No place like home

Admittedly, I am straying from my normal babble about my hair, Max, and the new little puppy to bring you a true story about one man's struggle to become a U.S. citizen. I originally wrote this piece, not for my personal blog, but to highlight to injustice of a friend's personal plight. While great attention is paid to illegal immigration and its numerous and polarizing issues, very little is written about the woes of legal immigrants, who face an increasing xenophobic climate and struggle with bureaucratic bungling and red tape of a crippled immigration agency.

As a first-generation American, I may see this problem more personally than the average citizen. But whether our ancestors have been here 20 years or 200, most of us in the Unites States are the product of immigrants, who, individually and collectively, in both small and great ways, influenced this nation's laws, culture, and civilization.

I post this story as a sign of solidarity to my friend, whose saga will hopefully end this month. I can only hope his story ends with the words, "happily ever after." I'll keep you posted on the outcome.

For as long he can remember, Ahmed Ali has been without a country to call his own. After 20 years and four countries, he thought he'd finally found a home until conflicting U.S. laws and an overstretched immigration agency threatened to crush the young man's dreams.

Ali, 32, was born in Jordan. His father worked for a U.S.-owned company and moved his family to Sudan when his son was still a toddler. The young Ali has vague recollections of Sudan. "I remember my Ethiopian nanny. I remember the Catholic school that I attended, and summer vacations in Jordan."

But even as a boy, he knew that Sudan was not home. An alien-resident in the land, he was part of a small, but diverse community of ex-patriots, who worked for the company. As a result, the young immigrant grew speaking English as his primary language, and had to take especially arranged classes to learn the Arabic of his parents.

After five years, Ali's father announced that the family was moving again, only this time out of Africa and away from the Arab community altogether. Spain became the third country in which the now 8-year-old would find himself.

"I was excited. I liked Spain--the people, the food, the culture," Ali remembers. However, because the best schools were private and English-speaking, he says that he did not have opportunity to immerse himself in Spanish culture. Just as it was in Sudan, he lived in a small, close-nit neighborhood of foreigners and continued to attend American schools.

When it became time for higher education, however, Ali decided to move again--this time to the United States. He attended graduate school in Chicago, where he fell in love with the city. Most importantly, Ali felt that he had finally found a place to call home. "The melting pot of cultures offered by the United States fits my diverse upbringing. I knew instantly that the United States was where I belonged."

Still, feeling at home and having a home are entirely different matters. How could Ali stay in the United States, he wondered? Not long after graduating, he landed a job with a large corporation, which sponsored his work visa. Two years later, he married his girlfriend, an American citizen, and obtained a green card, giving him permanent-resident status.

Ali worked to make a life for him and his wife. However, problems in the marriage began increasing. Although he was only a few months from obtaining citizenship, he decided to end the marriage. "I didn't marry her to obtain my citizenship," Ali said. "I wasn't going to stay married for this reason."

Despite the fact that he supported his wife through the separation, Ali's divorce turned ugly. After months of living separately, his wife went to authorities and claimed abuse. "I was never violent toward my wife," he proclaims. "She was angry because she didn't want the divorce." His wife even went to the doctor after the alleged abuse, but no evidence was ever presented.

Even without real evidence, the claim made its way to court. Ali's wife, however, did not. "The district attorney knew my wife was lying," he says. "He wanted to drop the charges, but because it was a domestic violence claim, he could not until I agreed to a psychological evaluation." Ali gladly signed the paperwork agreeing to an evaluation and the charges were subsequently dropped.

Ali felt his life was on a solid course and that citizenship, now 11 years in the making, was inevitable. He had already completed the interview process and was just waiting for word. But instead of citizenship, he received a notice for immediate deportation back to Jordan, a unfamiliar country that he had not lived in for more than 30 years.

Why was he being deported? The allegations of abuse claimed by Ali's ex-wife two years earlier, had come back to haunt him. "By signing the paper and agreeing to a psychological evaluation, immigration courts viewed me as having consented to a felony," he says. Ali hired an immigration attorney and called the original district attorney who had dropped the case.

"He knew how to change the paperwork, so that criminal law and immigration law agreed." Within a couple days, the mix-up was handled, but not quickly enough to stop the deportation process, which has been painfully slow for an immigrant trying to maintain a semblance of home.

About the same time Ali received deportation notice, the U.S Justice department put the entire immigration system on review. Reforms to immigration appeals courts after 9/11, which changed three-judge panels to one judge, slowed the process to a near-stand still. The review was also prompted by repeated complaints that some judges were rude or incompetent.

Ali says he has first-hand experience with these problems. "After getting notice to appear in court, I drove 7 hours to Atlanta the day before Thanksgiving, only to drive back that same day because the judge didn't bother to review my case," he says. "Another time, I flew to Atlanta only to discover court was closed because the judge was sick. Then, I was pushed off the calendar due to a scheduling error."

Ali reports that he has spent $11,000 on attorneys because the deportation process has been dragged out for over a year. Other problems daunt him as well.

"This situation is not only embarrassing; it is also hurting my career. The vice president keeps asking when it will be resolved," complains Ali. "Attorneys recommend that I do not leave the country because I may not be allowed back home." Now a production manager, who once traveled internationally as part of his job, Ali finds his wings have been clipped. "I have coworkers making presentations for me," he says. "My company is growing impatient."

Personally, the deportation has also been devastating. Ali cannot travel to be with his father, now sick and elderly. He also missed his uncle's funeral in Jordan.

Despite the problems, however, he tries to remain positive about his future, focusing energy and free time on charitable pursuits, most notably as a wish granter for the Make-A-Wish foundation.

Ali gazes at a picture of one of his Make-A-Wish children, who died at the age of four. "Being with these brave children inspires me and shows me that, ultimately, my problems are nothing," he says.

He is scheduled for an October 2006 court appearance--a fourth attempt at a legal resolution and where a judge will ultimately decide what place Ali will finally call "home."


Monica said...

This hits close to home. I was lucky enough to have a mother that took care of our immigration as soon as we landed in the US. She married my stepfather and took the steps necessary for us to live in this country with full privileges as a US resident.

After living here for more than 23 years, I took the steps necessary to become a US citizen and was lucky enough for the process to be painless: I filled out the paperwork, took my pictures send in the $300+ and within a year, I had my interview and within weeks had a letter telling me that my status as a US citizen was fully approved. Having said that I never knew the hassle, horrors and injustice of the INS first hand, but I been witness of plenty thru friends who came to this country to make a new life for themselves. They work, paid taxes, respect the laws and feed the economy. Is sad to know that in exchange they have been treated offensively, cheated on their pay, their basic rights and in some cases looked down because they are not American born.

I was once proud to say I live in the U.S. of A. But after having lived first hands the injustices towards immigrate in this country I'm ashamed that this country, who call itself a superpower and forward-thinking is nothing but a cheap two face bully.

I hope that that your friend can beat the system and finally realized his dream in his home.

├ůsa said...

Diane! I hope things will work out for your friend!

When I started the process of getting a green card, my attorney told me that “INS treats every body equal. Equally bad that is”. Equal is good and I appreciate that. But I’m sure all of us who have had anything to do with INS can tell horror stories of how we’ve been treated. If you fill out one paper wrong, or send the wrong amount of fee: your case will be dropped without a notice. Even if the screw-up was the INS’s: they will just ignore your application, or waiting number or what ever you had.

What is so surprising to me is that a lot of this seam to be “company policy” at the INS. US is a country with excellent customer service and helpful people. Maybe INS forgot to instruct their employees. Although I do believe this bad behaviour is done on purpose. Being rude will not weed out the bad seeds.

Thomas said...

Hi from Seattle.