Elisa Bermudez

Elisa Bermudez

Bryn Mawr, PA

Since before I was born my mother tried to leave Venezuela, her first option was Canada. But between one thing and another her idea wouldn’t materialize until 2002. At the time, she had already sensed the debacle of socio-economics and politics in our home country, it was around 1980. Then, I was born in 1981 and grew in an environment of fear and paranoia, learning how to prevent from being robbed (by then crime rates and poverty were increasing). All this training by my parents, to be aware at all times – because you’re always a target for robbery, rape, murder or kidnap – failed. At age 7, I was walking passed a supermarket when a teenager came out and tried to steal my earrings. That was my first encounter with the bitter reality of most people in Venezuela. Then the “Caracazo” happened. In 1989 people took to the streets to vandalize and loot businesses in response to the President’s decision to impose austerity measures and increase transportation rates. In 1992, today’s President Hugo Chavez carried out a failed coup attempt out of frustration with the political elite and the level of poverty in the country, or so he said. Later, I graduated in 1999 and came to the United States to study English for at least a year. Back home I was already accepted to a college program to study journalism, but I was granted a one year academic leave to study another language (it was required for the program). That was one reason to come to the USA. The other reason is that in 1998, Hugo Chavez won the elections and my parents were really worried, so was I. There’s this guy who has no political career, whose solution to the country’s problems at the time was a coup attempt, and whose rhetoric was already promoting hate, revenge, aggression and violence. In addition, the old political elite was rotten already; people were tired of old crooked politicians too inept and ambitious to manage properly the country. No wonder people elected the unknown, charismatic military man who was not part of the traditional political elite and who seemingly stood up against it. But my parents saw the dictator in him, and so did I. By the time I landed in the USA, on January 4th, 2000, my mother was already encouraging me to stay here and go to college. A few months later, my friends – who were also studying journalism – also encouraged me to stay if I could. They were already getting worried about free expression and free speech, and the newly elected government of Hugo Chavez. It has been nearly 14 years since Chavez was elected to power and I will never regret the decision to leave Venezuela, as hard as it was at the time. I think it was the best moved I have ever made for my own sake, for political, social, financial and personal reasons I feel so much safer in the USA. I feel I have much better opportunities here than in my own home country, despite the crisis we are going through and how difficult the immigration system has made it for me to remain here as a legal immigrant. And that’s where the story gets complicated. I arrived with a student visa to study English, then continue in a communications program. After graduation, I was able to apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) to work for a year. Initially I worked for a couple of small companies part-time in marketing and communications, but THE job for me came when I got a call from the then editor of the Associated Press in Philadelphia. They needed an editorial assistant for their night shift. So I went through the interviewing process. In my last interview with the editor I informed him that I was an immigrant and as such if I was to be offered a job I needed to obtain a work visa. He said he had never dealt with such situation and needed to consult with human resources in New York City. The HR department gave him the green light. But about 3 o 4 months later I get a call from the assistant bureau chief and a representative from HR in New York to explain that because my job description does not require a bachelor’s degree – which is one of the requirements to approve a work visa – they should not apply for a work visa in my behalf. Why? Because it was going to be denied. Basically, the job requirements didn’t match the visa requirements and neither the organization nor I wanted to waste about $3,000 on a visa application we knew it would not have been approved. I was very upset at the time. That was precisely the reason why in my last interview I told the editor about my immigration status, so that they could determine if they were going to be able to hire me. And they did, but the HR department obviously made a mistake when authorizing my hiring. Though, I saw this as an opportunity to go to grad school. So the following year I got another student visa, went to Boston and got my degree in journalism from Northeastern University. And the story repeated itself. I applied for an OPT, it was grated and I was able to work again for year. I happily returned to my old employer, Reporters Without Borders (I worked as an intern with them while I was in grad school). They wanted me back temporarily to help them with their Beijing Olympics Campaign. But I had to continue looking for another job. One day my mother emailed me a job description of a position in communications that seemed fit for my background. So I applied. To my surprise, I got a called soon afterwards to set up an interview. Long story short, I got the job and my employer was willing to sponsor me for a work visa. Because I still had to months left in my OPT, I was able to start to work right away after finishing my temp job with RWB. We had to apply for a work visa later. So in March 2009 we mailed all the paperwork to apply for a work visa, but in May my supervisors suddenly called me into a meeting to tell me that the organization was going through budget cuts and my position, unfortunately, was eliminated. My employment with them ended the last week of June and about two weeks later my work visa had arrived, a visa that meant nothing if I had just lost my job. At the time I consulted with an immigration lawyer – in the two subsequent years I consulted with many immigration lawyers, some of them as far as Texas and Florida – who suggested to do a change of status from my OPT (I had a 60-day grace period after my OPT expired the last week of June) to a tourist visa. It was the only way, at the time, to remain in the country legally while I was looking for a job. I looked for a job for a whole year to no avail. I was offered about four jobs in two years, none of which I was able to accept because of conditions imposed by immigration laws. In the meantime, I kept renewing my tourist visa every six months, something lawyers were impossible to do. I’m afraid in my case it worked because I always showed all documents they asked for, particularly those proving that I had been here for a long time as a legal immigrant and that I was laid off due to budget cuts. Then in August of 2010 my parents finally became US residents, they waited 8 years. It was a long and painful journey for them since 2002, but I will let them tell their own story. Later, in January 2011 my sister and brother-in-law got married after a wonderful 5-year relationship, she became a US resident in May of the same year. Just like me, my sister had moved to the USA in September 2001 (yes, right after 9/11) to study English and go to college later on. After graduation she managed to get a job and a work visa. Her journey, too, was a painful one. My parents waited 8 years to become US residents, my sister waited a whole decade. And what about me? After a year of looking for a job I thought it may be another sign that I should once again return to grad school and do that doctoral program I always wanted to do. Instead of a Ph.D. program I ended up doing a master’s degree in Hispanic Studies at Villanova University, hoping it will take me to the doctoral program at Temple University. Thankfully, through this process I was able to obtain another student visa, no OPT available this time. I am very happy to be back to campus studying and working on a field I was found to be very interesting and fulfilling, personally and professionally. I’m doing a bit of a career change with this degree but I think it is for good. However, from an immigration point of view, I am once again considered an international student and still consider an immigrant, even though I have lived here for the last 12 years as a legal immigrant (paid taxes, volunteered in the community, got two college degrees already). What else does the US government want for me? In September of 2011 my parents were finally able to petition for my US residency, a process that’s estimated to take another 7 to 8 years. In the meantime, I can only stay in the USA either with a work or student visa (and having a student visa while this process is going on is also a risk) or I have to wait overseas. But the only place where I can go “overseas” is Venezuela, a place where I don’t want to live because I’m scare. I’m scare that there’s a dictator in power – even if some do not want to recognize it -, I’m scare of the level of crime and poverty (Caracas produced more deaths in 2011 than Ciudad Juarez in Mexico), I’m scare about the fact that I have no money and solely, and sadly, depend on my parents (weather I am in the USA or Venezuela), I’m scare about the lack of opportunities back home, and I don’t want to loose the piece of mind I have here in the USA. Yet, it is frustrating the fact that I’m not allowed to work in the USA and help my parents just because, after all this time and effort, I’m still consider an immigrant. Now that I have a student visa I’m only allow to work on campus (and I have a job, a scholarship that pays for my tuition and fees) or off-campus only in a field related to my program of study. I can’t work in many of the restaurants that are in need of waiters and waitresses. Neither I can work on my own as a pet-sitter or babysitter. Does it really makes sense for the US government to ban legal immigrants to make money so they can pay bills and sustain themselves while they live here? Do you really think hiring an immigrant worker in a local restaurant will “take jobs away from American citizens”? Don’t you think the government should live up to employers who they want to hire? Don’t you think it is fair to allow free competition in the job market between citizens and immigrants and, again, leave it up to employers if they need to hire an immigrant? Don’t you think this would solve the problem about human trafficking and worker abuse that happens so often among illegal immigrants working for US companies? Wouldn’t all this changes actually allow the US government to keep better oversight on employers and immigrant workers? (Not only to prevent illegal immigration but also abuse at the work place). All in all, my sister and parents are US residents. I have cousins, uncles and aunts who are also US residents or citizens. Yet, I am still in immigration limbo, even after following the law. Just because this is sad enough, to add more pain to this story I have actually been suggested by colleagues, friends, neighbors, even my parents and immigration lawyers that I should “just find a boyfriend and get married” (I’m quoting one of the many lawyers I spoke to). Of course, it is not only my immigration issue, but also the fact that I am 30 years old, don’t have a partner at the moment, I’m not married (and I’m not interested in getting married), and don’t have children (and as much as I like children, I’m not sure I want and can have children of my own). Based on this situation, people tend to think that at my age someone who does not posses the “things” described above must be sad, or something must be wrong with me. Most people don’t know that peace and happiness ultimately resides within ourselves. The thing is that I happen to take relationships and parenting far too seriously than most people. Even if it made me angry, most people who made such suggestion meant no harm and are just trying to help. But the thought of going out and finding a boyfriend for the sole purpose of obtaining a Green Card is… well… beyond disgusting (even if I was involved in a relationship, it would turn my stomach upside down to ask someone to marry me just to obtain something that, quite frankly, I have earned on my own). The next time someone makes a suggestion like that, they should “walk the talk.” Besides, I have also seen cases of women who ended up being trafficked and abused because of their desperate need of getting out of their countries and into the USA. So not only it is disgusting, it is also highly dangerous option. The bottom line here is that I, and many other legal and illegal immigrants, shouldn’t be going through this. When I came to the USA I was 18 years old, now I’m 30, I have spent my entire adult life in the USA. Going back to Venezuela would be a reversed culture shock. Could we please have immigration laws that fit the current scenarios? I will be a student for the next to years. But unless a miracle happens, in two years I will be back to square one. Again looking for a job or applying to doctoral programs so I can get either a work visa or a student visa that will buy me time while I wait for my US residency to be approved.

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