a walk down the famed Paseo Santa Lucía, a modern engineering marvel. Last fall, the city completed this completely man-made river that stretches for two miles, with walkways, bridges and elaborate fountains lining the whole thing. In one section, restaurants have their outdoor seating right along the "river" as well. For 40 pesos a person, you can also ride a touristic boat for the full length. We enjoyed authentic homemade Jalisco-style ice cream, and were entertained by all the characters to be found along the riverwalk (not much different from Naperville's riverwalk in that sense).

Monterrey definitely has sights to see and entertainment to enjoy. It also has the benefit of having a very centralized downtown: the Macroplaza connects all of the major government and cultural buildings into one giant civic center. I guess this compensates for the total lack of proper public transportation here. We both agreed that with a good Metro system reaching all sectors of the city, Monterrey could become a truly world-class city. Hopefully someday...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Dream Deferred? How we've gotten here

We haven't posted it on here, but I think it's time to explain some things, like:

  • Why we left the US last summer
  • Why I had to return alone to Chicago for Christmas
  • Why we came to Mexico after the Barcelona adventure
  • Why we seem to be wandering with no country home
  • Why Canada has been thrown around as an option
Some of you know some details, others not much. So here goes.

When Carlos was a fresh middle school graduate, he was pretty happy in Monterrey. He was getting top grades at his technology school, dreaming of a future involving electronics, adventure, and travel to Japan. Like many middle- and upper-class families in Monterrey, his family frequently made trips over the Mexico-US border to shop, and those were the extent of his intentions in the US. But then, family strife caused his mother to decide take Carlos and his siblings to Chicago and live with a relative. Despite their anger and protests, Carlos and his siblings spent several months in Chicago and then the suburbs. Carlos did his best to adjust, but longed for his life back in Mexico. A complicated flurry of events happened after this, and by the time the dust had settled, Carlos' entire future had been permanently scarred by the way he was brought into the country.

You see, contrary to popular belief (blog post on THAT coming soon), people brought into the US illegally can't simply fix their status by returning to their home countries and asking for a visa. Nor can they fix it automatically by marrying a US citizen. And while generally, crimes committed as a minor are viewed differently than those committed as an adult, in the immigration world, age doesn't matter: you can be held to the same penalties whether you entered illegally at age 8 or 58.

Carlos' immigration story just happens to cross not one, but TWO grey areas of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1996. It happens that while the law forgot to specifically address minors in certain areas of the Act, the US consulate in Mexico has recently decided to apply its own rules and treat minors identically to adults. In Carlos' case that means there is a high likelihood he will be permanently banned from ever entering the US again, for something he had no say in whatsoever.

While we were aware of this possibility when we left the US, we weren't willing to sit around and wait our lives out, hoping for immigration reform or a new interpretation of the laws. Meanwhile, Carlos slowly saw all his possibilities slipping as his illegal status began to chip away at his adult life. Finishing college, building a career, even renewing his driver's license: suddenly all of this was being blocked from his reach. These major obstacles were the main reason we decided to leave the country. We weren't willing to spend the rest of our lives watching Carlos struggle as a half-citizen of a country who didn't want him despite his talents, education, great hopes, and complete lack of control over the country he was raised in.

Spain was our first choice, simply because it was a place we both had dreamed of living, and it seemed as far as can be from all the immigration turmoil of the US. Unfortunately, spending time there as a couple showed us it wasn't exactly the place for us to build a future. Immigration, affordable housing: these are prime topics there, as well. It could have been done, but it was a game we weren't willing to play.

So one day, while walking through the old center of Barcelona, we sat down next to an ancient Roman Wall for a long time and made the decision to move to Mexico. I had no idea what would be in store, and Carlos only had a minimal clue; he had only spent 4 weeks of his grown-up life in Mexico, right before we left for Europe.

We decided that we would try to squeeze out a living in his hometown of Monterrey while we researched and mulled over our other options. So that is what we've been doing these past few months. Meanwhile, we decided to take the plunge and put in the spouse petition for Carlos' US permanent residency, just to see what would come of it. Rules change, interpretations get bent. What they're doing now may not be what they're doing a year from now. We know things could go against us, but they also, in a very rare turn of events, could go in our favor, and we're curious to find out.

This process is long and drawn-out: it will probably be at least a year before we go to Cuidad Juarez for the immigrant visa interview where they will deny his visa and then, only then, inform us if we have the chance to file a waiver for his denial based on marriage to a spouse.

All we know right now is that Carlos is not allowed to re-enter the US until this process is cleared. If ultimately he's denied, we will try to settle down somewhere, once and for all, and someday solicit a waiver for an visitor visa so we can both return to visit family and friends, and glimpse the life we once had been building for ourselves in the US.

Carlos remains pretty positive about all this. I go back and forth. Sometimes I feel like we have the whole world at our feet and the sky's the limit. Our house in Mexico is great, the weather's warm, the food is good. :) Other times I just cry over the injustice of all the people like Carlos suffering for the immigration sins of their parents, and all the families being separated, scarred, and permanently altered by the current immigration laws in the US.

But on the brighter side, we have faith that all of this will lead to a strong future somewhere, someday. To everyone who has sent little emails, updates, and messages: We appreciate it more than you might think! Every little connection to our loved ones is a great encouragement! So keep them coming! We love you all!