I’m listening to attorney Eleanor Adams, who’s been practicing immigration law locally for 25 years. By phone, she’s outlining, breathlessly, our labyrinthine federal system of percentage quotas, monthly resets, and congressional reform proposals for the two big categories of immigrants: family-sponsored (relatives) and employment-based (workers). As of 2009, immigrants composed 12.5 percent of the population — 38 million souls. A little less than half of those are naturalized; the rest reside here legally or illegally.
I dare not interrupt Adams: such a seminar is like a first-semester course at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.
Seventeen minutes into her monologue, I’m muzzy-brained from listening to her legalese: status, exemptions, chargeability tumble together like Cirque du Soleil performers. Finally, I find a space to enter: maybe, I say, we can take a step back and define legal and illegal.
“It’s very easy,” she says, “to say that this person is legal and this person is not legal — then you feel like these guys are the good guys and those guys are the bad guys.”
Adams says that when people come to her she tries to determine whether they have “potential status,” that is, they may have a legal case. Some people she helps “apply and are put into a court proceeding. Some go in or out of detention. There’s a lot who are in between. You get to stay so long as you do not fall out of status.” This limbo is your home long before you get that most prized possession, a green card, making you a permanent legal resident.
Here’s an example of limbo: A Mexican woman, a client of Adams’s, came to the U.S. as a child. When the child was a teenager, her mother, a U.S. citizen, applied for her daughter to stay permanently on the basis of hardship — she needed her daughter to care for her. The daughter received a temporary work permit or visa and was allowed to stay. But she cannot travel outside the country. If she did leave and reenter, she’d be detained and deported. Eighteen years later, the woman, whose work permit is renewed yearly, is still waiting, despite her being married to, and abandoned by, her American-born husband. Why? Adams says it’s the quotas.
Mexican nationals have one of the longest waits for dependent visas of anyone except Filipinos. Some Mexicans have been in America and idling, legally, since 1990. For Filipinos, only now is the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service processing those who applied 24 years ago.
Adams says that people come to her for a consultation; they listen; they nod their heads; they seem to understand. “But then a point comes when their exasperation erupts: ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ And then I say, ‘Ah, you do understand.’”
The moment of levity is such that we both burst out laughing.
Is it true, I ask, that we can label these folk “legal” immigrants?
True, she says. There are 4.4 million on the so-called waiting list (it’s an estimate, not an actual list), with actual or potential status. Forget the 11 million illegals whose plight the media and anti-immigrant politicians concentrate on far more than the plight of the legal. Though legal immigrants follow the rules, they are largely silent, fearing immigration officials will investigate their claims or send them packing. I know; I could find few who would talk about their status.
From the Philippines to Canada to America
One who did is Kare, a nurse in her mid-30s, who asks, her voice as thin as Bible paper, that I use no identifying details about her, beginning with her real name. Kare spoke with me beside her lawyer, Harun Kazmi, an immigration attorney in the Kearny Mesa offices of Kazmi and Sakata.
A Filipina, Kare came to San Diego via Canada. Growing up, she wanted to go abroad because of low wages there and the high wages everywhere else. “Sixty percent of Filipinos want to come to America,” she says. After nurse training, she emigrated to Canada to work. (“I thought I would like Canada, until I felt those winters”) and became a Canadian citizen. But she always wanted to come to the U.S. To work. Not to be a citizen. To practice nursing. That was her goal.
Within two months of her November 2006 arrival, she was hired at one of San Diego’s two monster S-initialed hospital chains. She loves her job. Her boss supports her and reminds her each year to renew her temporary work permit: go out of the country and come back in at a port of entry with her job offer letter.
Immigration discussion with Harun Kazmi
Harun Kazmi, an immigration attorney in the Kearny Mesa offices of Kazmi and Sakata, discusses the process of becoming a legal immigrant to the United States, from a San Diego perspective.
Another reason she came is that under North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexicans and Canadians can come to the U.S. for job interviews as part of the trade agreement. The government classifies certain jobs — nurses, software engineers, doctors, scientists — as necessary to our economy. Half of scientists and engineers who have doctorates are immigrants. We simply do not graduate enough in those highly specialized fields.
Though she was given a one-year temporary visa and earned a driver’s license, hers is not a secure position. “Every year when I renew my visa,” she says, “there’s the possibility that I’ll be denied. I might answer the questions wrong.” This, she says, made her nervous, especially the first few years before her work experience here gave her confidence.
The irony is, “the longer she extends her visa, the more it appears” to Immigration and Customs Enforcement “that she’s going to be here forever,” say Kazmi. The agency starts to “red-flag” her, asking, in essence, what is her plan and why doesn’t she go back to Canada. Kare says that she intended to stay and work for five years but now wants to get a green card because “I love my job.”
We hear all the time about the nursing shortage. Hospitals fill the breach with nurses from other countries. Not a surprise, there’s also a high turnover in the field — the hours, the patients’ and the doctors’ demands, the emergencies — which means that Kare is needed more than ever. “In my department, U.S. nurses come in, work six months or a year, then quit.” Over-stressed, they move on to clinics where they hear things are a bit calmer. Another plus is that a shortage of nurses means the immigration-renewal process for temporary, noncitizen nurses is much less of a hassle. The government recognizes the need, says Kazmi.