Monday, July 27, 2009

"The Day I Became a Citizen, I Cried for Hours"

Eugenia Michels was born in Guatemala City. After graduating from high school and attending college for several years, she became an executive secretary for a non-profit agency in Guatemala. At her job, she made many American friends who invited her to visit them in the U.S.. Her first two trips to the United States were as a tourist.

Even with a stable, professional job in Guatemala, she faced hurdles in obtaining tourist visas. The first time she applied, the U.S. official threw her passport at her. Once they denied her a visa because they mixed her up with another applicant with the same first name. Only an intervention by a friend in the U.S. Embassy straightened out the muddle.

On her second trip to the U.S., she lived with an academic couple in Montana, visited friends all over the country, and eventually wound up in Nashville. “I went to a party one night, and I met a priest there, and a couple of days later another priest called me to offer me a job.” Eugenia told them she had a tourist visa, and the priest said he’d apply for a work permit for her; they needed a bilingual administrative assistant. “They got me a religious visa, but it wasn’t easy. As an employer, you have to show that no one else can do that job. They had advertised that position for four months without finding anyone.”

“I was there for five years, until I got married. I had met Ron [formerly a Catholic priest, now a pastoral counselor] in Guatemala before. We were good friends, and had stayed in touch for years. We were married in 1998, and then I moved to Ripon.”

With her change in status from a religious worker to the spouse of a citizen, Eugenia had to go through a whole new visa process. It took two years to get a green card, which she finally obtained in 2001. She became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

Since living in Ripon, she has worked as an interpreter at the Green Lake Court, as a Family Services Coordinator for UMOS (United Migrant Opportunity Services), and as an administrative assistant at the Family Resource Center in Fond du Lac. She is currently considering returning to college in January.

She has found Ripon to be quieter and less friendly than Nashville, but on the whole a good place to live. “My neighbors in Nashville were mostly professionals and professors – I loved the neighborhood! Here I looked for a neighborhood association like we had there, but it doesn’t exist here.”

“I come from a big city and I’m so happy to have the College here. I love to look out the window and see the students walking by. And Dickens of a Christmas made me so happy! I was like a little girl! ‘There are people in this town!’”

While Eugenia achieved what many immigrants only dream of – U.S. citizenship – her decision was not an easy one. “The day I became a citizen, I cried for hours.” The Judge who oversaw her swearing-in spoke to the new citizens about the importance of not forgetting their heritage, and enriching their new country by sharing their culture with others. But Eugenia has found this to be a painful as well as a rich experience. “Changing cultures creates conflicts in you. Who am I? What am I doing here?”

She maintains a keen interest in the hurdles other immigrants face: the cultural adjustments of being newcomers, and frequent travails with ICE [Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement – since 9/11 part of the Department of Homeland Security.]

“When I have dealt with immigration officials, sometimes I have thought it must be a requirement to be bitter -- to have no manners, to be hostile -- to work for Immigration. I have seen officials scream at people, throw passports… As a U.S. citizen, they embarrass me.” When Guatemalan friends have trouble getting tourist visas to come to the U.S., she advises them to take their vacations in Europe instead where they’ll be treated with more respect.

She tells numerous stories of her own hassles – of having to provide the same mountain of documentation to different offices that did not communicate with each other; of lost paperwork; of capricious decisions; of differential treatment to individuals with the same qualifications; of a lack of coordination between U.S. and home country consular officials; of her fate sometimes hanging on a random official’s mood; and of the times when her personal connections with embassy officials were the only way she was able to move forward. She also tells of occasional officials who treated her with respect and who apologized for the system, or who presented a welcoming face to newcomers.

“The U.S. doesn’t know how it looks to the rest of the world. Now that I am a citizen, I have more ownership, and it affects me to see the U.S. in such trouble in the world.” She believes that the U.S. is harming its own interests by treating people so arrogantly, and creating so many hurdles for would-be immigrants. “Microsoft is moving to Vancouver [Canada] to get out of having to deal with the U.S. immigration system.” How is this helping our economy, she wonders? She points out that in 2006, the US authorized only 55,000 work visas, a fraction of those requested by employers and workers, and an even smaller fraction of those than the economy could have absorbed.

Once Eugenia attended a listening session hosted by Senator Feingold at which much dissatisfaction was expressed over the immigration situation. She reports that Senator Feingold responded “Our system is lousy.”

“But why? Who makes the law?” she asks. “Sometimes I hear congressmen talking about immigration, and terrorists coming from the South, but the ones that did 9/11 came legally, by plane, and two dead ones were granted legal residency six months later!” She feels that the system misplaces its effort in making life so hard for those who try to come here to work or study.

“The law gives full authority to individual officials to make decisions. We play by the rules, and it doesn’t count. The individual official has a mood and makes a decision, and there is nothing we can do” says Eugenia resignedly. “Hopefully now that I’m a citizen I won’t have to depend on the moods of officials.”

Eugenia remembers when she went to get fingerprinted. “The office had a picture of an open window on the wall, and something about this being a window of opportunity. I’d say yes and no. When everything goes fine, the system works. But other people in the same situation as me, their petition is denied.”

Contemplating the future, Eugenia thinks back on the richness of her time in the university community in Montana, and wonders if she could recreate some of that here. “I’d like to get to know more people at the College. I’d like to invite the Hispanic students to come here once a month. The Spanish professor I stayed with in Montana had foreign students to his house once a week – every week was a different country. We were from all over! It was so enriching to share our experiences and cultures!”

“I think of these foreign students and their adjustment. I’m not much of a cook, but I could have them over. It is very nice to see the diversity, and we are happy being here.”

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