I had no idea that I would become a successful immigration lawyer and a good businesswoman. My sister Cecilia and I came to the United States, each with two suitcases and $100. We arrived at Tacoma Airport in Seattle, not knowing if our host family had gotten our letters with the flight information in time to pick us up. That was in August 1969, at the height of the Vietnam era, with no computers or internet. The airlines were not deregulated, and a one way fare from Hong Kong to the United States was about $3,000 (8 Hong Kong Dollars was the exchange rate, so about 24,000 Hong Kong Dollars). My father was a publisher/writer and despite his big title, was making about 1,500 Hong Kong Dollars a month.
Now, fast forward to 2009 when I was approaching the age of 59. I realized that before time ran out on me, I needed to write all this down to inspire and to encourage the foreign-borns and immigrants, in that we all do have a common bond. No matter what country we come from, or how or at what port of entry we arrived, we share a common thread and need to strive, survive, and succeed to prove to ourselves that we can do it, to prepare a better life for the ones that we have left at home, and to promulgate our legacies.
Although times have changed and the world has progressed, we all face the same issues: how to stay and work in the United States once we get here, how to obtain a green card, and then, U.S. Citizenship, how to find and get a job that we can be passionate about and in which we can help our boss(es), how to contribute to society, and how to bring our loved ones to share in our lives here. Along the way, we must try to understand the Western and uniquely American way of life, learn the U.S. taxing structure, discover how to get and keep our jobs, and let our bosses know that we are good workers and good people. We must try not to violate any laws, fight or threaten others, or run when law enforcement officials ask questions. We must learn to look people in the eye and not give soft handshakes, to smile and not look defensive, to get a clean haircut - the list goes on and on.
To do well in this country, education is very important. You cannot succeed if you cannot speak, read and write English. When you work in the U.S., exceptional work does shine and speak for itself, you will succeed, and money will come. You will never make it by being a person without status in the U.S., working $8/hour jobs, which after tax leaves you with $6/hour, all while you have to support your family overseas as well as yourself. Keep in mind that we do look and act a little differently, so we need to make this into a positive aspect and not let first impressions hurt us. At first, I could not find or keep any jobs because in the 1970's there were no Asian women lawyers or waitresses in this city. We will survive and do well in this country if we understand and study, work hard and do not get into fights or drink while driving.
I understand that it's difficult. You feel that you can't leave the U.S. because you would be banned from coming back for more than 10 years. Who's going to support your family both here and there, straddling two coasts? What's more, if you go back, you face the shame of having accepted defeat. However, if you stay, you can't even get basic things like a Driver's License, Social Security Number or work papers.
I do not purport to have all the answers, but along the journey I've traveled I've accumulated knowledge which I can share with you about how we can all realize our goals.
It was a long and difficult climb from being fired from waitress jobs, to completing my education and building a career. After enduring the poverty and hunger of the early years, escaping an abusive relationship, finding a loving husband, and facing the prejudice and injustice of racism and sexism, I have seen first-hand the myriad problems immigrants must overcome to make their homes in America. Like the first European colonists hoping to find the legendary fountain of youth or gold for the taking, immigrants almost invariably find that America's wealth does not come effortlessly, but, rather, through hard work and persistence.
It is both a boon and a detriment to the state of U.S. immigration that many of the same experiences that I went through years ago remain unchanged. Reflected in the stories of my clients, I have seen the same hopes that I and so many other immigrants before me fostered while taking our first steps into American society; I have also seen many of the same fears. Old problems have been resurrected through conflict or economic difficulties, while new obstacles constantly arise to challenge immigrants, lawyers, and the system itself.
Because I have personally encountered or helped others deal with so many issues that an immigrant may face, I try not to use the word ''you,'' and instead use "us" for solidarity purposes. I also try to avoid using the word "alien" because it sounds so weird and reminds me of the movie "ET" directed by Steven Spielberg. The words "illegal" and "unauthorized" also bother me a lot because they have become so politically charged. Accordingly, in this book I use the terms ''person(s) without status" and "person(s) with status" (legal alien)).
Practice in the immigration law arena has evolved dramatically throughout the last 30 years. I still remember giving a speech at John Carroll University in Cleveland in the early 1980s, and an activist student asked me point blank why I didn't testify more often on the hill and push actively for legislative change given all that I knew and my high level of involvement in the field. This question has stayed with me throughout the years. Most older-generation lawers such as myself study and work to represent one client at a time. Just like Tip O'Neill's quote, "all politics is local." We find loopholes, walk through the fields, and bring new cases with novel theories to the immigration judges. If we win, we get green cards for our clients. If we lose, we appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and if we lose again, we bring the case to the circuit courts. This is where we can effect changes. In the past ten years, circuit court decisions have been varied because of the sheer volume of cases brought before them. Some have been conservative, others liberal. However, I'm angry. Maybe it's just me, but how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) treats us is wrong. It does not pass the smell test. I had a conversation with the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Mr. Chertoff, who is a decent fellow and a great lawyer who knows what he is doing and the comment he made was along the lines of "aren't these people you are talking about illegal?" He is right, but what he didn't get, and what many U.S.-born people don't understand, is that the system makes it so easy to lose your legal status in the U.S. The system is setting us up to fail. It might be because you forgot to file a visa extension, you took a wrong turn on a bridge and ended up at the Canadian border, got sick and couldn't attend school full time, or even got below a C average while on an F-l student visa.
The American media should change the way they represent immigrant issues. It's very easy to fall from legal status for anybody in the U.S. who is not a citizen. Thus, the best advice which we can give to any green card holder is that she apply for United States citizenship. This way, she can travel overseas without worrying about how to get back (green card holders need to return to the U.S. at least once every 6 months), encountering problems with a wrong fingerprinting, or being denied entry at the border if her name is not spelled right.
Yet, through the most trying times of crisis and sacrifice, the American dream has weathered adversity and the United States remains a country of freedom and opportunity; a true beacon of hope for those from places where hope has long been forgotten. The principles most central to the American ideal espoused by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence, those of freedom and opportunity, are promised to every person living in the United States. As immigrants and Americans, we can and must make full use of what faculties and resources are given us to strive, survive, and succeed.
Toward this end, it may be beneficial for today's foreign borns to have a set of guidelines by which they may direct their efforts while adjusting to American life. I do not purport to have solutions to every challenge that an immigrant may face, nor would I presume to tell others how to live. However, along the journey I have traveled through both hardship and happiness, I have discovered several general rules which have aided me immensely in my life. I share them here in the hope that they may help other immigrants who are working to realize their dreams.
I also talk of my personal journey to and within the United States. My history and character were shaped by my maternal grandmother, the disgraced first wife of a powerful publisher/writer, and her tenacious first born daughter, my mother, whose love and courage sent her first two daughters to the new world at the height of Asian anti-American sentiment during the Vietnam War. Her faith in us was so strong that she then sent her younger two children to join us. My start as a Catholic girl of nineteen accompanied by her eighteen year old sister, making the voyage from Hong Kong with two hundred dollars and four suitcases, to her happy settlement in Cleveland and the addition of nine nieces and nephews to her family, my diverse experiences can be reflected in the stories of the millions of immigrants who have come to America over the years, yet like every individual who braves the arduous and uncertain voyage in hopes of a brighter future, remain powerfully unique. I always tell my husband that the best days of my life were the day I got my citizenship, the day we got married, the days my kids were born, and the day I passed my first bar exam. I took two bars; in New York in 1976 and then in Ohio in 1977 when I moved after a failed and abusive relationship. Well, that's another story.
My sister and I came to the U.S. on scholarships and had to work in the school cafeteria as part of the package. Under the strict guidance and mentoring of Ottumwa Heights College Catholic nuns, we got up every morning at 5:30 to work in the cafeteria. We were late a lot, but somehow, breakfast for the nuns, college kids, and staff was always ready at 7 a.m. Even now, 40 years later, I still remember the early morning freezing weather, getting up and putting on clothes, getting ready for school and the day's testing, and that breakfast for 500 people.
In the summer months, my sister and I would travel to stay with my New York family, Mr. and Mrs. Chan. They always picked us up from the airport or bus station and drove us safely to the Catskills where many wealthy families vacationed. I worked for seven summers, being promoted every summer, first from a chambermaid and bus-girl to waitress, and finally to head waitress. I was the first in the 50 year history of the hotel to rise so far when I started at the very bottom of the ladder.
So you see, hard work does pay off. From the mentoring and yelling of the Catholic nuns, from my New York host family, and from my boss at the Catskills, I learned and became who I am today, developing the ability to help immigrants on our path to fulfillment and success. As with any professional service provider/practitioner, I try not to be boastful about accomplishments because the purpose of this book is to help you - both in your immigration case and understanding your immigration situation. It's not about me. However, I want you to know that there are millions of us who have firmly and successfully resettled here and have kids and grandkids here. We can do this.
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