return to Madison

April 25, 2008

I’ve loved Madison since I stepped onto the University of Wisconsin campus more than (gulp) ten years ago. I remember the gorgeous fall day my alum dad and a few friends visited the campus, a warm breeze flowing as we walked up Bascom Hill. I was taken with the details of the historic buildings, Abraham Lincoln overlooking the large swaths of green space, students hustling to class, or reading with their backs on the grass, chatting, enjoying what could be the last warm day, leaves gently falling.

It may have been, in reality, somewhat less idyllic, but in my memory it is like falling in love, the beginning of my first trip away from a home, the same sense I felt when I first biked the streets of Beijing, or sat in my mother-in-law’s kitchen in Mexico, taking in the earthiness of her homemade tortillas.

Places have always been important to me, immersing myself in the context of somewhere to which I am not accustomed. I grew up conservative and suburban, then moved to Madison, a place where liberal discussion and the sharing of ideas was the norm. Discussing environmental conservation or human rights was every day business. Madison was the sort of place where an east coast prep, a hippie, a hipster, a jock, a conservative business major, a few future beat reporters and an evangelical Christian would run a newspaper together for a year.

Last fall I couldn’t shake the idea of going to law school. I talked to a few law-student acquaintances who encouraged me to go for it, offering tips on studying for the Law School Admissions Test and applying to a top school like UW. I knew it was a long shot, and I was not confident.

After I took the test, recalling far too many frustrating minutes when a woman stricken with the flu coughed and sneezed her way to the front of the room, five feet in front of my desk, whispering under her breath, tic, tic, tic, I’m distracted, knowing the section was going terribly, the proctor coming to finally remove her from the room, she argues, I’m fuming, she finally leaves and her coughing can still be heard from the hallway. Then getting to the second problem on the logic games section and realizing it’s something I’m surprisingly unfamiliar with, after all my preparing, I was surprised. Leaving the test, thinking, “oh well,” Marquette will be good enough. I’ll keep working, I’ll get to live at home, yes, it will be fine. I almost didn’t bother to complete my UW application, thinking I had no chance. Then I got into Marquette in February and nearly sent a check to accept and hold my spot. A month later I received the shocking e-mail acceptance to UW.

In the myriad of thoughts and opinions I have had and shared with Fermin and others in the past six months, it boils down to the education, and the opportunities, and the environment. The weekend after I received my acceptance to UW I headed to Madison for the law school’s admitted student’s weekend, a mini-conference designed to help accepted students decide whether UW is the law school for them.

I shouldn’t have expected anything less than to be wowed. But I wondered if there would be a disproportionate number of 22-year old frat boys running around, or if all the women would be wearing power suits or if the professors would seem detached and boring. Not the case at all. Most of the other prospective students I met were not 22. Many, like me, were in their late 20s, some were married, and just about all were friendly and down-to-earth.

At dinner I sat next to a recent graduate who had started law school when she was 29 (like me). Her husband had lived in Eau Claire and they had commuted to see each other every other weekend for the first two years. She had graduated and almost immediately had her first baby, something I am quite likely to attempt myself, unless, like several other women I heard about during the weekend, I attempt to have a baby mid semester my second or third year. My impression from the weekend was that it wasn’t a big deal to be a 29-year-old married law student or even a 49-year-old married law student, and it didn’t seem like a big deal to have a baby during school. It didn’t even seem like a big deal to voluntarily live apart from your husband for most of the year.

The professors I heard speak on Saturday morning were wonderful. The first one mentioned how badly the school needs an immigration clinical program, and how there were so many opportunities for students to run with things they were passionate about. I got excited about being back in a classroom. I even got excited about spending hours in the law library, with its glass atrium overlooking Bascom Hall.

Much to Fermin’s relief, I came home without any more worries about commuting. It didn’t seem foolish anymore to keep our house in Milwaukee, which is what we both want anyway (with the market as it is, with all our stuff, and just because we like our house). And it all just fell into place. I scoured craigslist for an affordable living situation in Madison and found something nearly ideal – great location, cool roommate, free parking, very affordable rent with utilities included. My roommate will be an environmental sciences grad student whose fiance is graduating from the law school and will begin working in Waukesha very shortly. He will mostly be in Madison on weekends, when I will mostly be gone. They seem laid-back and cool, and I think her and I will live well together and become friends.

So back to Madison it will be. My dear friend Sara commented that I “glow” (like a pregnant lady I guess) when I talk about Madison. I have always loved it. I look forward to walking up and down Bascom Hill, attending classes with a laptop (technology has saved me from atrocious handwriting!) enjoying even closer proximity to two lakes, late nights studying, weekends back to life in Milwaukee and looking for my niche in the school. I’m not sure what my practical immigration experience in Madison will be, but I plan to blaze my own trail when the time comes.


the day I got into UW Law

April 21, 2008

I’ve been waiting to write this story for a while now. I thought I was waiting until May when I planned to tell my department manager (who reads and comments here from time to time) but last week an opportunity arose to tell said manager what was going on earlier… so here goes…

It’s early March, and I’m at a routine doctor’s appointment on a Monday morning. While I’m chatting with the doctor I mention that in fall I will start a part-time law program at Marquette University, which has some vaccination requirements. They decide to test me for varicella immunity so I don’t have to get needless vaccines.

The doctor leaves me alone for a few minutes and I wait for the nurse to come back and give me a Hepatitis B shot to finish out my series. I’m not good at waiting sometimes. I get bored and antsy. I dug my cell phone out of my purse and turned on the web browser, scrolling on the tiny screen to find any e-mails that had come in in the 45 minutes I had been away from my computer at work.

I see the sender name “Marilyn Johnson” among the new messages. I’m not even sure who Marilyn Johnson really is (because I now know the real Dean of Admissions for UW Law is a funny guy named Mike Hall, but Marilyn Johnson just might be his e-mail alias). But at that moment I knew she had something to do with the University of Wisconsin Law School. Marilyn had previously thanked me for my application and confirmed that the school had received my letters of recommendation and transcripts to complete my student profile. While I waited for my clunky three-year-old phone to do its message-loading thing, I was actually guessing it was either a generic mass e-mail sent to all applicants saying a) get that FAFSA completed, or perhaps b) thanks for applying, you are on our waiting list, or even c) thanks for applying, better luck next life.

To my shock, it actually said:

“Dear Laura,

I am pleased to inform you that the University of Wisconsin Law School Admissions Committee has voted to admit you to the entering class of 2008. In the next few days, you will receive the official letter of acceptance as well as a packet of additional information about the University of Wisconsin Law School.”

And then I said, out loud (loudly), as the doctor walked back into the room: “HOLY $#!%! It’s a good thing my doctor is cool.

Now, let me say that I am not being modest when I say I really didn’t think I was going to get into the UW Law School. I don’t think I am unintelligent or unworthy of attending into the school, but it’s the 30th best law school in the whole country for goodness sake. It was a very. long. shot.

During the whole process of deciding to “go for it,” studying for the LSAT and preparing my applications, I wanted to be as realistic as possible. I don’t believe that I can do anything I want if I try really hard, and I didn’t particularly like when people who knew nothing about the process would say things like: “Oh, but you went to UW for your undergrad,” or “but you have such an interesting personal story,” or “but you are such a good writer.” The thing is, those things usually don’t matter. The two main issues are GPA and LSAT score. But apparently at UW, it is actually more than that. And apparently those things are the reason I became possibly the last regularly admitted student to the 2011 class of the University of Wisconsin Law School.

Next up: Why I decided to go there.


embracing frugality

April 18, 2008

Despite the fact that I dislike my 30-minute each-way commute (and the gas it requires), it does give me the chance to enjoy one of my favorite free things in life: NPR News. For the past few months though, NPR time has caused me to really think about my economic choices. Listening to Marketplace every evening has given me a deeper understanding of how rough our economy has become, and moreover strengthened my feelings that the mainstream American habit of spending ourselves into debt is not only personally foolish, but ruining our society.

Although I grew up in well-off Elm Grove, my parents were not extravagant spenders. I don’t think they ever worried about buying food or paying the bills, but we weren’t allowed to go to the mall and pick out anything we wanted either, far from it. We had everything we needed and more, but our vacations usually involved long car rides, cabins and lakes, not flying, three-star hotels and amusement parks. We didn’t eat dinner at “sit-down” restaurants on a very regular basis and we certainly didn’t shop at high-end boutiques or grocers. We enjoyed our life, but it wasn’t luxurious. We had it good, but we didn’t feel the need to have everything new at every moment.

Strangely, (when you consider my upbringing anyway), the minute I started making my own money I thought nothing of spending all of it on clothes, food, entertainment, going to the movies and gas to drive my girlfriends around. I remember one year, perhaps 1995 or 1996, I saw on my tax returns that I had actually made more than $12,000, working part-time, at McDonalds, as a teenage high-school student. That seemed like an enormous amount of money back then, but the funny thing was, I didn’t have a dime of it in savings. Not a dime. I had spent it all as it had come in. And frighteningly as I look back at it, I didn’t learn any lessons during that moment. In fact the habits I got into as a 15-year-old McDonald’s grunt have basically stayed with me until, well, until a few months ago, let’s hope.

I blame this as much on culture as I do on my own lack of personal responsibility. The fact that most people my age who come from similar backgrounds are simultaneously finding themselves in this predicament leads me to think there has to be at least some collective reason. For those of us who were raised by financially responsible parents, the sort that put things on layaway when they couldn’t afford it, who didn’t scoff at hand-me-downs and occasionally shopped at rummage sales, it amazes me that we all turned out so self-indulgent. How is it that there is so much credit card debt per person in this country? How do so many of us spend $3.50, or even $1.90 per day on coffee? How do we buy $200 jeans and $10 mixed drinks and $50 dinners?  My generation is used to instant gratification. Women in my demographic are marketed to like no one else. We have grown up taking in the indirect whispers of a thousand marketing specialists telling us that purchasing their product will somehow get us the style we see in Vogue or the domestic skills we see in Martha Stewart Living.

And the thing is… it’s not true. And that’s okay. That is my revelation for the day — The fact that I cannot remodel my kitchen this year: it’s okay. My kitchen works. It doesn’t have to look like something from Better Homes and Gardens. It doesn’t need stainless steel, granite or travertine to be okay. I make food in it. It serves its purpose. That’s just the most personal example I can think of, but this entire rant sprang from my morning reading of Salon.com television critic Heather Havrilesky’s “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Recession.”

Please read the whole article; but if you refuse, it begins with Havrilesky describing a trip to the grocery store, which is similar to one I had a few weeks ago: I was at Pick ‘N Save, and I came to the bean area. I saw a bag of colorful mixed beans (15 varieties, one $1.99 bag!) and I got excited about them. (This is counter-culture for me). I read the recipe on the bag for Hillbilly Stew (oh yes I am serious) and I immediately tossed the bag in the cart. My first bag of dried beans. All I needed was a can of roasted tomatoes, some carrots and celery, and I was on my way to a nutritious, ridiculously cheap meal that could easily feed me for three days. Now, the best bargain shoppers really do know that I could have gotten these beans cheaper at the Mexican market El Rey, conveniently located two blocks from my house, but give me a break, I am still learning.

This may not seem remarkable to some of my already thrifty readers, but last year I actually started shopping somewhat regularly at the new Fresh Market location on Bluemound Road in Brookfield, home to all manner of very upscale groceries. I also shopped at Whole Paycheck Foods. It was just so cool to shop at these places. So cool I just loved it so much and tried not to wince every time I picked up a few items that would last me 3-4 days, and drop $60. I do believe in spending a little more money to get good, fresh food, but to be honest, I also enjoyed shopping in a fancy store with all manner of expensive olive oils, organic oranges and fines wines to choose from.

Back to Heather Havrilesky is in the bean aisle — she encounters a woman who complains that a $2.69 bag of mixed beans very similar to the ones I bought that day) were too expensive…

“For the rest of my shopping trip, I try to think like the woman who refused to pay too much for beans. Four dollars for half a gallon of milk? Isn’t that obscene? $2.99 a pound for pears? Maybe my kid should try to develop a taste for apples. I steer clear of the aged-cheese-and-cured-meat aisle completely, fearing temptation.

This picture might seem sort of droopy and pathetic to some of my friends, who would feel as deprived as Haitian boat people if they couldn’t afford their regular $70 bottles of Erno Lazlo moisturizer. But honestly, I’ve found my newfound role as recessionary coupon-clipper oddly soothing.”

Yes, you know, it is so soothing. I’ll leave you with my favorite line from the story:

“I like knowing that I can’t afford to move and I can’t afford to quit my job and I can’t afford to think about the boundless possibilities that the universe has to offer, I can only afford to clean my own stupid house and eat leftovers and lose weight so the shitty clothes I already have don’t look even worse on me than they would otherwise.”


deporting Wisconsin’s best and brightest

April 15, 2008

(((sigh)))

I’m not sure, considering the recent increases in the rate of enforcement and deportation, that this story should surprise me right now, but …

“When Tope Awe’s parents told her she needed to go to the Milwaukee office of Immigration Customs and Enforcement last month, she and her family expected a review of her status, and thought she might get a chance to petition for a student visa.

The 22-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison pharmacy student had been brought to the United States from Nigeria at the age of 3. She had grown up and gone to school in Milwaukee and was now one year from college graduation.

Dressed in a suit, she came in from Madison and met her parents, their pastor and her brother, Benga Awe, 24, at the immigration office. An officer asked to see Tope and Benga alone.

“He asked us for our background information, where we were born, driver’s license, current residence, all that stuff,” Tope Awe said.

Then the officer brought plastic bags into the interrogation room.

“He said, ‘I’m going to need all your stuff. You’re being deported,’ ” Tope Awe said.

She couldn’t breathe. Deported. To Nigeria, a country she does not remember. A country whose language she does not speak.”

Read the entire article: Caught in no man’s land – by Erica Perez – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Unsurprisingly, students on the UW campus held a peaceful protest several weeks ago urging for relief for Tope Awe in particular. What the activists may not understand is that there are tens of thousands of students in an equally precarious situation — some may still live under the radar, but they are here.

Raised in the U.S. since their infant or toddler years, they may not speak Spanish or Polish or Swahili, but at the same time they have no legal right to remain in the United States, also the only home they know.

Both Benga and Tope will face 10-year bars for their unlawful presence and deportation from the U.S. once they leave. Benga, who is married to a U.S. citizen, has a chance to file waivers and reunite with his wife and young child in the U.S. Tope, a pharmacy student with excellent grades and a history of achievement, does not appear to have a U.S. citizen spouse, fiance, (and certainly not a parent), and therefore will be stuck.

If you read the entire story, you will see that the reason the Awe family has remained in the U.S. so long, after their asylum was denied and appeals failed, is that the father, Samuel Awe, has chronic kidney disease that has required several transfusions.

“In a February letter to ICE’s Chicago field office director, Dr. Paul G. Jenkins, a clinical professor at the UW Medical School and Samuel Awe’s doctor since the 1980s, wrote that he would not survive another move to Nigeria.

“Mr. Awe is a kidney transplant recipient and has been studying, living and working in this country for most of the past thirty years. . . . To force Mr. Awe to return to his native Nigeria would, I think, impose a death sentence,” Jenkins wrote.

(ICE spokesperson) Montenegro said health issues do not exempt people from obeying a judge’s order to leave the country.”


money talks in double standards

April 3, 2008

Imagine for a second that there is one visa available for entrance into the United States, and two people are vying for it. The first person is the foreign spouse of a U.S. citizen. The second is an artist looking to perform in New York City. All other things equal, taking into consideration the values and priorities of our country, who should get the visa? Think a little about that.

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Last month a member of immigrate2us.net reported that her friend’s husband, during an interview for a spousal visa in Ciudad Juarez, was informed that he was permanently ineligible for an immigrant visa despite his marriage to a U.S. citizen. His condemning “crime”: Years earlier, while living in the U.S. illegally, he was walking down the street when someone he was with offered heroin to an undercover police officer. I agree, it sounds bad, right? Well, the group was arrested, and besides the individual who actually offered the drugs, everyone was released with no charges, no fines, no penalties. However, at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, all that is required to ban someone for life is suspicion that they were/are a drug trafficker.

This couple was caught completely off guard. His illegal presence in the U.S. would require a waiver, which they were aware of, but they had no idea that an innocent arrest, with absolutely no charges filed years before could possible derail their case, and their lives. There are no means to appeal the decision or try again later. She can move to Mexico or another country with him. More likely I suppose, he will attempt to re-enter the U.S. again illegally, desperate to re-claim the life he thought he would be re-starting as a permanent resident.

Another friend from the forum, also married to a Mexican who once lived indocumentado in the U.S., is dealing with a three-year separation from her husband due to a related issue. They filed the same petitions Fermin and I did, received their interview date in Ciudad Juarez, planned to submit the waiver for his illegal presence and have him on the road to legal residency in about a year. Instead, because he disclosed very occasional marijuana in his immigrant medical exam, he was given a three-year bar on filing the necessary waiver. Essentially, three years of limbo, and another four years in Mexico when you consider he will still have to file the waiver and wait for its approval once the three-year ban is up. His wife, a student in upstate New York, went to live with him in his small, rural hometown for several months before returning to the university. Financially strapped, their lives on hold, they live an impossible marriage.

The reason I tell these stories stems from feelings of rage I experienced yesterday when I read “New Bill May Speed U.S. Visas for Artists” in the New York Times.

When it comes to artists trying to obtain visas, notorious performers like Amy Winehouse usually get the headlines. That British soul singer’s application to come to the United States for the Grammy Awards in February was initially denied, with speculation that the refusal was because of her alleged use of illegal drugs.

But as the House of Representatives voted this week to speed up the visa approval process for some foreign artists and entertainers, the heads of arts organization said attention was finally being paid to the real problem: the time, money and complexity involved in getting visas for lower-profile artists, including dancers, singers, musicians and actors.

“It has become a huge burden,” said Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, the renowned arts showcase that this summer will bring together 57 performances and events from nine countries. – Felicia R. Lee

I’m sorry, but in response to Mr. Redden, I would like to obnoxiously whine like a 3-year-old, perhaps rub my thumb and forefinger together and sarcastically comment: “This it the smallest violin in the world, playing a sad song for you,” as an unsympathetic high-school teacher once did to me. Seriously.

Now, I do realize there is a big difference in both process and purpose between getting an artist’s visa to enter the U.S. temporarily and a U.S. citizen spouse’s application for permanent residency, but come freaking on!? How is the House about to pass a bill that will speed up the visa process for artists and performers while citizenship applications are processing at around 18 months (preventing law-abiding, long-time permanent residents from attaining the right to vote)? While H1Bs visas (which allow skilled foreign workers into the U.S.) run out in mere hours? While some farmers are so short of labor for the 2008 growing season (because of crackdowns on undocumented laborers) that they are literally closing up shop? And moving their farms to Mexico?

With current laws dictating that the spouse of a U.S. citizen is not allowed to enter the U.S. ever again for just the mere, casual suspicion of drug-related crime, and handing down three-year punishments to family members who admit a recent history of minor drug use, we should not be re-considering the artist visa laws on the basis that they are “unfair.” If it makes us look like “fortress America,” as someone quoted in the full article stated, it’s because we are becoming just that. And perhaps if there were more attention to the devastating affects our “strong” and “secure” immigration policy, we might also see some humane bills passed that protect the rights of families to live together in peace.


am I privileged?

April 2, 2008

I found this interesting meme through Gabacha’s blog.

The premise is that you “bold” all the statements that are true. The more bold lines one has, the more privileged one’s formative years were.

Please note: The list is based on an exercise developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. The exercise developers ask that if you participate in this blog game, you acknowledge their copyright.

Father went to college

Father finished college

Mother went to college

Mother finished college

Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor

Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers – Social class? Maybe the same, definitely not higher

Had more than 50 books in your childhood home

Had more than 500 books in your childhood home

Were read children’s books by a parent

Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18

Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18 – swim, trumpet, voice, I don’t know if soccer counts. Not a slew of lessons for sure; I would say less lessons than many kids have today.

The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively

Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18

Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs

Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs

Went to a private high school

Went to summer camp

Had a private tutor before you turned 18

Family vacations involved staying at hotels – sometimes. More often cabins in northern Wisconsin though, so I’m not going to bold this one.

Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18

Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them

There was original art in your house when you were a childmy grandmother is a painter, so yes

Had a phone in your room before you turned 18

You and your family lived in a single family house

Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home – Maybe they had some mortgage left, but they were well on their way to having it paid off

Participated in an SAT/ACT prep course

Had your own TV in your room in High School

Owned a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College

Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16

Went on a cruise with your family

Went on more than one cruise with your family

Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up – museums, definitely, art galleries, not quite so much

You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family

Upon review, I’m not sure how much this particular meme really says about me. I didn’t actually bold that many of the lines, but I feel like I had a privileged childhood. Is having attended a lot of lessons really a sign of privilege, or overbearing parenting? Fermin wouldn’t be able to bold much on this list at all, and certainly he had far from a financially or materially privileged childhood, but he comes from a stable, loving family who did the best they could to make sure all their kids had what they needed.