Radio Rookies: Investigating My Status in the U.S.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Nineteen-year-old Veralyn Williams hopes citizenship might be in her future. Veralyn and her parents moved to the Bronx when she was an infant, leaving behind their home in Sierra Leone. She's lived in the US almost her whole life. Her legal status, though, has always been a mystery to her. This is the story of her quest for answers.
My dad reminds me of some of the politicians I see on TV, like in the last presidential debates. I mean, they say a whole lot, but most of the time they aren't telling me what I want to know.
Let's talk and clear it up. What's my legal status right now?
My dad is most annoying when the subject is serious, like: What's my immigration status?
Veralyn's Father: Your legal status right now--when I got my green card on the suspension of the petition, you and your mom were entitled to get your green card also at that point. Something happened which I don't really know, and they told me that I had to apply for you guys. You, you should be OK because under the relief program, you're entitled to stay in the United States. It's just a matter of time before you get your--everything is in the works; it's just that it takes forever.
WILLIAMS: Confused? Well, imagine how I feel. My parents moved here when I was just a few months old. I always knew I was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and that I wasn't a US citizen, but I didn't know what that meant.
Oh, yeah, I know this song.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
WILLIAMS: I consider myself Sierra Leonean because I grew up hearing Creole, listening to all kinds of African music and eating tusabalija(ph) rice.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
WILLIAMS: (Singing in foreign language)
But America's my home because I know nowhere else. Here is where I love to speak my mind, and I know I don't want to have to answer to anybody, so I need to be making my own money. When I was 14, I wanted to get a job, but my parents didn't want me to work because they said I was too young. Two years ago, when I was 17, I did get a job tutoring kids. I worked a whole week and didn't get paid because I didn't have a Social Security number.
Then it came time to fill out my financial aid form for college, and I had to check being a citizen or a permanent resident. So I asked my parents if I had an Alien Registration Number, because if you're a permanent resident, you have one. I found out that I wasn't even a permanent resident and that meant I couldn't get any financial aid. Since my parents could only afford a local college, what I wanted to do I couldn't do anymore, like go to Spelman or Howard University and live in the dorms.
I resented my parents for putting me in this situation and for keeping the truth from me. I wanted to know why I wasn't allowed to work, why I didn't have a Social Security number and what they were doing to fix things.
Veralyn's Father: I must confess that I've been really laid back and that I should have done more, you know, to try to get your status changed, but it's better late than never.
WILLIAMS: When my parents first got here, my dad filed for asylum for us. It was denied, so he filed for something called suspension of deportation. A lawyer told him not to include me and my mom on the petition because if my dad got deported, then we would get deported, too. So when the judge approved my dad's application, he got a green card, but we didn't.
Though I've lived in America all my life, technically it feels like I don't exist. I never thought I'd have fewer rights than my younger sister and brother who were born here. My brother Victor(ph) is 12 now.
I am different because I'm not a citizen like you and Lois(ph) are.
VICTOR (Veralyn's Brother): So? Just get the green card.
WILLIAMS: And do you think it's easy to get a green card?
VICTOR: I'm not sure. How do you get a green card?
WILLIAMS: You have to apply for it, and sometimes it takes years to get it.
My family doesn't understand why I feel so frustrated and hopeless. When I started asking my Uncle Nathan(ph) questions, he merely said he didn't want me talking about this issue on the radio.
NATHAN (Veralyn's Uncle): You do not want to go like this, hear me. You do not want to do that, Vera.
WILLIAMS: Everybody keeps saying, `Do something, do something, do something,' and I'm trying to do something and everybody says...
NATHAN: I never said do something.
WILLIAMS: So what, you want me to sit in la-la land for the rest of my life?
NATHAN: I said--what I told you to do is go to your dad.
WILLIAMS: I've been going to him for freakin' four years.
NATHAN: OK, Veralyn, Veralyn, that's--but, OK, so you put the blame on your dad.
WILLIAMS: I didn't make the choice to come here, and basically what you're saying is for me to just sit here and wait for him to do something?
NATHAN: Veralyn, Veralyn, believe it or not, when your dad came over here, that's the best thing he could have done for you, OK? Do not--you don't understand. You do not understand. You...
WILLIAMS: When somebody gets their green card, they're supposed to put their dependents under it. I was supposed to have been getting a green card. Tell me why that's not--why I don't have a green card.
NATHAN: But like you shouldn't be mad at your dad for not doing that from the get-go.
WILLIAMS: So what--so I'm supposed to just sit here and be mad?
NATHAN: OK, there's one thing you can do; you can sit here and be mad, right? And the other thing is you can get yourself deported--Right?--which is what I firmly believe you'll end up ...(unintelligible) doing. Do you understand that September 11th has changed the rules of the game?
WILLIAMS: Uncle Nathan thought talking about this was dangerous for me.
NATHAN: OK, do not talk to your Uncle Nathan that way. I'm not trying to get up in your face or whatever. I'm just telling you my opinions, OK?
NATHAN: And I'm telling you because I have your best interests at heart.
WILLIAMS: Everyone goes on about my best interests. My uncle is a green card holder and has a job he likes, so how can he possibly know what I'm feeling? My mother doesn't have a green card yet, but she also doesn't understand. Maybe that's because she's had papers that allowed her to work as a teacher, and that's what she always wanted to do.
Do you think that I'm not grateful for the things you and Dad do for me?
Veralyn's Mother: I think you're very ungrateful because you're not aware of what some other people go through. And I think we make sacrifices for you. And in a way, I think if you did have your green card, you would have showed ungratefulness even more. You know, maybe you would have left or you would have done certain things maybe that you shouldn't have done. So not having it, I think, is helping you in a way maybe that you don't even realize, because it's giving you that strength to try to do well.
WILLIAMS: I am grateful that I'm here in America, getting more opportunities that I would have gotten in Sierra Leone. But it's not enough to just be grateful, to sit back and wait. It's been hammered into my head that as long as I be the best that I can be, I can achieve this American Dream. But now my mom wants me to settle for less?
Veralyn's Mother: You clean this place up one day, you want a medal?
WILLIAMS: When me and my sister and my brother misbehave, my mom sometimes threatens to send us back to Sierra Leone. The funny thing is I couldn't go back for a visit if I wanted to. Without a green card, it will be hard to get back into the US. I know if I go back, I'll be an outsider because of my feminist and outspoken ways, but I just wish my parents didn't have to leave a country that they love.
Veralyn's Father: OK, one thing you should know, we were really living an affluent life in Africa. We used to travel--I used to go to Europe for weekends, and I used to do business, too. I used to sell smoked fish in the United States, in England, and we lived a very, very comfortable life in Freetown.
WILLIAMS: Listening to my dad reminisce about how his life used to be makes me wish I had a chance to live in Sierra Leone longer, but I know the war made that impossible.
Veralyn's Father: It wasn't safe, especially if you were a Creole. I'm glad that I got out, because a lot of people died in that war, over 500,000. So you should thank your stars that I was smart enough to get out.
WILLIAMS: I think it was brave of my parents to leave their home. I just wish my dad thought ahead all the time. When my dad got his green card, the judge told him to file for me and my mom separately. My dad waited two and a half years to file for me. If he hadn't waited, I'd have my green card by now. Why wasn't he thinking about my future then? My dad's excuse? I was still young and it didn't seem to matter at the time. Plus, it would have cost $100 or $200. He said he finally filed for me when he did because the laws were becoming stricter.
You got the letter today?
Veralyn's Father: Yeah.
WILLIAMS: Lately things have started happening for me. A couple of months ago, I finally got an immigration notice from the Department of Homeland Security. I was so relieved to find out that my green card application had been approved.
(Reading) ...petition has been approved. We have sent the original visa petition...
Because of how long it took to get this far, I thought it was going to be months before I would hear from them again. But two more letters came very soon after the first one. As the declaring agent, the person who will receive all the papers that will come throughout the rest of the process, I decided to name myself. I don't want to leave it up to my parents anymore. They might procrastinate, and they often don't know what they're talking about.
Veralyn's Mother: Give me that thing.
WILLIAMS: Like when the papers came, my mom said I could finally get a work permit.
Why don't we call the hot line?
WILLIAMS: For English, press 1.
But after that call to the immigration hot line, I found out she was wrong.
(On phone) Hi. I just have a few questions. My application has been approved, and can I work while I'm waiting? No, not at all? Like--be cause I'm a student. So, like, my father was like the--I don't have any visa, but I've been here since I was like, you know, months old, and, like, you know, I've been having trouble getting, like, financial aid and all that stuff, of course, but I wanted to know whether I'll be able to work, like, if there are any kind of visa available for me. No? Well, OK.
I was disappointed, but I know my situation could be a whole lot worse. My family still thinks I shouldn't talk about this issue until I actually get my green card, but I think because immigration is such a taboo subject here, immigrants often don't know what they need to know to become legal.
What's the next part, Dad, that they have to call for and tell me when I have to go for an interview or something?
Now at least we talk about immigration at home. My dad is about to file for citizenship, and my mom's green card is on its way.
I have to wait for my priority date now.
I just can't wait to get mine.
(Soundbite of music)
NORRIS: Veralyn Williams recorded her story for Radio Rookies, a program of WNYC Radio in New York City that teaches teen-agers how to tell radio stories about their lives. Her story was produced by Serena Patel, with assistance from Miguel Macias, Wayne Schulmister and Karen Michel. You can hear other stories by Radio Rookies and learn more about the Rookies project at our Web site, npr.org.
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