Living in insecurity
Immigrating without legal documents: Why a family overstayed their student visa and remained in the U.S.
By Susanne Janssen
They thought this would be the opportunity to fulfill their American Dream – maybe the only one they would ever have. Antonio (all names changed) received an offer to study at a university in the Southwest. He and his wife decided to take the risk, leave everything behind and travel to the U.S. with their children.
It wasn’t easy, but the whole family dove into the new adventure: adjusting to the new culture, learning English, getting used to a different education system. Maria and Antonio missed their relatives. “We had a big family at home, and here we were on our own,” notes Maria. Not everyone welcomed the foreigners. People wondered about their accents; they couldn’t afford as much as other families. However, both had learned the truth of a quote from St. John of the Cross: “Where there is no love, put love — and you will find love.” Instead of waiting for someone to invite them, they began to reach out to other families.
They felt at home in their Catholic parish and in the local community of the Focolare which they were a part of in their country of origin. By trying to live the Focolare spirituality of unity, they got to know many families, both immigrants as well as Americans who had lived here for generations. “Little by little, the U.S. became our home,” recalls Maria.
When Antonio finished his degree some years ago, he knew that he had a one-year window to find a job with an employer willing to sponsor him, in order to obtain a work visa. It didn’t work out. With the economic crisis that year, no one wanted to hire and sponsor him, despite his excellent qualifications.
The family faced a difficult decision. Should they return to their home country, or should they stay beyond their student visa, knowing that in this moment there was no possibility to legalize their status?
“We decided to stay,” says Maria. “We wanted to give our children the opportunity to have a better future.” She tries to explain what might be difficult to understand for people who are legal citizens and never thought about moving to another country. Their situation in their home country was not as desperate as in other countries. They weren’t starving, and they weren’t persecuted. However, even with university degrees, it is difficult to find jobs that can support a family. The public education system is disastrous. Most of all, however, Maria was concerned about the safety of her family: “In my home town, the situation is deteriorating, and the level of violence is increasing every year. People get killed for just the $5 in coins they have in their wallet.” Consequently they chose the uncertainty surrounding their status in the U.S. instead of a legal future in their home country.
Being “illegal” or “undocumented,” their working possibilities are limited. Antonio is self-employed. The life they built here with their children is always at risk. They questioned their decision over and over again: “Should we go back? What if we never achieve legal status? How can our children afford to go to college?”
Maria felt that they might have taken the wrong decision. At a certain point, she couldn’t sleep. She was afraid to drive — getting involved in an accident could lead to deportation. “When we talked about going back, our children cried; they would miss their classmates and friends. We are now established here,” she says, but the situation at that time had become almost unbearable for Antonio and Maria. They prayed a lot but couldn’t come up with an answer.
What helped Maria was a friend who told her: “God has a plan for you. Right now it seems that he has wanted you and your family to live here. If and when circumstances change, he will guide you to make the right decision.” It helped her to trust and to take the risk of visiting and helping others who were in similar circumstances. When they visited a specialized immigration lawyer, who wasn’t able to help them, they could at least share their insights with other families.
The couple hopes that the laws might change soon so that their children who are doing well at school can apply for scholarships and work permits.
“I think the U.S. immigration system is broken,” says Maria, suddenly with an unusually harsh undertone in her voice. For her it seems that some people have the possibility to get a green card just because they have family members here, even though they do not agree or share the American values, while others who might be eager to become part of the community and make a contribution are not given the chance to come. “We really appreciate the passage of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and they they have the right of the pursuit of happiness. And we would love to give back even more to our new country, paying our share of taxes and using our skills and talents,” she says.
The question always arises: What about using public resources without being legally authorized? “Our children get a free education in public schools, but we do not ask for anything else,” Maria explains. Being honest and following the law has always been important for her; they have not been tempted to falsify their documents, and they are always truthful in job interviews. “We cannot buy a house,” says Antonio. Other immigrants do not have the same scruples and are now happy homeowners; Antonio and Maria try to keep their integrity. Otherwise, how can they teach their children the value of truth? In the end God didn’t abandon them; they were able to find a house big enough for their family, close to the children’s schools with a low rent.
Maria realized that God always writes straight with crooked lines, and the sense of failure widened her heart: “I can now understand why people use fake documents or why they just cross the border to come here. Even living as an undocumented immigrant seems so much better than the situation they left behind.” At the same time she tries to understand and to love those who would like all the undocumented immigrants to leave.
There is no happy ending yet for Maria and her family — uncertainty remains. “I pray every day to God to show us his will,” she says, “Three years ago I started to go to daily Mass. The Eucharist gives me peace and assures me that we are not alone. He knows that we are open to his will, and we are certain that he will guide us, wherever it should be.”
For God nobody is undocumented or illegal.