Green Card Blues


It comes as a surprise to many American friends that I, their Canadian friend, have been stressed about maintaining my visa status ever since I crossed the border in 2009. “But you’re Canadian,” they say, as if Canadian is American. “Can’t you just get citizenship already?” as if I enjoy worrying about employment sponsorship year after year.

For a good few years after I got my communication management master’s degree in 2011, I bet I made some great first impressions whenever I’d meet new people.

Stranger: Hey, my name’s [whatever].

Me (smiling): Cool, I’m Nikki.

Stranger: So, what do you do?

Me (starting to cry): Barely anything with my visa restrictions!

I’m a pretty crier, so that’s fine, but the tightness in my chest and stomach, as I would try to explain the screwy US immigration system, exhausted me. And because all they had to do was be pushed out of a vagina or cut out of a belly within certain boundaries, I’ve immigration-cried at countless Americans over the years about how long and demanding and confusing the process is.

No, a visa isn’t the same as a green card. I can’t just work wherever I want with any visa.

No, a green card is not the same thing as citizenship. Green card holders can’t vote, and green card terms expire. And you can’t just walk up to an immigration office and ask the government for a green card. Work or family has to sponsor you. You have to be wanted by someone here.

You know people that just got married and have a green card already? That’s so great for them! Maybe I should have gone to marriage school instead of getting my master’s degree.

Yes, my mom has her green card through her employer and I’m waiting for mine under her family sponsorship… but since I’m older than twenty one, I’m low-priority in the queue.

Plus—get this—despite immigrating to Toronto from Manila when I was two and being eligible for certain visa categories because of my Canadian citizenship, my green card category is based on country of birth. Lucky me—Filipino citizens (along with Mexican, Indian, and Chinese citizens) have a separate, s l o w e r waitlist. If I was allowed to be processed as a Canadian, I think I would have received my green card after a *speedy* seven years.

Oh I still don’t know when my spot in the green card line will be called, especially the way the current president makes up new immigration restrictions on a whim. Can you believe it’s almost been A DECADE and I still don’t know what my future holds? What a thrill to live with so much uncertainty, eh?!

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Despite not going to marriage school, I recently found myself in a loving and committed relationship with JJ, where we’re planning our future together with a liberating sense of certainty, complete with two kids (one bio, one adopted) and a vacation house in Hawaii. I credit The Bachelor for deepening my understanding of American courtship and allowing me to vicariously experience whirlwind heartbreak so I would not have to live it firsthand.

In early February, we were in Colorado to meet his family for the first time during their annual ski trip. When I had bounced from Canada, I was resolute on never setting foot in snow ever again, so as to not trigger my self-diagnosed homicidal-ideation winter-onset Tourettes. After all, despite emigrating from the Philippines when I was only two, I was and will always be a true island girl. But I have since discovered there are experiences in snowy climes that don’t involve tripping on black ice on the way to the bus stop or getting whipped by grey/brown slush from icy puddles when the bus whooshes by, making me feel so so murdery.

Our resort’s swim-out pool. My exposure therapy to winter. Credit: Nikki San Pedro

For example, JJ told me that we’d be staying at a resort in Breckenridge with outdoor hot tubs, so we could soak beneath snowfall. Outdoor hot tubs. Sounds like my very own Bachelor Hometown Date, complete with heart-to-hearts with the fam! I could certainly revisit winter to meet the future in-laws (mom, dad, two older sisters plus the eldest’s husband). JJ warned me that his parents voted for the president and watched Fox News, “So… try not to talk about…anything,” he suggested on our way to the airport.

But the ratio of drama to fun family time was rather low. Many group activities would’ve been cut out of a Bachelor edit or reduced to a millisecond of b-roll for being too obviously sweet. Us all around the TV, with JJ’s dad providing “whoosh” and “zoom” sound effects to Team Canada’s Moulin Rouge ice dancing routine. The *kids* decorating the living area and kitchen with homemade heart doilies and family photos the night before Valentine’s Day/JJ’s Mom’s birthday so she could wake up to a lovely surprise. Friendly one-on-one interrogations about my education and religion (two master’s degrees, and a Catholic upbringing just like them) while JJ’s mom and I made BLT sandwiches for everyone. The twenty-minute gondola ride above the snowy slopes with future mom- and dad-in-law on our way to meet the rest of the fam for lunch on the mountain. JJ’s mom announcing in front of everyone as we sat down to eat our BLTs: JJ, Nikki passed! And JJ’s brother-in-law confirming: I agree!

Rather, I’d imagine that my Bachelor Hometown Date footage would focus on the tears. After almost ten years since expatriating from Canada to the US, I thought I was past my days of immigration-crying at new homies. But during the second day of the trip, while we (minus JJ’s Dad—napping back at the timeshare) were out for happy hour drinks wearing the red and pink attire we remembered to pack for V-Day, my tears failed to get the hint they were not invited to the celebrations. Before our chicken wings and flatbread arrived, JJ’s mom casually continued our conversation about grad school.

JJ’s mom: If you have a master’s degree in Communications, why are you doing your MFA now?

Me (starting to cry): Because it helps me stay in the country legally while I wait for my green card.

JJ’s mom: But you’re Canadian. And you got your master’s degree in the States.

Through tears, I explained I studied Communication Management so I could get into project management at nonprofits—and in LA especially because I loved the idea of using pop culture to Trojan Horse some humanitarian values into the mainstream—but didn’t realize until after I graduated that many nonprofits generally don’t have the infrastructure to sponsor a foreign employee. So for nine years I’ve had to adjust my dreams of making the world a better place, switching status between temp visas, never certain if each application would be approved. And the whole time, my sweet, selfless mom has been patiently supporting me (financially, emotionally, spiritually…if she could physically somehow, I’m sure she would) so I could maintain legal status.

Immigration-crying: equal parts frustration and gratitude. And I thought the only thing that would bring me to tears in Colorado would be the wind whipping the snow right in my face.

As a Republican living in the South, future mom-in-law had a different set of immigration concerns than the ones I was used to, fueled by Fox News—voter fraud, chain migration—plus the classic They’re taking our jobs! Heck yeah, I’d take your jobs if I could. Bachelor footage would cut to JJ’s brother-in-law and eldest sister (secret liberals) tagging into the debate, explaining that her news source was more interested in raising fears than reporting on immigration well.

No—okay, you as a citizen can use a driver’s license to vote, but just because non-citizens can get licenses, doesn’t mean it grants them the right. And if they had the right, don’t you think the election results would’ve gone the other way?!

If only chain migration were a thing and that my Filipino-Canadian mom getting a green card through her work automatically made me a permanent resident instead of waiting ’til I don’t know when!

JJ has a job; nobody from India is *stealing* it. American companies have to follow procedures to make sure there isn’t a US person (citizen or permanent resident/green card holder) that could do the job before they can hire a foreigner to fulfill this role for the sake of the United States.

Despite being outnumbered in this confrontation, future mom-in-law was sweet to pacify my tears, commended me for taking the legal route, at least. I blubbered harder, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have the resources if it weren’t for my mom’s support. The students in South LA who I tutored, who have fled Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador as a part of the unaccompanied minors crisis at the borders in 2014—they’re escaping violence and oppression and just want to go to school. How can they be expected to follow a legal path of immigration that many Americans don’t fully understand, with wait times longer than they’ve been alive?

Obviously, Bachelor would leave this as a cliffhanger: Will Nikki recover from this immigration-crying fiasco to marry her way into the family [and a green card]??? Stay tuned to the most dramatic season finale…

But this isn’t The Bachelor (even though they basically gave me the final rose at reality TV speed). JJ thinks we might have even been able to open Mom’s mind more if Dad was there to translate what we were all yelling/crying at her. Even through political differences, they saw how happy and healthy their son was with me—how I can help him dream bigger, and make those dreams come true (they’re already looking forward to visiting us in Hawaii).

Valentine’s day with the future in-laws (before immigration-crying)

Which raises a dilemma I never expected to be faced with and not sure how to answer yet. Not: Do I take his last name or keep my own (this is 2018 and San Pedro is such a dope last name)—Rather: Is it worth it for me to forfeit my spot in the green card line under my mom’s sponsorship for the quicker line under JJ’s spousal sponsorship if we wanted to get married soon?

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One of my Canadian neighbors in LA just posted on Facebook that she would have a month left in town before she had to return to British Columbia: Time for goodbyes. Fuck immigration. (Or something of that sentiment). She’s been here for about as long as I’ve been, but got a green card through marriage. Because of divorce, however, there were issues with renewing her green card; if she doesn’t vacate the States for a bit, she might be banned for five years.

It’s instances like this that trigger my tears more strongly than the violence of winter. Someone who has followed legal procedures to live and work in the country, contributed to the economy for years, established friends—roots—can be completely uprooted for whatever arbitrary reason. Who’s to say if lotto luck will work in my favor when my next visa application is reviewed? Or when I finally get my green card (either through my mom or JJ) and then eventually have to renew it? Or further down the line when I try to apply for citizenship?

I envy how my American friends don’t have to face these issues. Something they had no control over—their birth—bequeaths them with magical freedoms in the Land of Opportunity. But I’m also grateful. I’ve spent most of my life existing outside of the US and I’ve seen how things (healthcare, education, taxes, everything) can be done differently. I’d like to think this same outsider view is what makes perspectives like Trevor Noah’s, Samantha Bee’s, and John Oliver’s so necessary and effective when shoving a fun-house mirror into America’s face in the post-Obama era. Growing up outside of the States, we’re well aware of how far America’s cultural influence extends; the biggest change we can make in the world is from within.

Nikki San Pedro loves words almost as much as she loves ice cream and travel. She was born in Manila, raised in Toronto, semestered abroad in Sydney, and has been adulting in Los Angeles since 2009. At Antioch University, she explores US immigration and health care while completing her MFA in Creative Writing for Social Justice.