I’ve never had a blog before now. In fact, I've never really used the internet for anything other than research, email, and lolcats. But whenever I traveled, I always wrote “dispatches” to my friends back home. This time, I decided to make our trip public because it was an opportunity to bring people’s attention to US immigration policy.
I’ll start with how we met, etc… Leo was born in the small town of Jauru in Mato Grosso, Brazil. He moved to the US in 2004. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and had the good luck to live for short periods in England and France as a kid. At 18, I moved to Massachusetts, where I attended Smith College. During my Junior Year Abroad, I went to Geneva, Switzerland with the intention of studying hard and interning at the UN’s International Labor Organization. And yet, my most formative experience there was actually getting to see Brazilian culture in action during the 2006 World Cup.
Completely enamored, I moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after graduation. There, I was bitten by the Brazil bug for real. After 6 months of carefree cavorting in South America, however, I was driven to return to the US by dwindling finances. I got a job in politics in Massachusetts and worked primarily on water, immigrants’ and women’s issues.
I was consumed by saudades for Brazil, though, and soon discovered a Brazilian bar near my house with forró classes and decided to check it out. Leo was the first person I met and the first person I danced with. The way Leo describes it, “it was love at first sight.”
I thought he was adorable, but he was too shy to talk to me! He would sit beside me for ages without saying a single word. Leo claims this was all part of his secret plan, but I was convinced that he wasn’t that interested. I was eventually the one who asked him out. I had two tickets to a Brazil-Venezuela friendly match, and planned to invite another Brazilian who was much more forward. Lucky for both of us, the other guy wasn’t at forró that night, so I asked Leo. He actually said that he already had a ticket! But then he changed his mind and said "I'll sell it and go with you!"
From then onward, I can probably count on both hands the number of days we’ve spent apart. We certainly have never gone a single day without talking.
Because of my work, I knew – in immigration terms – what my relationship with Leo could mean, especially if I got the Fulbright fellowship I had been lusting after for the past three years. There was no question in my mind that I would marry Leo, and even though we weren’t even engaged when he and I got news of the Fulbright, he told me in no uncertain terms that wherever I went he would go, too.
We moved in together, and Leo would ask me every night before we fell asleep whether I would marry him. I always said “yes,” but one night he looked at me very seriously and asked “even though I am poor and even though I am an immigrant?” I told him equally as seriously: “yes.”
I think that’s when he decided to propose for real. He and I had looked casually at rings, but he kept saying things like “oh, you know, because I could never afford a ring,” etc… I assumed a proposal was a long way off. Unbeknownst to me, however, Leo was busy scheming, but he needed help communicating with the jeweler. So, bright and early one January morning, Leo called a college friend of mine, Deb (who is also Brazilian), and said, “I need to talk to you. Can I stop by?”
Deb told me later, “I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought awful things because I couldn’t think of any reason he had to stop by. I don’t expect people to come ask for help to buy rings. But I told him he could come over.”
He was already parked outside of Deb’s house when he called, so – groggy, in pajamas, and worried about what the family she lived with would think of strange men showing up on their porch – Deb went downstairs to meet him. When Leo told her the whole story, she agreed to help – and kept the whole thing from me for several months!
Ten short months after we met, Leo made a reservation at our favorite restaurant, Machu Picchu. Tired from work – and a bit grumpy – I almost cancelled, but instead I dragged my feet getting ready and made us an hour late! Leo claims that he was radiating anxiousness, but lucky for him I was possessed of an even stronger obliviousness.
Our table at the restaurant was in a little alcove, which Leo had had specially decorated, but I still didn’t have any idea about his plans. I was thinking “how cute! Little candles and flower petals! Is this some Peruvian holiday?” Even after dinner, when our favorite forró song started playing, I assumed it was a coincidence and excitedly told Leo, “Listen! It’s the song my phone plays when you call me!” Just then, a waiter came in with a big bouquet of roses for me. I was delighted but confused and said “what a nice surprise!”
Then Leo – who apparently still wanted to marry me even though I’d just shown myself to be about as thick as an unabridged dictionary – reached into in his pocket and told me, “wait, there’s one more thing.” He held out the ring and asked, “Pandinha (little panda), will you marry me?”
I was over the moon even though I knew exactly what Leo’s proposal would mean in terms of our life together:
Leo entered the US “without inspection” – in other words, through Mexico – less than 10 years ago and accrued almost 6 years of “unlawful presence.” Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) section 212(a)(9)(B)(i), that means that he is subject to “The Bar;” anyone who spends more than one year undocumented in the United States is “inadmissible” for 10 years – even married to an American. Everyone thinks that marrying a US citizen solves all immigration woes, but that is really not the case.
So, we had a handful of choices:
1) Put up and shut up: we could try to keep quiet and wait for immigration reform. With a background in politics, I just couldn’t see any way that immigration would be dealt with before the 2010 midterms. And since the Dems would suffer considerable losses (normal in the first midterm elections after a whole set of them have been swept into office on the coattails of a popular president), they’d all be shaking in their boots and afraid to do anything ballsy during Obama's first term. That would leave us in limbo for at least 3 years, assuming that Leo didn't get caught and deported (the vast majority of ICE deportations are of people like Leo with no criminal record). If Congress never did grow a pair and address immigration, Leo and I would eventually leave the US anyway, meaning that we’d have the 10-year bar on top of wasting at least 3 years in the States. (That Arizona is so insane as to mimic apartheid South Africa didn't even cross my mind; the silver lining when it comes to Arizona’s xenophobia is that immigration reform is somewhat back on the table.)
2) Experience some “extreme hardship:” the only way around The Bar currently (not counting temporary stays of deportation, etc… none of which are sustainable ways to build a life in the US) is via something called “The Hardship Waiver.” Lawyers approach the waiver in several different ways, and some have managed pretty good rates of approval, but for all intents and purposes, the waiver was not designed for kids like us. The waiver requires the American spouse to prove that their partner’s absence causes them “extreme hardship” (truly Dickensian sob stories) and that they cannot move to the foreign partner’s country. As of right now, we are young, healthy, and childless; my parents are also in good health for the time being, and I have no other obligations or dependents in the US; I have also lived in Brazil already, and one could argue that I could just as well continue my education and get a good job here. Given our current circumstances, it would be hard for us to have our waiver approved. Moreover, all Brazilian waivers go through an office in Lima, Peru, which is famous for its emphasis on the “extreme” in “extreme hardship” and has lots of odd little tics like not wanting to approve someone who has already been married once before (not our case but just an example). Other offices are not as difficult; Juarez, for instance, has a pretty good approval rate, but for that we’d have to live in Mexico. Waivers are also expensive; there are fees to be paid to the lawyers and USCIS, and if you don’t get approved, that’s money that would have been better spent settling into a new country. There’s also the separation; you can supposedly live in your spouse’s country while going through the waiver process, but it certainly seems to undermine your argument about not being able to live in your spouse’s country! And then there’s the fact that you’re not in control of your life during as much as 2 years. The official line on waivers is that the whole process takes less than a year. That is not what I saw firsthand in my work with Brazilian immigrants in Massachusetts. For at least that long, you have no idea where you will build your future, whether you can start another degree, whether it’s worth looking for other jobs, whether you can buy a house or begin to plan a family… you’re helpless and in limbo.
3) Get the Hell out of Dodge: we could take the Fulbright as an opportunity to set up shop in Brazil or to boost my resume and try to get a visa to a third country.
We decided that our “pursuit of happiness” needed to come first, and the only way to do that would be to leave the US. We did it because neither of us could stand the stress of living in the US without Leo having documents. Every time the phone rang, I was convinced that it was Leo calling from an ICE detention center. Every time I said goodbye to him in the morning, it was with the expectation that he wouldn’t come home. It was impossible to live in that heightened state of fear, and I’d held so many hands through deportations that it just felt like a matter of time before Leo was in a jumpsuit and I was looking at him through glass as our dreams went up in smoke. Staying in the US was not an option.
We thought about applying for the waiver as well, but for the reasons above, we decided that it was not a viable option for the time being. Better to save it in case we should encounter hardship “extreme” enough for us to be allowed to live as a married couple in my country. I've had some people scoff at my “exile” status because we haven’t tried for the waiver (and there are people in “exile” who either did not get the waiver or else they had some miniscule bureaucratic hiccough that they must spend years outside of the country trying to undo).
I do consider myself an exile and not an expat, though. I have no qualms about making my life abroad (I’ve lived in 5 different countries already), but I am forcefully opposed to a policy that would rather lose an American than gain one and that gives the government a say in whether or not your life-long commitment to your partner is actually important enough to honor.
So, exile for us was a conscious choice. A lot of people are forced into exile following a deportation or denial of their waiver, and sometimes they struggle to ever get their feet under them in their new country. We were determined to avoid this. So, doing out the cost/benefit analysis, we felt like the best way for us to live a full and happy life was to leave the US.
It seems radical, but it was actually the most conservative choice for us with the least amount of uncertainty.
Sometimes, I feel like I’ve given up, though; we did what the law expected of us: we quietly packed up and left. One less “illegal immigrant.” One part of me wishes that we stayed to keep fighting for reform, but another part of me desperately wanted to opt-out of all of that madness and go on with my life. Leo certainly couldn’t stand the fight any longer. I guess that this blog, in part, helps me to make peace with both: I am gone, but I’m still advocating – albeit from afar. I feel like most Americans would be very uncomfortable with the idea of exiling citizens, so I try to put a face on a policy that very few people know about.
So, what’s next: the best part about exile on our own terms is the ability to plan. I applied to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for my Master’s and got in. If all goes well with our appointment at the Canadian Consulate in early June, Leo and I will leave for Canada at the tail-end of August.
Even though Brazil is really doing fabulously right now, we are hoping to go to Canada for a number of reasons:
1) The Canadians have a track record of being open and welcoming.
2) Vancouver is an incredible city; I almost went to UBC for undergrad because I like it so much.
3) UBC is a great school, not terribly expensive, and the financial award was good.
4) I would like to get both my Master’s and PhD, and Canadian schools have more world-wide recognition than Brazilian universities (although Brazil does have some excellent universities and a very, very strong academic community; Canadian degrees are just more transferable for now).
5) If I get my student permit, Leo will be eligible for a work permit and will be legal in Canada as long as I am studying.
6) Leo feels a lot of responsibility to his family; even though I could potentially earn a good salary in Brazil, it’s easier for him to supplement their income with a currency that is worth almost double the Real.
Exile feels like the right choice when I think about how we went from not knowing what would happen from day to day to loosely planning a good 10 years out: my hope is to do both my Master’s and PhD in Canada. After that, Canada allows graduates from Canadian universities to work for up to three years. Do out the math: The Bar would be over by that time.
Canada also allows students to apply for their student permits with “dual intentions,” which means that they would like to eventually achieve LPR status in Canada, but if they do not, they promise to leave Canada after their studies. So, with my Master’s and PhD and one year of certain types of work experience, we could just as well become Canadian LPRs. I could also just as well teach at a brazilian university or be hired to another country.
Of course, “man plans; God laughs.” Who knows whether any of this will happen the way we think it will. But I feel better knowing that the ebb and flow of the world will decide our fates, not some traffic cop with an agenda, not some USCIS bureaucrat, and not some pandering congressman. In exile, we are no better and no worse off than any other two kids in love.
UPDATE (Aug. 27th): I have moved to Canada to begin my Master's in the hopes that Leo will be granted a visa. We applied on June 2nd. We are still waiting for his visa.
UPDATE (Dec. 17th): Leo has arrived in Vancouver with his work permit! We plan to stay until the end of my Master's program, after which I will hopefully be admitted to a PhD program or else I will apply for the post-studies work permit. After one year of certain kinds of work, I would become eligible for permanent residency (and Leo, as my spouse). That's a ways off, however, so in the meantime, I'm just glad that we're together!