The undocumented immigrants — Their daily challenges, their fears, and their hopes for the future

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

Image by Stacy Nguyen/NWAW

It was no surprise to her teacher, or perhaps even the students around her, that Jennifer* had the best grade — 104 percent — in the class, which was part of a joint nursing program offered at her high school. She enjoyed helping people, and was never afraid to get dirty or to get in on the action. Naturally, she started volunteering in an ICU and ER.  

The surprise came when she found out that she couldn’t get her nursing certificate. Though she asked before joining the program whether she would be eligible and was assured that there would be no problems, there was. Jennifer is undocumented. She crossed the border with her mother, brother, and cousin at the age of seven. But there would be many things she would be unable to do and many opportunities unavailable to her. At the end of the year, she watched her classmates graduate and receive their certificates.

Separation or regret

John* stands in a sea of white, among his congregation of mostly Samoan church-goers in their traditional Sunday white dresses and suit coats. When a church in the Pacific Northwest reached out for a pastor to lead a Samoan congregation, John answered the call. He got the necessary paperwork and sponsorship and left American Samoa with his wife and three kids for New Zealand, en route to the United States.

John, born in America Samoa, is a U.S. national. His wife, Sa*, born in neighboring Samoa (also known as Western Samoa), is not. The two countries share much of the same cultural values and customs. In New Zealand, officials denied his wife’s religious visa, explaining that the documents petitioned only for him as a minister.

He would either have to proceed on without his wife and three kids, or separate his kids from their mother, taking care of them alone while ministering, something he felt he would be unable to do.

Sa was granted admission to the United States under humanitarian parole status, which allowed her to stay for a year. The family entered the country in 2005, and in 2006, the parole expired.

The Pew Hispanic Center and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that nearly half of undocumented immigrants have arrived in the country legally and overstayed their visa, about 5.5 million out of 12 million. The number is so staggering that Homeland Security’s U.S. VISIT program, which identifies overstays, has a backlog of 1.6 million records. Anxiety over this issue has heightened since 2001, when five of the 9/11 hijackers were found to have expired visas.
While John eventually acquired citizenship, which qualified his children as American citizens, difficulty remained in helping his wife obtain a green card. Seeking help meant not only a risk of rejection, but also having to come forward with the secret that Sa was residing in the country illegally. Such risk has made it difficult, almost impossible, for many undocumented immigrants to seek help, explained Charlie McAteer, the communications director of OneAmerica, an advocacy group for immigrant, civil, and human rights.

“Your goal is to get legalized. You don’t want to live in fear, but you make yourself vulnerable. You can get punished for trying to pursue the solution everyone demands of you, a solution that is not available,” said McAteer.

“That’s my sadness when I started this with my wife,” said John. “It doesn’t really sound human to me. I don’t have any objections for immigration to have rules, but there has to be another side to it. Not all people have the same motives for coming here. It’s not that she is a criminal. The only thing is that she overstayed, but it was for the kids’ sake, for our family to continue being bonded.”

Foreign citizens returning before their visas expire may face long-term separation from their families. The wait time for obtaining green cards differs, depending on the country of origin, the availability of visas, and other variables. According to figures from the State Department in 2009, six Asian countries, the Philippines, China, India, Vietnam, and Pakistan, were among countries with the longest waitlists. Mexico remains the most backlogged for families awaiting visas.

Jennifer’s family tried applying for a visa, but after three years without word, her parents made the journey across the border. Jennifer and her brother stayed behind in Mexico City with their grandmother, where Jennifer attended an international school and learned English. Her mother came back for them a year later.

Jennifer, having completed high school with a 3.7 GPA, had her eye on attending college, but even approaching a college counselor meant she would have to come clean about her status. A counselor, seeing that Jennifer hadn’t obtained a social security number, said out loud, without discretion, “Oh, you don’t have one? Then you can’t study.”

“I was pretty much beaten down when I found out I couldn’t get my degree. I was so mad. I just thought, ‘Why me? I didn’t choose it. I can’t do anything about it,’ ” said Jennifer.

Undocumented students like Jennifer are called DREAMers, minors eligible for relief under the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. If enacted, the DREAM Act would allow undocumented students to apply for student loans for a college or university education and enlist in the military under conditional status. Undocumented minors would be eligible for a green card after serving two years in the military or completing two years toward a four-year degree or at a community college.

In 2010, the DREAM Act was blocked in the Senate, falling five votes short. It was reintroduced in May of this year to fewer supporters, with many Republicans who once supported the measure now withholding their vote, asking for increased immigration enforcement as a counterbalance.

“My mom regrets [bringing me here],” said Jennifer. “Every day, we talk about it. She says, ‘I should’ve left you over there. You would’ve been able to study. Over here, you struggle every day just to be on the same level with somebody else.’ ”


In 2003, then-Gov. Gary Locked signed House Bill 1079 to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition in Washington state. Currently, without the DREAM Act, undocumented students are not eligible for federal loans or programs supported by federal funding. A 2010 College Spark survey reports that undocumented students enter into postsecondary education only infrequently, and those who do rarely graduate with a postsecondary degree.

“It becomes a matter of money and becomes a matter of what do you do with a degree afterwards? You have bright kids who have acquired a degree, but they can’t apply for a job because you need to show your social security. So you have people with halted lives,” said Maha Jahshan, membership coordinator of OneAmerica.

“There is a lack of understanding, a lack of communication, and ignorance from the counselors. Counselors have a responsibility to help these students, and there often seems to be an inner stereotype from within the counselors themselves,” said Jahshan.

Jennifer’s mother runs a housekeeping business and her father does maintenance for an apartment community. They struggle to support the family on their income and take care of Jennifer’s aunt, who has cancer. Jennifer spends hours each day looking for a job, but her options are slim. Undocumented workers often rely on income from employers that pay under the table, often without the protections given to documented employees, making them vulnerable to mistreatment.

It came down to money for John also, who struggled to pay the naturalization fees. His salary from the church was not enough to sponsor his wife’s residency. In order for his wife to stay, he would have to find a co-sponsor to legally agree to help provide financial support for his wife until she becomes a U.S. citizen. He was not sure where he would find someone willing and able to do such a thing.

“The only thing that I wasn’t questioning is, she is my wife and we have three kids. I didn’t think finances would be the case, one of the crucial elements of her being here,” said John.

When Sa was taken to the hospital, John admitted to a social worker at the hospital that Sa had overstayed her parole.

“There is a sense of being very scared because you don’t know how they will react. We consider them all public officials. They have the authority to report it,” said John.

As an undocumented immigrant, Sa could not receive her husband’s benefits. The hospital agreed to knock off a $49,000 bill, but John would have to take care of another bill of a similar amount to cover gallbladder removal and a hospital stay.

Opening the door and going out

From the way the church rang with the sound of music, one would not assume that the prevalent emotion was fear.

“The difficulty [with being undocumented] is just opening up the door and going out,” said John, who has witnessed similar struggles among members of his congregation.

“They are law-abiding human beings,” said John of the undocumented immigrants in his community. He wanted to say, “Law-abiding citizens,” but corrected himself.

“Some of them have clean records. They pay their taxes. They’re hard working people. They don’t work that office job where they sit behind a desk. They go out into the street. They can’t work a nine-to-five. They collect papers, cardboard, cans to earn money. These are some of the struggles that my people are dealing with.”

John’s job is to take care of his congregation and his family. He conducts pastoral visits and supervises outreach programs for Samoans, but most importantly, John must build the church to serve as both a spiritual and cultural home for his congregation.

“[The Samoan culture] is family-oriented,and everybody is family. That’s the bottom line, that we all live and congregate as a family. That is our culture; that’s how we’re raised. It is not an individualistic type of culture, a one-man gang. There is no such thing in our language,” said John.
Some undocumented members of his congregation who lost family members in the 8.1 Samoa earthquake in 2009 were unable to return and attend funerals, so much of the grieving and healing took place at the church.

Though Jahshan at OneAmerica assured her that things would be okay, Jennifer was terrified to take the trip to Olympia. She was among the few DREAM Act youth chosen from Washington state to speak with senators as part of the Latino/Educational Achievement Project (LEAP) conference.

“I was scared. I was going-to-pee-in-my-pants scared. My mom and I always believed that you can’t do this or can’t do that. We don’t go out often from our little Seattle area,” said Jennifer. “I did it because I agree with it 100 percent, but I’m scared to show my face.”

Jennifer and other DREAMers wrote letters to the senators about their experiences. She asked that someone else read her letter for her, and from where she was standing, she could see that her words moved one senator to tears.

No way in or out

Her family spent three days in the desert before crossing the Arizona border.

“It was hard. On the way, we would see bones, skulls, and rattlesnakes. At the beginning, my mom bought us brand new Nikes, and by the end of it, they were gone. We were walking barefoot, and it was only a day or two,” said Jennifer.

Much of John’s time away from church was spent visiting the Department of Social and Health Services, trying to get Sa the benefits she needed, then going anywhere he knew to go seeking help in obtaining her green card.

“Many [undocumented immigrants], when they file applications to get their green cards, they end up being removed and then facing separation [from their families],” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigration Rights Project (NWIRP).

“Some people have to go back to their home country to [wait for the] green card processing, which creates a whole new list of hurdles that they’d have to overcome. A lot of times, what we’re doing is just sitting down with somebody and evaluating the risk.”

While Adams and the staff at NWIRP have been able to help hundreds over the years since they started, there are still thousands that they’re turning away. After struggling to find help for Sa, John was referred to NWIRP by Faaluaina Pritchard, executive director at the Asia Pacific Cultural Center. The case was considered low risk enough for NWIRP to assist Sa, and after five years of hiding, she received her green card last month.

A few months ago, Jennifer watched news coverage on a body found in Mexico City and cut into pieces. In the background, she recognized the familiar image of her old house.

“I’m glad I moved because a lot of people I knew that stayed there are dead now,” said Jennifer.

Without a direct family member to petition for her citizenship, Jennifer and DREAMers in her situation are considered higher risk cases at NWIRP. Many have no choice but to wait, knowing that there is no way unless the DREAM Act passes, knowing too that there’s also no way out. (end)

*The names in the story have been changed to protect our sources.

Tiffany Ran can be reached at

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3 Responses to “The undocumented immigrants — Their daily challenges, their fears, and their hopes for the future”


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