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Immigration Reform Puts Some White-Collar Workers in ‘Black-Market Limbo’

  • An undocumented woman who lost her legal status in the United States after losing her nursing job poses for a portrait on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in the Upper Valley. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • An undocumented woman who lost her legal status in the United States after losing her nursing job poses for a portrait on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in the Upper Valley. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2017

The world has changed radically for Tamara over the last two years.

In 2015, she might begin a typical day by seeing her three teenage sons off to school, then doing a bit of homework for her college courses. Next, she would head off to work herself, as a registered nurse at an Upper Valley hospital, where she would answer dozens of questions from a handful of patients, all while monitoring their blood pressure and other vital signs. On one memorable day, she was the only one who noticed a man’s blood pressure had spiked to life-threatening levels, and she sprinted through the halls to rouse a doctor who could authorize her to administer life-saving doses of adenosine and epinephrine. Back then, she was earning about $19 an hour.

These days, Tamara, 43, might begin a typical day by seeing her three teenage sons off to school, then checking on the receipt of a Social Security payment for her youngest son. Next, she heads off to work herself, as a cleaning woman, where she might receive dozens of instructions from her new employers (some of whom are her former patients), all while cleaning their dishes and toilets, vacuuming the carpets and dusting the furniture.

On one memorable day, she cleaned a chandelier, and spent hours dismantling it, putting its constituent parts into the dishwasher, and then reassembling it. She often makes well below minimum wage.

“I didn’t know coming to America would mean this,” Tamara said, her voice thick with the rich, full accent and precise articulation that marked her as a native of a former English colony in southern Africa.

Many people associate illegal immigrants with a particular narrative, one in which a person with a meager education and few professional skills slips over border in the night.

But that no longer describes an increasingly large share of immigrants. In 2014, the Center for Migration Studies of New York found that fully two-thirds of newly unauthorized immigrants in the United States were people who came into the country legally and overstayed their visas.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that nearly 400,000 people overstayed visas in fiscal year 2015. That describes Tamara, whose legal status has recently expired, and whose name has been changed in this article to protect her against possible enforcement action by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.

Though undocumented immigrants with professional degrees and no criminal record might make valuable contributions to society, policies that gave them preferential treatment over other immigrants are being overturned by the Donald Trump administration, which is putting educated white-collar immigrants like Tamara at an increased risk of deportation.

Battling for Status

When she was living in Africa, Tamara married, had two boys, and went through an extensive education program, earning a degree in agriculture with a focus on crop science.

Her husband went to the United States on a student visa, and he encouraged her to come join him. As dependents of a student visa holder, Tamara and their sons were eligible to get F-2 visas. Together, they would pursue an even brighter future, he told her, a new adventure as a family of immigrants in America.

It sounded wonderful, and she made the necessary arrangements. On Christmas Eve, 2003, she made the long flight across the Atlantic and disembarked, stepping onto American soil for the first time, wondering what the first Christmas here would be like for herself and her two young sons.

They had little fear of deportation in those days because they were “in status,” a protection granted by their visas. They had a third son, American-born.

Tamara’s first disappointment came early. Her education here meant little, she learned, and it would be difficult to get a job employing her knowledge of crop science.

Undaunted, Tamara started all over again — this time as a licensed nursing assistant, the entry-level health workers who often provide care in nursing homes.

Since then, she has jumped through a lot of hoops, living some version, certainly, of the American Dream, but one marred by a fitful and restive sleep.

She enrolled at the Mississippi University for Women, trading her F-2 visa for a student visa. But she left the university in 2007, following her then-husband, who had just landed a job at Vermont Technical College in Randolph.

Leaving school triggered consequences she hadn’t foreseen. Her student visa was revoked, and she no longer automatically qualified for an F-2. She became, for the first time, vulnerable to deportation.

“So I became somehow an undocumented, illegal immigrant, you might say,” Tamara said.

She responded by enrolling at Vermont Technical College herself in 2008. That put her back in status. She became a licensed practical nurse, or LPN, in 2009.

She aced her boards, and got a 12-month work permit, which soon expired.

That left her out of status. Under U.S. immigration policy, working as an LPN wasn’t considered a good enough reason for her to get a green card, which would give her permanent residency status. So she went back to school, this time studying for an associate’s degree in nursing.

She was in status.

In 2010, she aced her boards again, and became a registered nurse. She got another 12-month work permit, this time with a plan. Her professional degree allowed her employer, an Upper Valley hospital, to submit an I-485 application, which, if successful, would make her a permanent resident.

It seemed like the solution to all her problems, and her employer even offered to pay the filing fee of $1,140, plus $85 to cover the cost of a “biometrics services appointment,” during which she was fingerprinted and photographed.

Her supervisors were impressed with her work, she said. “I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet, but that’s what they say.”

The I-485 application is lengthy, with requirements for a lot of supporting documents, and a litany of prying questions. She dutifully filled out each one, checking “no” next to boxes asking whether she had ever engaged in illegal gambling, been affiliated with the Communist Party, planned to practice polygamy or committed any “crime of moral turpitude.”

None of the questions raised any red flags, but she hit a snag nonetheless.

The application revealed that her hourly pay rate was $6 less than the national standard enjoyed by American-born nurses doing the same work. That’s not allowed under the program.

Out of status.

In July of 2010, her employer received a notice that her work permit had expired, and let her go.

“I had no job. I’m like, how do I take care of myself? How do I feed my children?” she asked.

She persevered. By August 2010, she was attending classes at Castleton State College, which allowed her to take another nursing job. It was a two-hour commute to school, but she made it work.

In status.

When working at hospitals in the Upper Valley, Tamara’s accent, and the color of her skin, were sometimes a barrier.

“Not everyone who looks at my face wants to be my patient,” she said.

She usually shrugged off the prejudices.

“Have you ever done that before?” A patient might ask her, as she prepared to draw blood or administer life-saving medication.

“No, I’ve never done that before,” she would tell them, poker-faced. “I just came in off the street.”

In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene hit, washing out the roads and preventing her from commuting to class. She had to take a semester off.

Out of status.

In 2012, she re-enrolled, with a heavier courseload to make up for lost time, and returned to work again on a new student visa.

In status.

As she approached an early graduation at Castleton in December of 2013, she began trading phone messages with immigration services, convinced her struggle to remain in status would finally be over.

“If you get a 12-month work permit and you have a bachelor’s, you could actually renew it for 17 more months,” she said, “and then you could apply for HB-1, like a work visa, that lasts for six years.”

But Tamara got a nasty surprise. By the time she actually connected with a worker, her name already had been purged from the system. “ ‘They kicked you out because you graduated early,’ ” she says she was told. “I can’t renew your work permit.”

Out of status. This time, for good.

“That was just heartbreaking for me,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

White Collar Immigrants Under Fire

Erin Jacobsen works out of an office at the South Royalton Legal Clinic at the Vermont Law School, where she is the lead attorney of its immigrant assistance program.

Like Tamara, Jacobsen said she finds her work rewarding. Part of that is trying to help the region’s skilled immigrant workers find a path to citizenship, a goal she said is consistent with American values, and with increasing the country’s inventory of skilled, productive citizens. Jacobsen helps former doctors who have resorted to cleaning hospital rooms, and engineers working on factory floors. They’re often affiliated with colleges, including Dartmouth, Middlebury, the University of Vermont and Saint Michael’s.

“They have a certain idea about America, and the American dream,” she said. “And then they get here.”

Under former President Barack Obama, immigrants like Tamara, who have no criminal record and are making clear contributions to society, could generally avoid deportation as they went in and out of legal status, Jacobsen said.

But she said things have changed dramatically since Trump was elected to the White House on a nationalist agenda that includes tightening the borders and stepping up deportations.

Jacobsen said Trump’s actions have, by turns, energized and depressed her.

“I had a lot of adrenaline in January and February,” she said. “Now I’m like, ‘please, no more executive orders!’ ”

Trump has sought to use the power of the Oval Office to withhold federal funds from sanctuary jurisdictions, hire 10,000 enforcement agents to help step up deportation efforts, and construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump’s actions have been popular with those who share his views that illegal immigration poses a threat to American security and economy. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that, in December, 58 percent of Americans thought it important to deport more undocumented immigrants, and 77 percent wanted to establish stricter policies to prevent people from overstaying visas.

A Family Matter

Jacobsen and Tamara met in early 2016 after Tamara was referred to Jacobsen by Wynona Ward, a lawyer dedicated to fighting generational abuse of women and children through her Vershire-based non-profit, Have Justice, Will Travel.

The legal status of Tamara, Jacobsen learned, was tied up in another sticky situation. Over a period of years, while handling all of her other problems, Tamara suffered abuse, both physical and emotional, at the hands of her husband.

Tamara was initially reluctant to go to authorities, in part because her initial visa into the country had been tied to her husband’s visa, but eventually, she sought police intervention, and obtained a divorce in 2013. By the time she met Jacobsen, Tamara said, she was stitching together an income from a combination of child support payments from her ex-husband, off-the-book, low-skill jobs like house cleaning, and social service payments for her youngest, American-born son.

Tamara and her two older African-born sons do not qualify for benefits, though she paid taxes for many years, which is another common trait among immigrants, according to a 2016 study published by the Journal for Internal Medicine, which found unauthorized immigrants in 2010 paid $13 billion into Social Security and received only $1 billion in services.

After a few interviews with Tamara, Jacobsen concluded she would be a good candidate for “U immigration status,” commonly referred to as a U visa, created in 2000 by Congress as part of the Battered Immigrant Women’s Protection Act.

The purpose of the law is to give undocumented immigrants a way to report serious crimes to law enforcement without increasing the risk of triggering their own deportation. It allows immigrant domestic violence victims to separate their fates from those of their abusers, and gives them a chance at citizenship.

“Congress created the program specifically to help people like (Tamara),” Jacobsen said, “but also to help all of the rest of us in terms of public safety. It doesn’t help public safety efforts if you have victims afraid to come forward.”

In 2011, Obama bolstered the U visa program by specifically instructing ICE to use “favorable discretion” when considering the cases of crime victims, writing that it was “against ICE policy to initiate removal proceedings against an individual known to be the immediate victim or witness to a crime.” And in 2014, Obama authorized the Priority Enforcement Program, to more formally prioritize the deportation of immigrants with criminal backgrounds.

The prospect of a U visa was tantalizing to Tamara, who had spent years chasing after college degrees and 12-month work permits.

While her application was received and under consideration, Tamara would receive a two-year deferred action status, which, as long as she committed no crimes herself, would inoculate her against deportations. That status would come with a two-year work visa, clearing her path to a decent nursing job.

If her application was approved, the U visa would then be good for four years. In the third year, she could apply for a green card and pursue a path to citizenship.

Tamara and Jacobsen got to work filling out her paperwork.

Limbo

Tamara and Jacobsen sent in her application a year ago. But one problem with the U visa program is that there’s just not enough of it to go around. Congress capped the number of U visas at 10,000 per year, but the number of applicants far outpaces that. As a result, federal workers are falling further and further behind demand, creating longer and longer time periods during which battered applicants risk deportation.

“This is such a common story with our immigrant population,” Jacobsen said. “We’re talking about people with advanced degrees, very often, people with life-saving skills, or people who have the skills to contribute in a major way to our communities, and they’re just left in this, like, black-market limbo, trying to survive.”

The deferred action status used to be the stopgap that an undocumented immigrant would while on the waiting list for processing.

But now, there’s a waiting list to get on the waiting list. That’s where Tamara is now, and she has plenty of company.

According to statistics kept by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of pending applications has been soaring, from 110,000 in 2015, to 160,000 in the last three months of 2016, the last quarter on record.

While Tamara waits, the Trump administration has begun unraveling the policies that allowed ICE to look the other way when dealing with victims of violence.

In February, John Kelly, secretary of Homeland Security, wrote a memo spelling out some of the specific details that were prompted by President Trump’s January executive orders. The memo undid Obama’s 2011 directive, saying that no classes — including domestic violence victims — would be exempted from enforcement. The executive order also eliminated the 2014 Priority Enforcement Program.

“Everyone’s an enforcement priority now,” said Jacobsen. “Technically, she’s out of status, so that makes her an enforcement priority. And she’s brown-skinned in Vermont. So it’s definitely, she’s in a vulnerable spot.”

Authorities and experts have already noticed a chilling effect on violent crime reporting. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that law enforcement officials have seen a steep dropoff in domestic violence and sexual abuse complaints from victims, due to fears of deportation. And the Houston Chronicle recently reported the city had seen a 43 percent year-over-year drop in rape reports within the Latino community.

There has been no specific directive that challenges the notion of issuing a deferred action status to those applying for a U visa, but Jacobsen says it would only take a stroke of the pen from Trump or Kelly to eliminate that status.

A New Generation

Tamara has one foot in each of two continents. So do her children. Her oldest son, now 17, has been accepted at the University of Chicago, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and she has high hopes that her two younger sons will do similarly well.

But Trump’s actions have been of particular concern to the 7 million undocumented immigrants who, according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress, are in mixed-status families that include unauthorized immigrants like Tamara, and those with legal status, like her youngest child.

Jacobsen said that, in the case of a deportation, it’s unclear what might happen to Tamara’s children. Jacobsen said the head of ICE’s local Enforcement and Removal Operations office, Jeff Curtis, said earlier this year that parents of U.S.-born citizens will no longer be released after being apprehended.

“No more catch and release, is what he said,” according to Jacobsen.

Instead, she quoted him saying agents will now simply call Vermont’s Agency of Human Services to inform them that they’ve identified a child who no longer has a legal guardian in the country.

Calls to the Vermont Enforcement and Removal Operations office were referred to ICE, where public affairs officer Shawn Neudauer answered questions by email. He did not directly address whether Curtis had made that statement, but he maintained that officers across the region can still exercise leniency in cases involving children.

“With respect to children, ICE officers often will work with families facing removal proceedings,” Neudauer wrote. “Frequently ICE officers will not make an arrest on humanitarian grounds when the individual is the sole adult taking care of an under-aged child.”

Tamara says she’s not going to fight forever. It’s been 14 long years of highs and lows, of saving lives and cleaning toilets, of challenging medical courses and filling out invasive paperwork, of the joys of motherhood and the sorrows of abuse.

Now, she is tired.

She wonders, often, what life would look like back in Africa. She fights to stay, for now. For the sake of her three sons.

“I said let me do something for my children,” Tamara said. “Then I can return home. Once they’re settled, I can go home.”

Out of status.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.