The Truth About Legal Immigration
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
In light of recent events, my current situation and all the stress and frustration that it has caused, I decided it would be best to vent in writing, and perhaps change some people’s perspectives in doing so. I’ll warn you, this is a lengthy post but I have a lot say so I hope you stick with me until the end.
I am an immigrant. I may not "look like one", whatever that may mean to you, and I may not sound like one, and it may not be permanent according to my visa, but I consider myself to be an immigrant. I was born in Como, Italy and lived in a small town called Merate until I was 15 years old. In that time I also lived in Rijeka, Croatia for two years. For the past 7 years, however we’ve been living in America.
Seven years. In the grand scheme of things 7 years isn’t that much time, but thinking back at my life then and my life now, it could not be any more different; I am completely different. To get into the technical/legal side of things, in 2012, after years of work, restless nights, meetings with lawyers and thousands of dollars, my mom was granted a five year E-2 visa. An E-2 visa is an investor visa, and a lot is expected from these investors as they need to prove that in the long run they won’t become a financial burden but are rather an asset for the country's economy and can contribute to it by creating jobs, more investment opportunities and what have you. At age 15 I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was that I could finally come live in America and my life would be as glamorous as all those coming of age movies I had grown up watching on TV.
Little did I know that as the child of the visa holder, my rights were very limited. My sisters and I can’t be issued a social security number which means we can’t get a job, open a bank account, take out loans, etc… As a teenager this wasn’t a big deal but it started becoming more and more of an issue when I got into college, which by the way my parents had to pay for out of their pockets since I was not eligible for any type of financial aid. I had to turn down jobs that not only would have helped me financially, but would have helped my career prospects. Luckily I was able to get a job on campus through my tax id number. This means that I’m not allowed to take jobs away from citizens but I can and have to, of course, pay taxes.
Whatever, fine. I still felt fortunate enough to live in the US, the land of opportunities where dreams come true if you are willing to work hard enough. And boy, were we working hard. My parents hassled day and night trying to grow their business while supporting their family and I worked tirelessly in college trying to keep my grades high so I could get scholarships, and build on my resume. Well five years flew, and soon our visa expired. Because my parents’ business wasn’t financially strong enough, our immigration lawyer suggested we wait to renew it and simply get an extension of our I-94 document.
For those who don’t know, the I-94 is the arrival-departure record card used by US Customs and Border Protection to keep track of non permanent residents and noncitizens exiting and entering the country, and is valid for two years. Since our visa was expired and we only had the I-94, we were not allowed to leave the country for that time.
Whatever, fine. It was not the end of the world that I couldn’t go back to visit Italy for a couple of years or take a weekend trip to Canada. It does not end here. My junior year in college, while still here with the I-94, I turned 21. Yay, legal. That’s true, but according to US law it also means I’m an adult or, “no longer dependent” on the visa holder aka my mom. Consider my little sister who was 2 when we moved. Is she supposed to go back to a country she barely knows when she's 21? This means that according to the law, children of visa holders are expected to return back to their country, leave their family behind and figure out life on their own.
Thanks to the I-94, however, I was able to finish college. As a matter of fact, I recently graduated in May summa cum laude. I worked hard, and have two degrees to show for it. Senior year was challenging. On top of my classes, rehearsals (I was a dance major), extra-curriculars, work and trying to make a plan for my life post-graduation, I also had to worry about whether or not I could stay in the US. This caused me a lot of stress and anxiety. I would wake up in the middle of the night shaking, and I constantly felt a weight in my chest. I talked to lawyers and the only advice they had for me was to go to grad school or get married. I’m 22 years old and neither of those fit in the plans or aspirations I have for my immediate future. I thought about switching to a student visa while completing my last year of college so that I could then apply for the OPT. The OPT, or Optical Practical Training, is a period during which undergraduate and graduate students with F-1 status who have completed at least one academic year are allowed to work for one year on a student visa towards getting practical training to complement their education. This would have been the perfect (temporary) solution, but of course because I came up with this idea too late, I wouldn’t have been able to switch visa status in time and would have risked losing my visa altogether.
So here we are, August 2019. I’m currently sitting in JFK, waiting for my flight to Milan. My I-94 expires in a couple of days (September 1st, 2019). My parents and siblings just applied, and were granted, a two year extension to their visa and despite the huge cost, it means they are set for a little bit. I, on the other hand, decided that since I have more to learn and experience to gain, will continue my dance training at Peridance Capezio Center’s Dance Studies Program in NYC under an F-1 student visa for a year. When the year is up, however, am I going to be back to square one? Am I going to have a job lined up able to sponsor me for a work visa? Will I qualify for an artist visa? Will I have to return to Europe?
I recognize my privilege. I’m a white immigrant from Europe. I’m not escaping poverty, I am not escaping violence. If I were to be sent back to Italy I would be safe and I would have a place to live. People always tell me, “Oh, I wish I had to go live in Italy.” Yes, Italy is a beautiful country. I love my country, and I’m proud of my culture. But I also love the United States and want to have a life here. I have built a life here.
Being an immigrant is very strange. You don’t really know where you belong. On one hand, I feel so out of touch from Italy were I haven’t lived in so long, where I don’t really know what’s going on socially or politically. On the other hand, there is America. Here I graduated from high school, learned how to drive, met my mentors and my best friends, my parents bought a house, I graduated college; my little brother was born here. I understand that there need to be laws and regulations but what I don’t understand in the blatant hatred and inhumanity for undocumented immigrants shown by the current administration and its supporters, or the ignorant statements of people who claim they should “just come here legally”. Being a legal immigrant is perhaps more difficult than being undocumented and requires time, luck and so much money which most people coming to this country in search of a better life, do not have. For most legal immigrants there is no path to a green card, or if there is, it is very complicated and expensive. I have lived here for seven years and just because I’m over 21 and my passport is red rather than blue I have no more rights than a tourist has. Americans should be proud of the beautiful and diverse country immigrants have created; rather than building up walls, they should be trying to remove obstacles so less people are forced to break the law. Without mentioning that most Americans wouldn’t be American were it not for immigrants.
So before bragging about your diverse heritage, think about the future American generations and what they will look like without immigrants. If the government wants less illegal immigrants, wouldn’t it make sense to adjust the law so it is not a complex and difficult and so there could be more legal immigrants? I’m tired of living with an expiration date in my passport and it’s time to fix the legal immigration system before talking about how to “secure our borders”.