On Tuesday, August 21, 2015, after a 12-½ year battle with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), including almost four years’ separation, my husband, Patrick, now with U.S. Legal Permanent Residence (LPR) status, landed at SeaTac International airport. Our 8-year-old son, Solomon, and I were waiting anxiously and I sobbed with elation and relief at seeing him after almost four years’ separation. However, my joy was premature. Since he’s been here, the welcome has been mixed, the betrayals bitter, with family that cannot get past their politics to welcome a brother, and the U.S. government spasmodically reversing its policies and legacy.
Historically, processing a citizenship application (N-400), has taken 3-4 months. Lately, however, average wait times across the country for citizenship applications to be processed have doubled. We had hopes that this grueling process would be done by the end of 2018 but are apparently playing a game of Chutes and Ladders, again finding ourselves sliding several rows backwards just as the end is in sight.
In the spring of 2016, Patrick, Solomon and I traveled around Washington state, telling our story. Time after time, people came to us with their immigration stories, impossible dilemmas and heartbreaking choices; Do you feed your children in one country or care for your ailing parents in another?
“This is the great American democracy you foisted on us?” Patrick, a self-respecting survivor of South Africa’s apartheid government, asked me sardonically.
Over the years I’ve been lauded for “doing it legally.” It’s an ingratiating phrase people have tacked on my chest like a mildew-y corsage, especially since we are now faced with a government that may never let us rest entirely at ease that we can remain here together. Instead of processing years of backlogged N-400 applications, the federal government is currently diverting resources into searching through old citizenship applications, looking for ways to rescind citizenship already granted. We have no guarantee that the same won’t happen to us in the future.
During my family’s years of separation, determined to protect other families from the same fate, I started volunteering as a paralegal. Helping people fill out the 20-page N-400 application was my way of “paying it forward” and the questions range from laughable to ludicrous.
“Between March 23, 1933 and May 8, 1945, did you work for or associate in any way (either directly or indirectly) with the Nazi government of Germany?” (see pages 11 & 12)
In response I get a blank look of incomprehension from the 24-year-old El Salvadoran mother of three who has been in the U.S. since she was 6-months-old. Equally baffling is my explanation of “an order of nobility in a foreign country.” When I mime a crown on my head, there are giggling outbursts in Swahili, Tagolog and Cantonese.
On my way to mail Patrick’s N-400, I stopped to see the attorney who is advising us through this phase of the process. I ask him,
“I hear wait times are double what they used to be, so we can expect to have an answer in 7-8 months?”
“No, you’ll be waiting 14-17 months. The federal government is ‘punishing’ cities like Seattle for being proactive in providing naturalization services to their foreign-born community members.” (WTF!?!)
Later, at the post office,
“Do you want to pay extra to expedite the shipping?
Laughing, I replied,
“We’ve been at this for 15-½ years and they’re going to make us wait another year and a half. No, I don’t think it’s necessary to pay extra to rush it.”
However I did pay extra to make sure I was notified and had proof when they’d received it. We’ve had enough pieces of our application “lost” only to be “found” when Patrick traveled hundreds of miles to show up in person and bellow at some poor soul working in a god-forsaken U.S. Consular office in Pretoria or Johannesburg or some other city. It’s a common occurrence, this “losing” of an application by the U.S. Embassy or USCIS only to have it resurface after a deadline has passed. The applicant is forced to reapply, pay the fee again, resubmit all the documents, update medical tests, etc. If the American tech industry functioned the way this branch of the U.S government does, we’d still be writing with charcoal on pieces of slate.
Last night we had ice cream as a family in a modest celebration of the day’s event. After Solomon was in bed, I hesitantly asked Patrick,
“So, did you know it was going to be a year and a half, instead of the 3-4 months we were expecting?
Blasé, he replied, “I don’t know what you’re worried about. When God decides it’s time for me to have it, it will be released.”What I wouldn’t do for the confidence that comes with his world-view!
It’s not that I’m not grateful to be at this particular threshold in what looks like it will be a 17-year process to live in my own country with my husband, but disillusionment and cynicism have take up permanent residence in my gut.
I hear the protesting of Americans from all walks of life as they observe current events, politics and the national discourse on immigration: “We’re better than this!” and I wonder, Are we really? Or will we remain complacent until our own personal status quo is at stake? I, for one, am ready to see Americans stop being “better than this” and start doing “better than this”.
Mary September ~ immigrant wife & mother, author, advocate & performing artist ~ has lived in the townships of South Africa, the bush in Malawi, south of the Thames in London, and in an RV in the ‘burbs of Seattle. Mary is the composer of The Truth about Trolls, a children’s play about prejudice and reconciliation based on the folktale The Billy Goats Gruff, and has been an advocate and writer for OneAmerica, the largest immigrant and refugee advocacy organization in Washington state.