Real people at the heart of immigration debate

August 28, 2007

Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Aug. 28th, 2007

One year ago, my husband, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, left our home in Milwaukee for his visa interview at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Today, after 11 months of waiting in Mexico, he is back, with a valid Social Security number and that elusive green card.

I’ve alluded to our situation before, particularly in May, after I left the immigration march on the streets of Milwaukee feeling that the energy and enthusiasm of the millions of undocumented workers in this country would never align with the feelings of hate and fundamentalist legalism that seem to drive our nation’s vocal, anti-immigrant minority.

I also questioned whether the Department of Homeland Security would determine we had proved enough “extreme hardship” to grant my husband a visa. For anyone still wondering, immigrants who marry U.S. citizens do not immediately become U.S. citizens.

A week after my May column was published, I received an unexpected letter, which gave my husband an appointment to pick up his visa – essentially, notice of our approval.

Meanwhile, the so-called grand bargain immigration proposal being discussed in Congress caught fire from all sides, collapsing as those who only want border security and mass deportations clashed with those who want a legalization program for the millions of undocumented residents living within our borders.

As the national debate deflated, my husband returned legally. While we were thrilled with the outcome of our case, I began feeling a dull sense of defeat about the prospects for a fair national reform to our immigration system.

As our lives return to normal, I’ve had a difficult time ignoring countless other families and friends who are stuck, in one way or another, because of both their personal choices and the immigration system that provokes and punishes them.

There is my husband’s distant cousin, Jose, an exceptionally hard-working and responsible individual, who has lived without documentation in the United States for more than eight years. At a party this summer, I heard him comment how much he had hoped for an immigration bill that would have allowed him to remain here legally. But as of now, he has no options.

Then there is Cindy, a young woman I met via an online immigration forum. Cindy’s parents brought her across the Mexican border when she was 4. She grew up in California and Texas and graduated near the top of her high school class. The only thing that kept Cindy from college was a valid Social Security number.

Cindy married her high school sweetheart, a U.S. citizen, two years ago. She is now a lawful permanent resident.

Cindy’s sister, however, just a few months old when their family came to the U.S., has no options. She is engaged to a Honduran immigrant, and although she has resided in the U.S. for all but a few months of her life, she has no opportunity to remain here legally.

These stories, sadly, are a dime a dozen. On a national level, the debate centers on the idea that our country is crawling with lawbreakers who strain the welfare system while evading taxes.

These myths control the debate and distract from the economic, social and cultural questions that belong at the center of the discussion over immigration laws.

Are we going to be a nation that erects walls – both literal and figurative – to keep the world’s poor and needy at a distance? Or could we attempt to embrace our history? Could we be a nation that embodies the principles inscribed on our most iconic statue?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”


regrets for a national failure

August 6, 2007

I was vehemently opposed to the so-called “Grand Bargain” immigration compromise during its short lifespan this year. I generally agree with this commentary and also feel that it would have made changes where they were not necessary, and probably would have resulted in the same long-term problems we have today. I am a firm believer that this nation needs more legal immigration so that illegal immigration is not such an attractive option, for Mexican and other Central American laborers, as well as for U.S. employers. I’m not a fan of any program that would bar unskilled, laboring people from this country, because those are the same sort of immigrants whose descendants are now me, and probably you.

In the last few weeks, however, I’ve mourned the opportunity the nation lost this year. During the weeks that led up to the bill’s death, resurrection and final passing (to the afterlife), I was too preoccupied with how bad the bill was to really think about the way less informed people might feel. (I don’t mean to sound condescending right there, but frankly, even I, fascinated and personally involved with immigration, had a hard time reading, analyzing and drawing conclusions on what the a bill resembling the “Grand Bargain” might have meant. I certainly do not fault even an average, liberally minded person for not delving into the issue to the necessary degree).

As the debate raged, we found out that Fermin would be re-admitted legally, and things have been looking up for those petitioning their unlawfully present Mexican spouses in particular. So while immigration is still real and personal, I wasn’t personally waiting on the passing of reform, rather luckily in fact, but the truth is, thousands and thousands and thousands are still waiting, and they were hoping.

And a few days ago that hoping came home a little bit for me again. I was reminded, so to speak. I live with undocumented immigrants, and their struggles are real to me every day, but I have sadly become somewhat used to those struggles, and the immigrants I live with are all so undecided about their futures that it would be hard to say they were truly disappointed when no reform that would allow them to pursue legalization materialized. Compared to many, they have lived in the U.S. a short time, and are therefore less attached to their lives here. But each day they remain in the U.S., the more complex those feelings become – my sister-in-law has a U.S. citizen child, my brother-in-law has learned to speak excellent English, they have jobs, they have parties. They dream of Mexico but do not return. Their lives are entangled in the politics and economics of two huge nations. It is complex.

But my husband’s cousin Carlos has lived in the U.S. for almost a decade. He speaks English and has adjusted well to life in the U.S., holding a good-paying job for many years. He has family here, a long-time girlfriend, a car, an apartment, etc. He is the type of responsible family person that would purchase a house if he could get a loan, but of course cannot because he has no Social Security number. He is smart and well-spoken and fun. And one of the first things I heard him say at the birthday party was a comment about Congress lamentably not passing any reform this year. He sounded disappointed. He looked disappointed. This good person is the type we are embittering with every year of inaction.

And it made me really sad. Carlos has no chance toward legal status in the U.S. without a reform bill passing. He will remain in the place he considers a sort of home until immigration authorities are alerted to his presence by some freak occurrence, or he decides to return to Mexico. Many Americans complain that Mexican immigrants have not assimilated, but I wonder how they can dare say that when we have refused to allow them to assimilate? If you had unclear, undefined, precarious status in another country, would you not find it difficult to love that place as a home?

Carlos is the sort of human being who will be an asset to any country he resides in. He is not alone, and his sadness made me sad. A birthday party is a time of celebration, but millions of undocumented immigrants are still waiting on some sort of reprieve from a country that has lured them with jobs, employed them without reservation, catered to them with elaborate, fully American marketing schemes, coddled them with home loans and tax refunds, but rejects them as citizens and members of society.

Yes, we’re back.

July 16, 2007

A little review:

As I mentioned before, everything went far better than expected on Tuesday. In fact, Fermin was in and out of the Consulate in less than three hours, which is very unusual. Most people seem to wait for hours and hours, only to turn in their passport and wait more hours while they affix the visa sticker and get around to giving it back to you.

One oddity was that he was not interviewed at all during his entire time there. He handed in the letter that said he had an appointment, turned in his passport and went to another area to wait, where he sat with Pablo, the husband of a friend from immigrate2us. Everyone else in the area seemed to be called up to answer a few questions like, “is your wife here?” or “did he/she come to visit you in Mexico?” and then told to wait a while longer. He was never called up, but after an hour or so they called a bunch of names and handed him, the friend’s husband and some others their new-visa-containing passports.

I was back in the hotel, thinking I might as well sleep in, imagining I’d have hours to sit on the porch of the Meson de Maruca hotel reading The Life and Times of Mexico while waiting for Fermin. About 10:15 a.m., just after I had gotten out of the shower and dressed, someone knocked on the door. I expected the maid far more than my husband, but it was him, and he had his passport in hand, announcing he was already done.


The friends I mentioned before had flights out of El Paso Wednesday morning, and were heading to cross the same border bridge we had to go to for the final fingerprinting and processing. We followed the other couple and hung out together in the building at the border while Fermin and Pablo followed the directions of an amusingly strict border patrol woman.

Imagine a waiting area ala your local DMV. There are a few signs, but generally people wander in with their residency packets and sit down somewhere in the chairs. As soon as one of the agent realizes these newbies are out of place, they sternly direct them to where they need to go. The family members (like us) sit in the back, and depending on how full the area is, another stern agent herds people “para atras,” as he sees fit. We were there for almost an hour, so after we say how the flow worked, we would watched amused as someone would wander in, sit down with their spouse in the line to get fingerprinted, and then be reprimanded and sent to the back of the room.

All in all, this part of the process was surprisingly efficient. Every time the lady would walk out with a handful of stamped passports, we hoped our hubbies were next. Then they were, and then we left. Fermin and Pablo walked across the checkpoint, while I got in the car and drove about 30 feet to the inspection area. There, the bored agents tapped my car, checked my spare tire area, and asked me where I had been and where I was going. They stopped to chat behind my trunk, and generally seemed to be taking their sweet time to get people through. It took at least 20 minutes for them to inspect the two cars in front of me and mine. So much for efficiency.

Our first stop when we crossed into El Paso was for food. Neither of us had eaten all day. We got off the freeway near a suburban commercial area and ate our first meal back together in the U.S., at the very exciting Nothing but Noodles restaurant, which is basically Noodles & Company Deux.

I’m leaving work now, so more updates later tonight and tomorrow.

dead armadillos in the heartland

July 7, 2007

So, I set out this morning from Litchfield, Illinois, and within an hour, spotted the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Mo. Oddly, coming from I-55, the first glimpse of the Arch is visible from behind a foreground, freeway-side landfill.


Since I’ve never been to or through St. Louis, I took the opportunity to hop off the freeway and snap a few Arch photos (but being the last person on earth using a film camera, this photo is borrowed from the internet). I really liked that I could exit the freeway and within a minute or two park near the Arch. I also observed that it’s much larger and taller than I expected.

I had originally planned to go up to the top, but a friend told me the little cars are claustrophobic and click in a manner reminiscent the ascent of a roller coaster. St. Louis doesn’t have a skyline that would seem especially magnificent from above, and I didn’t really relish the idea of waiting in the growing line of tourists to go up in a freaky tram for a so-so view.

So it was off across Missouri, through Rolla and Springfield and finally Joplin, where I got gas, and found a Starbucks, which at that point, made me very happy. A few minutes back on I-44, I was in Oklahoma, where I paid at least $10 in tolls to cross the state. At least the roads were pretty nice.

I thought Oklahoma was going to be brown, flat, and boring, but it actually looks a lot like Wisconsin or Michigan, green with rolling hills. In fact, driving through southern Illinois is far worse than either Missouri or Oklahoma.


I saw my first armadillo today. Actually I probably saw between 10 and 20. Unlike the one in the photo, however, every last one I saw was already roadkill. It would have been cool to see one wandering alive on the shoulder or something, as long as I didn’t have to swerve to miss it.

I called Fermin for some reason and asked him if he knew what an armadillo was. I pronounced those “ll”s as most Americans would, just like the L in my name. He responded, “you mean an ‘armadeeyo’?” I had to chuckle.

Yes, of course that is a Spanish word that has been adopted into mainstream American English with its own hybrid pronunciation. I almost never have the opportunity to read or use the word “armadillo,” so I had never really thought of it like that before.

Generally, I try to pronounce Spanish-derived words the way they should be said in Spanish, and other American-English words as they should be pronounced in American English. It’s funny because my name has a distinct pronunciation in both languages, and it sounds quite different. Fermin and everyone other Latino person I know calls me “Laura” as pronounced in Spanish, kind of like “la-oo-da.” The way Americans pronounce it, like “lora,” means “parrot” in Spanish.

Once, when he stopped at my house to drop something off for me when I wasn’t there, my dad commented that he didn’t think the person he was talking to spoke English. He said he kept saying my name over and over while my sister-in-law looked at him sort of funny. After I thought about it, I realized she probably first thought some man she didn’t recognize was in her house saying “parrot, parrot, parrot.” 🙂

It’s strange to be driving across America’s “heartland,” while heading to what will hopefully be the end of this god-awful immigration journey. It’s interesting to see town names like Peru, IL, Cuba, MO, and wonder how on earth a farm settlement came to be called the same name as major Latin American nations.


Tonight I’m in Wichita Falls, TX, just over the border with Oklahoma. Tomorrow I will head south and west across quiet, rural west Texas toward El Paso. More later.  

staying up too late thinking too much

July 1, 2007

It’s a shame that I’ve never taken a moment to watch the program Globe Trekker before, and interesting that the first one I’m watching has a feature on the pottery of my husband’s home state of Puebla, Mexico. I rather like this program. I’ll have to watch it again, but probably not at midnight on Sunday.

Yes, I know it’s too late to be watching television on Sunday, but I went downstairs to put my final load of laundry in the dryer, and realized that an hour before, I had forgotten to start the washer, setting myself behind a bit. I think I forgot to start the washer because I was on the phone telling Fermin a story, because before that I had been outside with my brother-in-law and my two-year-old nephew, watching some neighbors set off some pretty impressive fireworks in the alley. About two minutes into the “show,” my nephew inexplicably started crying. He was fine, and then all of a sudden, he just had had enough pops and bangs and sky-bound sparkles. He was calm and sad and mellow for a half an hour, until his mom came home from work.  This is the kind of story I sometimes call Fermin to relate, because I imagine he likes a quick image of what’s going on here.

And now it’s 12:27 a.m., and the fact that I got out of bed at 10:30 am is not helping my night-owl’s resistance to much-needed sleep. Back in high school, my bedroom was in my parent’s finished basement, and I used to roll out and climb those damn stairs well after noon some Saturdays, just to hear my father, the quintessential early riser, bellowing, “she rises, she riiiiiiiiiiissssses.” Let me tell you, I adored that.

These days, with my regular 8-5, M-F work schedule, I try to keep up my regular schedule on the weekends, but anyone who has known me for a while knows that I love myself some sleeping, second only for my love of the snooze button. Once in college, when I was living in a single, the power flashed and my alarm failed. I woke up at 1:30 p.m., my sunny room flooded with light for hours, having missed all my classes. No, I was most definitely not hung over. I had slept for well over 14 hours without as much as waking up once.

I bet that load of laundry is done, and I have just spent 30 minutes writing this meaningless post. But really, it’s difficult for me to produce anything of substance right now, particularly on immigration.

Life is heavy. It’s 8 days until our visa interview/pick-up, and I admit, more than at any other time during this process, I am very nervous. I spent all day cleaning and organizing — that’s when you know it’s bad. I’ve gotten some of our hardwood floors refinished, re-painted our loft, and am attempting to make room in our space for Fermin’s shampoo and razor and clothes. I’ve usurped all our community space in this year.

I’ve got the next three nights and all day on the 4th to get everything finished and packed and ready to go. Thursday night I’m tasting wine with friends, and Friday after a short day at work I’ll be on the road… through flat Illinois to St. Louis, past the Arch and on through Missouri and Oklahoma, and then many hours of west Texas.

Ciudad Juarez-bound. There the government decides, or has decided, our fate. We will begin our future as upstanding legal U.S. residents with good job opportunities and a house and car payments and student loans, or become Mexican ones, perhaps the sort who live poor and happy on a beach, if such a thing exists. Funny the way immigration has tangled with my nearly perfect life.

I guess that’s why I haven’t been able to comment much on what’s gone on in the news with immigration lately. It’s all too personal, it’s digging its nails into my heart and soul and mind and I’m not sure anyone in my state can really step back and be the analytical sort she usually is. No, not so much.

road trip (with maps!)

June 20, 2007

Well, as anyone who’s been around here awhile knows, Fermin (my Poblano Mexicano husband), has been in his hometown since August, waiting for processing of our I-601 waiver of visa inadmissibility. We were approved on May 4th, and I received notice on May 11th.

A star over Libres, Puebla

July 10, just a few weeks away, has his second appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, the sister city (over the border) with El Paso, Texas. I have decided to drive down for the appointment, stay in Juarez for the two days we will need to be there, and then we’ll take a scenic route through New Mexico and southern Colorado before heading back to Wisconsin. Yes we know it will be a LOT of driving, and that I am not saving any money compared to flying.


Journey I: me, myself, my Elantra hatchback, and my iPod.

I’m hoping to leave Friday afternoon July 6, drive to St. Louis, and stay overnight. In the morning I’ll take some photos of the Arch and drive for about 12 hours. I’ll stay somewhere in Texas, then drive the final 6 hours Sunday morning. Fermin will arrive in Ciudad Juarez about the same time I will, which will work out well.

We’ll get to meet my internet-friend Adriane and her husband, who are living in Ciudad Juarez, and spend most of Monday just hanging around. Tuesday, assuming all goes well, we’ll get the visa and spend the night somewhere in El Paso.


Journey II: Quickly see some Southwest highlights

Then comes the fun. I don’t want to book any hotels because the “what ifs” are still gnawing at the back of my mind, but we’ll have a few days to leisurely drive through New Mexico, stay in Taos, I decided tonight, and then head to Colorado Springs. By Saturday we’ll have to be heading back to Wisconsin, so it’s definitely a very short trip, but it’ll be fun to hang out and see some of the country’s most beautiful places (even if a lot of it will be by car). If I had vacation time, I’d use it now, but I’m already taking an unpaid week to do this trip, so that’s all I can afford.


Journey III: Through the corn, back to the Midwest.

Then we’ll be back. We’ll hopefully surprise his family that is here on Sunday, and then start life, back to normal.

As an aside, I’m hoping to meet some people with some interesting stories around the Consulate, so I’ll definitely be attempting to take a little time out for blogging. No guarantees though.

Elm Grove man takes dangerous grill out of service – Assembles new and averts disaster

June 17, 2007

Happy Fathers Day!!!


Excellent headline care of Mr. Jack Bruss.