Tuesday, April 09, 2013

We're all fine...here...now...Thank you. How are you?

I'm increasing my usual blogging frequency of a post every...few months...because I felt the current circumstances warranted an update, now that North Korea's rhetoric and threats have turned to the foreigners in South Korea, a demographic that happens to include my family.

You see, my family has planned more of the usual tomorrow: I'm teaching a bunch of classes, Lucas is going to school where they're making ham sandwiches for "Cooking Day", and Carlos is working out after I get home.  We'll bake a chicken and some pita bread for dinner. We may even watch a movie in the evening! However, if you checked the CNN headlines today, you might be concerned that we may be choosing the wrong course of action...

Based on this  headline, we would be better off staying home, purchasing airline tickets and packing for a hasty departure. But this is not the plan. Why? Because we believe there are other perspectives to look at besides the US media, which, after all, is based an entire continent away. The story is a bit different when you instead turn to local Korean news sources in English. For example, the Korea Times, this country's oldest English-language news source looks like this right now:

In this report, North Korea's young, fresh dictator is viewed as a combative character straining to prevent an Arab Spring redux with his own long-oppressed subjects. The writer Kim Tae-gyu explains:

“With the North revamping unease everyday with warlike rhetoric, tensions are very high on the Korean Peninsula. But the consensus is that the primary target audience of the tough talks is North Koreans,” said a Seoul analyst who asked not to be named.

“Kim seemingly wants to maximize the sense of impending crisis through recent provocative activities. Having standoffs with outsiders is a good way to reduce internal conflict.”
In other words, Kim Jong-eun is doing this to keep his population united in the cause of standing strong against the US and South Korean forces and fortifying their nuclear arsenal rather than paying attention to their own poverty and hunger.

Meanwhile, the Korea JoongAng Daily is concerned primarily with the economic consequences of North Korea's decision to tentatively shut down operations at the joint Korean industrial complex just north of the border.

No talk of mass evacuations, no urging foreigners to swarm their embassies or find bomb shelters. Why the drastically different treatment of the current situation?

Maybe some of the answer comes from the perspective detailed by Andrei Lankov, one of the worlds leading scholars and experts on Korean relations. Rather than ratings-hungry media and US military experts, I appreciate hearing from someone who has studied the peninsula in detail for decades and has lived for a significant amount of time on each side of the border.

In an interview last week, Mr. Lankov felt that North Korea's current threats would be best ignored. He points out that when North Korea has warned of attack, they never actually have, and when they've actually attacked, it was with no warning at all. When asked why he thinks it sounds so serious this time, he says:
For many years, actually for decades, North Korea has played the same trick, which until recently has worked well. First, they manufacture a crisis. They behave pretty much like they're behaving now. They drive tensions high. And sooner or later, the international community and the major players begin to feel unwell and tense and insecure. At that point, North Koreans suggest to start negotiations, and they extract aid and other concessions in exchange for their willingness to return to the status quo...This approach, these tactics have worked perfectly well for many, many years, but recently it's losing its efficiency, because the outside world, above all the United States, have finally learned how it usually works with North Korea and they are not really rushing with money and concessions. And this is what North Korea wants above all: money and concessions from the outside world. So, obviously, it's quite possible that the North Korean decision makers decided to go really seriously loud this time.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Seoul is maintaining its security message from last week, explaining that they perceive no imminent threat to US citizens located in South Korea. Carlos and I are registered with our respective embassies and we're watching for any information that would indicate the need to take action, but for now, we're fine!

So there it is, folks. That's why our main concerns at the moment center on the return of the warm weather (please!) and what family-friendly movies are on TV tomorrow night.

*P.S. Bonus points if you can identify the source of the quote that makes up the title of this post. :)

Monday, April 01, 2013

How South Korea is dealing with North Korea's threats

South Korean high schoolers' response to North Korea declaring war on the country where we live:
Play an elaborate game of playground tag and help the foreign kid build a sand volcano. 04/31/2013
I'm hoping to squeeze this post in during March in an attempt to build some kind of blogging momentum, but then again we all know that working full-time while raising two kids in a foreign country can kind of present some obstacles to that goal. So today I am planning to talk about the everyday South Korean response to North Korea's increasingly threatening rhetoric this past week.

But let's start with some good news, shall we!?

Just a few weeks ago, the US Department of State very quietly slipped in a new amendment into one of the policy manuals used by immigration officers. It just came to our attention last weekend. Basically, it is providing an exception for the lifetime ban that currently has us exiled from the US, in cases where the intending immigrant was a minor at the time of the false claim incident. It lays out some conditions that must be met, so it's not an automatic cure, but this is quite possibly the miracle we've been praying for. Our lawyer has been on top of this, and is ready to submit our arguments for why the exception should apply to us. Now all that stands in the way is me collecting the evidence of hardship for the waiver packet and then we should be on our way. We won't start any celebrations until Carlos has a visa in hand, but for the first time in all these years, it feels like there could be a tangible, realistic process for us. It might take a very long time, but anything is an improvement on a lifetime of exile. It's exciting. And overwhelming!

Carolina is officially a legal resident of South Korea
In more day-to-day news, life is kind of settling into a routine now for our family. I enjoyed about 75 days of maternity leave under Korea's generous maternity leave policies, during which time we busied ourselves learning how to work a newborn into the family routine, and spent time going to the US Embassy and Korean immigration to make sure this child is properly documented. Now that I'm back at work, she and Daddy have worked out a smooth and peaceful daily schedule, and save for some harried days at the beginning where she refused to drink from a bottle, there have been very few complications. I feel like my current attempts to navigate work, family, immigration, and my own basic physical needs (like sleep) present a massive challenge but so far I'm doing OK. Having a husband to help out makes a huge difference!

So the main purpose of this post is to present our perspective on the escalating tensions with North Korea. Being that we live about 45-50 miles from the country that's threatening to point missiles at my home country and at the country where we currently live, there could be reason for concern. I'm going to try to explain why I don't think too much concern needs to be spent on us.

For one thing, the treatment in the Western media may just be quite a few notches more shrill than it is in Korean media. Even the most foreigner-ized media outlet in Korea has taken a more same-as-always approach to these developments. Today's headline is not actually about North Korea's threats, but rather the verbal sparring going on over the joint North Korean-South Korean industrial complex just north of the border. The fact is, South Korea has been getting threatened by North Korea for decades, and everyone's really used to it being lots of talk, very little action. The picture at the top of this post pretty much embodies the reaction here.

For another thing, it's the Spring. This is when the US and Korean military forces do their big public military exercises every year. We remember this from last year. More jets and helicopters fly overhead, cargo choppers ferry supplies between bases, and apparently this year the US felt the need to do a B-2 bomber rehearsal. But the point is, this stuff is done every year, and every year North Korea decries the display of strength being flaunted by these exercises. Last year, we didn't hear about it as much because Kim Jong-un was freshly installed and probably too green to start the kindling on an international incident. Now that he's gotten comfy in his new role, it's time to start up the warmongering lest his subjects doubt his sincerity.

Panic. Just pandemonium in South Korea on Sunday. Oh, wait...
This New York Times article gets into some of the other things that may be of greater concern coming out of North Korea right now. Ultimately, the ones I most feel concerned for are the members of the US and Korean military, the people who live on base, the ones most likely to actually be impacted by any military skirmishes that come out of this. Also, the residents of the lesser-known islands closest to the border, where some of North Korea's demonstrations have resulted in the loss of regular citizens' lives. Finally, the North Korean people who have lived for generations in extreme poverty and near-starvation, pitted against each other for survival and forced to participate in public demonstrations of support for their leader or face torture, food deprivation, or even death. Those are the people most in need of our prayers for peace right now.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Let no man divide what God has put together (Mark 10:9)

a symbol of the vows we took on May 12, 2007

In the days leading up to Valentine's Day, there tend to be lots of events and lively public discussion about marriage. For example, today is National Marriage Day, and there is a growing international movement to make the week surrounding February 14 International Marriage Week, a week to celebrate marriage and promote its health and survival. In fact, last year several Congressmen in the House of Representatives spent 45 minutes reinforcing the benefits of marriage and the need for a National Marriage week. During that time, they said things like the following:

"...It should always be our goal to keep that family unit together, and to hold that bedrock of our society together...And this is something that we can build on that will benefit our society." ~Rep. Gregg Harper

and this
"National leaders should be encouraging stable family formation, not redefining marriage. I call upon Congress to recognize the intrinsic good that results to all of society when husbands and wives strive to uphold their marriage vows and raise children in loving and stable homes." ~Rep. Doug Lamborn

So Congress, for over five and a half years, my husband and I have been striving to uphold the marriage vows we declared in English and Spanish before God, our parents, siblings, and other dear family members and friends in Illinois. Sometimes this meant staying true to each other and supporting each other across borders. Sometimes it has meant leaning on each other as we attempt to bring up a family in a totally foreign culture. It meant living some of our most precious family moments through Skype, including our son's birth, birthdays, Father's Days.  For these five and a half years, it has meant constantly weighing our individual needs against the long-term survival of our family unit, and choosing to sacrifice accordingly. We've done all we can to keep our family intact. And it has been painful and difficult, all because of the challenge of having one member of our family legally forbidden from entering my country for the rest of our lives. So Reps. Harper and Lamborn, we could really use voices like yours, who are so passionate about the benefits of marriage, to also defend our marriage when it comes to laws passed in your halls.

Family time, the legal way, 2008
"And let me just say, as a government as well, marriage is a big deal to us because there's a direct correlation: The weaker our families are, the more government has to stand up and provide services. The stronger our families are, the less there is a need for government. You'll see it in law enforcement. You'll see it in social services. You'll see it in food stamps. On and on and on, the stronger our families are, the less government we need. And as our families collapse, we have an acceleration of government to try to fill in the gaps. It is this uniting aspect of our culture--white, black, Latino, Asian, American Indian, every race, faith. Family is the key, and marriage is the essence of that." ~ Rep. James Lankford

Rep. Lankford and his colleagues go on to detail the statistics relating to children who grow up in a home with a stable, healthy marriage: ranging from lower drug use, crime, and teen pregnancy rates to higher indexes of emotional, psychological, and even educational stability. They echo the sentiment that stronger families have less need for government intervention or support in their lives. In my experience interacting with other US citizens affected by legal obstacles to their spouse's presence in the US, this is absolutely the truth. Families that were economically stable, making steady payments on their mortgages, seeing their kids thrive in school and church, participating in their communities? They gradually find themselves relying on the government for support when the primary breadwinner is forced to leave or chooses to leave in an attempt to "do the right thing". Kids that were confident and stable suddenly begin to act out, perform poorly in school, require special services to stay afloat.

Immigration policy is seeing some remarkable changes right now, and many of those seek to make it easier on families affected by immigration, especially where children are involved. Even so, many of these changes overlook families like mine, in which the non-US spouse has already left the US. They especially overlook those who fall in those often-overlooked cracks in the law; the laws that impose lengthy bans and no chance to plead out for people who have committed immigration infractions that don't even register on the criminal spectrum of law, sometimes when they were too young to even have a say in such a thing, as is the case for my husband. Our families suffer, our marriages experience excessive strain, our children suffer the effects of an absent parent in many cases. 

In my last post, I said I would be breaking down the stirrings in the immigration world that have changed the game and made the news in recent months, and here's where I'll talk about all of that. The following is about to get all immigration law-heavy as I explain what's been going on with those changes, so feel free to skip if this stuff makes your head spin!

Lockbox Filing - Last spring brought a new streamlined and centralized process for filing waivers (for those eligible to do so), which also opened the door for us to perhaps appeal our case, as it removes the US consulates/embassies from the equation and allows families with obscure legal obstacles like ours to make our appeals directly within the US.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) - The summer brought a policy change that offered people like Carlos who were brought to the US as children the opportunity to stay, attend school, and work in a temporary situation free from the threat of deportation. Unfortunately, the policy cut off the age limit just a few months from Carlos' birthdate, so he couldn't have benefited even if we had remained in the US, and of course, by leaving the US, he removed himself from the possibility of ever being able to take advantage of a policy like that. 

Provisional Waiver - During the fall came the development of this groundbreaking policy which will impact thousands of families in the US when it kicks in next month, by allowing them to have their immigration violation bans waived before they even leave the US to interview for their visas, rather than the old program which caused US citizen families to have to choose international separation or temporary relocation of the whole family outside the US for an indefinite amount of time while waiting for their inadmissible immigrant spouse to be approved for their visa. Once again, we can't benefit from such a program since we're already outside the US, and it doesn't remove the issue of the alleged false claim of citizenship that stands in our way of any progress with immigration or waivers.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform - Finally, this winter there is a lot of excitement over potential immigration reform in Congress, after over ten years of virtual impasse on that front. Right now there are lots of proposals and plans; some from the House, some from the Senate, and President Obama has also declared his own ideas. Of course, before we see actual reform, the Senate and House will need to come to a common understanding, and most likely it will need to incorporate the central tenets of the President's plan. Needless to say, that's a lot of work and a lot of cooperation for a Congress that so far has struggled pretty mightily to agree on anything, let alone something of this importance and magnitude. So even passing any kind of meaningful reform is a long battle, and nobody can say right now whether such reform will include families like ours. Some reports indicate that an old legislative proposal from 2010 might be re-entered into the conversation, and if so, that particular bill DOES help families like ours. Right now, the conversation seems to center on the big and dramatic talking points like border enforcement, visas for those in STEM careers, temporary worker visas for the agriculture industry, penalties and the question of citizenship for those currently present unlawfully in the US. Outliers in the law like our situation are unlikely to factor heavily in these debates, and the legislators debating these issues often have very little understanding of the intricacies that exist on that front. That's why we need people advocating for families like ours to be included.

So this week, as so many celebrate love, or make frustrated declarations related to the lack thereof in their lives, I am immensely grateful that I have not only been blessed with a lifelong partner, but that I also have the ability, at the moment, to live in the same country with him. Still, our children's long-term livelihood and our own economic stability are in peril as long as laws remain on the books that force me to choose between my country and the man I promised to spend my life with. A government that values marriage should not be permitting laws that leave responsible, caring, morally upstanding people in separate countries from their US citizen spouses and children with no way to work towards returning to them.

We are among these US citizen-immigrant families,
 sticking it out despite the legal obstacles

And although I have wearied of the battle, the advocacy, the petitioning, the writing, calling, faxing, lobbying, I'm thankfully in league with some wonderful people who have the fire to renew the push for families like ours. They've written a petition and are gathering support for the cause to make it more possible for families like ours to overcome the long-term immigration bans that are preventing us from thriving together in the US. So please, check out this petition and if you agree, sign it. And then, feel free to ask your elected officials to support marriage, all marriages, including ours!

Saturday, February 02, 2013

2012...a bit late

OK, so it's officially February and I've been working on the following post for over a month now. But I have a pretty good reason for the delay, I think!

2012 was a remarkable year for our family. It's the first calendar year we've spent completely living in Korea, and the first we've spent living together as a family. While 2011 brought the newness and adjustment of being a complete family for the first time, 2012 was a chance to settle in and make this "normal".

And although we started 2012 as a family of three, we finished it as a family of four. Welcome to the world, baby Carolina Violetta.

Failed passport photo #27.
Turns out this is harder to do with a newborn than a 3 month-old. 

The day of her birth was a truly remarkable one in every way and totally warrants its own blog post which I'll hopefully get to soon...er...sometime this year.  Suffice it to say it was a major adventure and we're glad it all worked out as well as it did!

Carolina's a great baby, Lucas has taken to his big brother role so well, and they absolutely love each other, as evidenced by this photo.

While busy in the kitchen, I asked Lucas to keep the baby entertained for a few minutes. I went in to check on them awhile later and this was the scene I discovered.

2012 also marked the re-opening of our immigration case. We filed directly with the Seoul embassy this time, a very smooth and speedy process compared to filing from inside the US. There were several lags due to my own dragging of feet in document gathering and such, but the petition (Step 1) was approved in about a month and then we were able to schedule the interview the moment we were ready, and we interviewed about 3 weeks after setting the date, so really a fast process. The interview itself went almost as expected - same result as our Ciudad Juarez interview in 2008, but the whole experience was much friendlier and much more pleasant. Thus, 2013 will bring the next stage, in which we attempt to bring the fight to the government in hopes of having someone recognize how senseless it is for Carlos to be banned for life.

Post-visa interview. Carlos and Lucas hanging out in Insadong, one of the more traditional districts in Seoul.
There are lots of stirrings in the immigration law and policy world right now, too. Every time one of these changes hits the news, I get lots of excited emails and messages from friends wondering if we will benefit. Believe me, if ever there is a law or policy change that directly offers us the chance to return to the US, I will proclaim the news loud and clear on this blog! Even so, as each obstacle gets knocked down for others with immigration complications, it renews hope that someday we'll get our chance. I had started to outline all these changes here, but I'm going to save that topic for its own post, so if you're interested in the immigration law and policy end of things, I'll be posting about it in the coming days.