Coming to America

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My sister and I were very inspired after our visit to the Statue of Liberty

Listeners probably know that I’m from Peru. They probably also know that I had a pretty nomadic upbringing that had me traveling from city to city, country to country and sometimes continent to continent. I don’t know, though, if I’ve ever shared how I came to settle in Chicago and by extension the US.

So here it is: I’m an immigrant. Not my parents, not my grandparents. Me. I am your friendly neighborhood immigrant and I’m going to tell you how I ended up on these shores.

My first time in these United States of America was as a wee 5-year-old. My father, a career diplomat, had been sent to New York. This means that my first legal status here was either an A1 or A2 visa–I honestly can’t remember–, which basically meant that I was there because my dad was on official Peruvian government business. We were not immigrants then, in the same way that you going off to a fancy job in Singapore doesn’t mean you’re settling there for life. It simply means that you’re living there for a bit because of your profession.

My childhood in the States was idyllic. We lived in nice neighborhoods that also tended to have a heavy international presence. I went to schools that taught us about the importance of diversity and celebrated each one of our backgrounds. Shout out to Mrs. Tedla, my 2nd grade teacher, who would highlight the contributions of  African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Women, Native Americans and pretty much every other census category in her classes. I am convinced that my education, in a public school no less, was instrumental to making me aware of the values of equality that I hold so dear today.

It was also fortuitous that my family was given the opportunity to live in the US during the worst of Peru’s political and violent upheaval. So while my Peruvian friends remember a childhood full of car bombs, 400% inflation, constant terrorist threat, lack of access or reliance on public services and a pervasive sense that the country was falling apart, I had nothing but peace of mind.

My dad was sent back to Peru when I was 11 and thus began my experience in Latin America. It was there that I got another type of education that is also just as instrumental to my political leanings as the one I received in the suburbs of NY and Washington DC. And that is that the US government can inflict an insane amount of harm on others. I wasn’t completely blind to their capacity for destruction. As a curious child who read way too many inappropriate things, I knew that United States history was full of dirty secrets (like any nation). But it was in Latin America that I learned of proxy wars, dictatorship support and¬†other terrible decisions. More importantly, I learned that we are all seriously intertwined in this world. If the US sneezes, its effects can be felt in some tiny town in Tanzania.

When I decided to apply to Graduate School, though, my sights were in universities located here. Why? The best and brightest continued to be here and I’m an insufferable overachiever. I also had fond memories of my time in the US. It was a place I associated with happiness, peace and infinite possibility. It was also a place I felt I understood and that it, in return, understood me.

I landed in NY with a student visa. Again, this isn’t an immigration status. You are technically still considered a “visitor” under a student visa. This meant I could live in the States with the express purposes of receiving an education and could only remain there as long as I continued to do that. I wasn’t allowed to work outside of my university’s confines. And yes, I did pay both State and Federal taxes during this time.

I met an American man during my studies, fell in love, moved in with him and dated him for 5 whole years. I said yes when he asked for my hand in marriage. Due to these circumstances, it was time to change my legal status again. This time, I applied for my Green Card. That’s to say, for the first time, I applied for an immigration status. Marriage is by far the easiest way to become a legal immigrant. It was still annoying AF, and we were uber privileged in the help we had access to. His union paid for our immigration lawyer who advised us every step of the way. We had the means to afford the filing fees and the fact that I couldn’t work while my status changed. I spent hours tracking down documents to prove we really did love each other: bank statements, phone bills, personal emails, pictures with his family, letters, a lengthy application form, and sworn statements indicating that I was not a prostitute or part of the 1941 Nazi party.

My lawyer said we had a strong case. “Honestly, the people they really scrutinize are those in poverty.”

In other words, those who probably needed this Green Card more than I did. All I was doing was leaving one comfortable existence in Peru for one in the States.

My first Green Card was a conditional one. This is to prevent fraudulent marriages. If we divorced or if my husband passed away, I was at risk of being sent back. And yes, I still had to pay taxes.

I was able to apply for a permanent Green Card 2 years later. It was less involved, thank God. This Green Card was renewable every 10 years, as long as I didn’t commit any crimes and paid taxes. However, being a resident isn’t the same as being a citizen. It doesn’t mean I’m American, it simply means I’m allowed to live here. I’m not allowed to vote or be on jury duty and, theoretically, I can get deported if shit hits the fan.

I pay so many taxes.

While I waited for the appropriate time to apply for citizenship (I believe I still had to wait a year or 2 before I could), my marriage fell apart. I figured I’d deal with one legal procedure before starting another. I spent the past 2 years focused on my divorce. That was finalized in August. I was ready for citizenship.

And then Trump happened.

The day after the election was the first time I’ve ever felt afraid to leave my house while living in the US. Believe me, as a woman and a Latina, I’m no stranger to the bubbles of racism and sexism that explode in this country. I have a long list of anecdotes of times I’ve been actively discriminated against or harassed. Nevertheless, I tend to walk through life with the confidence of a mediocre white man. I don’t feel intimidated when I’m the only minority in the room. I have zero qualms about setting dudes straights. But to see a large segment of the population of your chosen country vote for a platform that is Anti You is different. I liked to think that racism in the US was mostly due to ignorance. On Tuesday though I was left wondering the following: not only do they not know me, they don’t care to know me. And they may not care if I am harmed.

After the campaign’s hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric, you’d think I would be packing up my bags to leave. This is how I know I’m luckier than most: I have another country that will take me in. For that I’m freaking privileged beyond belief. Refugees don’t have that option. Undocumented immigrants who risked their life to be here must feel like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have a way out.

But I don’t want a way out. I love Peru the way you love your family. I love the United States way you love your best friends. And I don’t abandon my friends in their time of need.

-INES

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3 thoughts on “Coming to America

  1. Pingback: Year In Review: 2016 | Ines Bellina

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