My Immigration Story
My family originally came to Canada in the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s from Poland and Russia to escape pogroms and anti-semitic violence. They came to Canada because at the time it was easier to immigrate to Canada than the United States, their first choice. When they came to Canada they were treated quite badly. They were kept for a month in a jail in Halifax under quarantine even though they weren’t sick. When they got to Toronto lots of businesses flat out refused to hire or serve Jews and had signs in the windows saying “No dogs or Jews allowed.”
Back in those days it was common for people to go across the border between Canada and the United States without problems. Once you arrived by sea you could move fairly easily back and forth. Some of my great aunts and uncles lit out for a better life in California, while others moved to Buffalo and other U.S. city close to the Canadian border. Nobody seemed to care that they were from Canada. Back then you didn’t need a lot of identification to do the sort of jobs they were willing to do.
When I was one year old my parents left Toronto, Canada to do medical fellowships in Charleston, South Carolina. At the time there were few medical fellowships available in Canada to study the medical sub-specialty my dad was doing, so he had to come to the U.S. My parents weren’t the first in the family to go to the U.S. for an education that wasn’t available in Canada. My grandfather went to medical school in Baltimore because at the time medical schools in Canada wouldn’t let Jews enroll.
After finishing their fellowships, my parents got jobs working at hospitals in Charleston and then in Buffalo. During the years they worked in those cities my mom had one of my sisters and my brother. My Dad loved America and the opportunities he had been given to advance in the medical field there, however the government was giving him a hard time about getting a green card and INS kept on harassing them and preventing my Mom from working as a doctor. Finally, my Dad had to talk to and donate money to a local Republican politician who helped get our green card applications approved.
At last, I had a social security number and a resident alien green card. I grew up as an upstate New Yorker. While I was in elementary school my Dad applied for American citizenship, but while the process was going on my Mom had to return to Canada due to my grandfather’s ill health. My Mom moved to Toronto with us kids to be with my grandfather during his final years while he was dying from cancer. For a year my Dad stayed in Buffalo, during which time he got his American citizenship. Eventually, despite the fact that he didn’t want to leave America, my Dad grew tired of commuting three hours across the border every weekend to be with us and left the States. My parents had another child, my youngest sister. Because he was now an American citizen, my dad could apply for citizenship for her, despite the fact that she had never set foot on American soil, and she became a dual citizen.
I went to high school and undergraduate university in Canada. When it came to graduate school I discovered that Canadian universities didn’t have the programs I was looking for, so I decided to go to an American university in California. As a “foreign” student I was made to pay three times as much as ordinary Californian students. There were quotas on how many “foreign” student were allowed into the program, too, making it very difficulty to get in. I was refused for the program two times, before being accepted.
As a foreign student I was not allowed to get the aid that was offered to American born students. This was in 2001, right before September 11th. I thought it was silly that my brother and sisters all had American citizenship, while I, who had lived in the States the longest didn’t, so I asked my dad to apply for me. We were told by the U.S. embassy in Canada that I was elligible for American citizenship and that the process would take 535 days, but that I was certain to get approved, because my Dad was a U.S. citizen. I was pleased to hear I would have my American citizenship by the time I finished my graduate program. I really wanted to emigrate to the U.S. Having spent most of my childhood in the U.S. I never felt properly Canadian and there seemed to be so many more opportunities for someone looking to get into the entertainment industry in the States. I was studying in Los Angeles, the centre of the entertainment industry, a place where I could follow up on the contacts I made in university. Although I had a student visa I was always harassed at the border my U.S. immigration authorities who made me feel like a criminal.
While I was in the U.S. studying I met a lot of other ex-pat Canadians, also trying to break into the entertainment industry in the States, and struggling to remain in the country. There are definitely more illegal Canadians in the States than people think. My best friend, desperate to remain in the country for her music career, entered into a fake marriage with an American to get her citizenship. He cheated her out of thousands of dollars, but she couldn’t do anything about it because he threatened to expose her to immigration authorities. Another friend managed to get a work visa after university. He stayed with a company he hated for a few years just to hold onto his visa, but eventually he too had to leave when the economy got bad and his company folded. I continued to wait for my visa. From 535 days I was given 840 days to wait by immigration. I spent hundreds of dollars on lawyers.
I received a work permit card that theoretically allowed me to remain in the country for one year to pursue my vocation after university. Many jobs that wanted to hire me and took one look at that card and retracted their offers of employment. However, I eventually found three small jobs that allowed me to cover my rent on a room in an apartment I shared with four other people.
One of the jobs I had was working at a school where many of the children were from South Korea. I remember one day I got to school and all the Korean children were crying on the playground. I asked them what was wrong and they told me they were scared they were going to be deported. What happened was that the governor of California had made an announcement the day before about a new immigration law to spend money searching out and finding illegal immigrants and step up plans to deport them.
Seeing this made me really sad for many reasons. For one thing, what sort of world are we living in where all nine years old in Los Angeles know about what “being deported” means? Trying to reassure them I told the children I was an immigrant too, but they didn’t believe me. Their reasons were that I “looked American,” (i.e. that I looked “white”) and “spoke English” (spoke English without a discernable accent). This too was sad. Despite everything we try to tell them in school that Americans come in all colours and from all backgrounds, the anti-immigrant rhetoric on Fox News still says something different. (I can’t remember ever seeing a Korean American or any Asian commentator on that channel.) What’s worse is that I’m pretty sure most of those children weren’t even there illegally, but it upset me that they were so scared, that they saw their position in American society as so precarious, even so. As for the children that were there illegally, (and I’m pretty sure there were a few), it seemed horrid for the government to terrify them to tears for something that wasn’t even their fault. Children can’t control where their parents bring them, yet if immigration deported them, the children would be the ones to suffer the most. In protest of this law, there was a massive demonstration where many elementary and high school students marched on L.A. government buildings along with a number of other people, mostly of Latino origin, clogging all the major streets in the city. In total it was estimated 100, 000 students walked out and marched. This demonstration got little coverage in the newspaper. Even though many people went, it was buried somewhere in the back pages. I wasn’t surprised. There was an ongoing demonstration every weekend for two years at the corner of Fairfax and 3rd Street against the Iraq war along with many other anti-Iraq war protests that were never covered in the papers or on the news while I was there.
Trying to get my citizenship application processed, I spent hours holding the line with U.S. immigration on the phone. They let you hold on the line for 1 hour before automatically disconnecting you and then you would have to go in the phone que again. Eventually they told me that they couldn’t say how long it would take for me to get an interview.
Why it is okay for U.S. Immigration to flat out lie to people? Why is immigration the only service anywhere that is not held accountable for what it tells people? If this was a pizza delivery service or any other business I would be able to demand my money back, but against immigration you have no power. They can do whatever they want to you.
Eventually my work card ran out. I applied to some university programs to get a degree in education. At the time L.A. was looking for teachers and I wanted to make myself eligible. I was accepted into two programs. One was too expensive for me to afford. I still had massive debts, after paying for university as a “foreign student.” I was very lucky my Mom and Dad were helping me out. I decided on the cheaper, shorter program. I attended one day of classes and paid half my tuition when I discovered I couldn’t get a student visa to stay in the country through this program.
I was faced with a choice, either stay in the country illegally or return to Canada and wait on my citizenship application to get processed.