Monday, November 18, 2013

8518 Miles

As a naturalized American, one of the rights bestowed upon me is the ability to “sponsor” my parents.  I’ve always heard the term “sponsor” and it is probably the easiest term for what actually takes place. “Sponsorship” for my parents meant pouring over instructions on how to fill out several applications. These applications included an I-130, an I-485 and an I-765. The I-130 is a Petition for Alien Relative. This application proves my relationship to the individual being sponsored. The I-765 is an Application for Employment Authorization. This allows for a work permit to be issued prior the approval of the other two applications. The I-485 is the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. This is the longer of the other two since it is for the “green card”. The I-485 cannot be progressed without the approval of the I-130. Within these 3 applications is an I-693, which is a medical examination that has to be filled out by a state authorized physician and submitted to USCIS sealed. This may require the applicant to obtain vaccines depending on the antibodies that show up in the blood test. There is another form called a G-325A, which collects biographical data for the applicant. There is also an I-864 which is an Affidavit of Support for the applicant. This ensures that the sponsor will be able to financially support the applicant. At the time we completed these documents I was a stay at home mom. We filled out an I-864A which is a Contract Between Sponsor and Household Member. Since I was putting “zero” as my household income on the I-864. I had to be able to list my husband’s income.

I should be clear that I do not intend for any of this to be legal advice and that the forms and instructions I have listed above are in the public domain in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

I treated these applications as if they were manufacturing records suitable for the pharmaceutical industry. I printed out much paper in order to get each page as perfect and clean as my work place OCD would accept. I modeled each of them after my own completed applications assembled by an attorney. A set of these documents were required for my mother and father. When I was done, each stack must have been 2 inches thick. Most of the information was repeated for my mother’s applications and my father’s applications. In addition to compiling evidence for these applications there were also application fees.  There is also a fee for a physical performed by a licensed physician and none of it is covered by insurance. This process cost us a few thousand dollars. We mailed these applications together to ensure they would be processed at the same time. I should also point out that my parents have siblings that are naturalized Americans.  They too have filled out an I-130 for each of my parents. Although the application was approved, they were not yet eligible to fill out the I-485 because “a number was not yet available”. I am not exactly sure what this means, maybe a green card number? I remember my attorney once said that there was a quota on the number of immigrants allowed green cards from various countries. Apparently the Philippines is not at the top of the list. These I-130 applications were filed a decade and a half ago. The only correspondence regarding from USCIS regarding my mother’s application was that the application itself had been moved from one office to another. I do not know if my father’s sister got a similar correspondence.

Unlike spouses, un-married children and parents, the priority for siblings is not high in the eyes of USCIS. I was aware that completing these documents for my parents and having them approved was their last chance apart from the current laws changing to facilitate their change of statuses.  In their reluctance to consult an attorney, I felt extraordinary pressure to get it right.

It was a big relief to send the packages to USCIS in the fall of last year. At that point it was out of my hands. All I could do was wait and check the USCIS website (daily) on the status of their applications. My mother not getting a green card would mean that she would not be able to retire with government benefits.  Our lives would be no different than had we chosen to remain in the Philippines where the hardships of poverty were always lurking. I did not want to fail my mother. I could not allow the system to fail her either. Their only option was to return to the "home" so she could retire. In the Philippines she was a bank executive who wore suits and high heels. Here in the U.S. she walked a mile every day through the harsh Long Island winter in sneakers in order to go to her grocery store job. She did this for a year until she learned how to drive. A journey “home” in defeat was something I would allow her to make.

This past March, USCIS sent a letter requesting additional evidence of my mother’s birth. This request for additional evidence became a huge problem for us. 

My mother was born in 1940. On December 8, 1941 the Japanese invaded the Philippines as part of its declaration of war against the United States. At the time the Philippines was controlled by the U.S. and housed critical military bases. During that time US and Philippine forces fought together and were defeated by the Japanese in 1942.  Despite winning the battle, the Japanese were not able to capture all the islands in the Philippine archipelago.  There are 7,101 islands and approximately 2,000 of them are inhabited. Rebels in these islands that consisted of US agents and Filipino soldiers continued to resist the Axis powers. Unfortunately, in the defeat of the US and Philippine forces and the continuing battles that ensued, much of the Philippine structures were destroyed. This destruction affected the province in which my mother was born. In her 20's, the closest thing she had to a birth certificate was a baptismal record from the Catholic Church. She also had an affidavit from her mother and relatives before a public official stating her birth information. Secondary evidence of birth was a common thing among my relatives born at the time and in that area. I was told by my uncle that most children were delivered by midwives outside of hospitals. The mother in me thought delivering a baby without an epidural seemed like an extraordinarily bad scenario. Also, after having delivered my son, the hospital inundated us with paperwork regarding vaccines, breastfeeding, how to take care of the baby, that we were putting the baby in a car seat, why we shouldn't shake the baby and filling out the baby’s information so it could be submitted to the state department.

In our lack of a birth record for my mother, these affidavits we submitted to USCIS to fulfill their requirement for a birth record. I was unsure of what to provide them next in their request for more evidence.

According to the government code of federal regulation or CFR 103.2 (b)(2)  the unavailability of a record creates a “presumption of ineligibility”. USCIS considered church or school records to be secondary evidence. In the event those are not available the “applicant or petitioner must demonstrate the unavailability of the required document (in this case the birth certificate) and relevant secondary evidence and submit two or more affidavits sworn to or affirmed by persons who are not parties to the petition who have direct personal knowledge of the event and circumstance”.

In addition we needed an original written statement on government letterhead stating the reason why the document wasn't available. In the event the applicant can’t obtain such a statement on government letterhead, an applicant is suppose to show that repeated good faith attempts were made to obtain the required document. 

I was unsure of what to provide them next. On one hand, I guess I understood their position since my mother’s documents were 50 years old and created by a typewriter. The documents were frail and did not contain letterhead as the documented world would deem letterhead. I probably could have reproduced these documents if I had used courier font, spilled tea all over the pages and put them through the washer and dryer several times.

I have entitled this post 8518 because despite the distance from the US northeast to Lagonoy, I had to go digging there for information regarding my mother’s origins without actually getting on a plane and going there. As a stay at home mom, I couldn’t afford it! Regardless, I decided to fulfill as many of those requirements as I could. 

It was critical that I made contact with someone in the Philippines beyond a website. My cousin in California offered his half brother residing in Manila as a contact. My mother’s friend also offered her brother who resides in the Lagonoy area as a contact. Both individuals were strangers to us. It was at this point that I said 3 very difficult words in these independent times to my Gemini twin, “please-help-me”.

I was surprised by the warmth of her response. Actually, the familiarity in which we spoke to each other was moving. In all the time I spent in America trying to assimilate, losing my accent and telling myself that I had nothing to return to in the Philippines in the event of deportation, I was wrong. I had never felt so far from “home” as I did writing to her.  I had denied my youth in the Philippines for so long that when I could own it again as an American, I missed her with all my being.  She told me over FB that if she didn't look out for me, who else would? She was my big sister then and I discovered she was still my big sister. I would love nothing more than to spend time with her as unguarded as we did in those days. It is a return to her that drives my desire to return “home”.

As most undocumented children, I didn't display photos or re-live my memories as most American children. I am overjoyed not to have to play that game anymore. I say “play” lightly as it wasn’t just being able to mimic the others. It was a matter of survival and avoiding the all important question, “where are you from?” Since blending in was no longer a necessity, I could embrace a future with her in it, the two of us deciding to leave the issues of our parents to our parents.

Anyhow, upon learning about my mission, she acted quickly and investigated what we needed in terms of my mother’s paperwork. At first I was hopeful that the birth certificate existed since my cousin’s mother (my mother’s sister) was able to get one for her parents from Lagonoy. My mother’s sister is quite a bit older than she so it is possible the age gap has made a difference in the availability of such documents. My cousin confirmed later on that the documents were destroyed. She also found out that any records from Lagonoy were moved to a church in Naga City (about an hour away). Neither of us knew anyone in Naga. My cousin had to email the city to get a phone number for the church.  Our mission became locating a record of baptism as secondary evidence. 

The church in Naga was not able to find a record of my mother’s baptism. A certificate of no record was issued. Without this document we would have to rely on tertiary evidence of my mother’s existence!

Meanwhile, my cousin’s half brother and his mother sought out a birth certificate from the Philippine National Archives in Manila. They did this because my cousin had little time away from work. Much of what she did in communicating with Lagonoy was via phone and email since she was approximately 267 miles away. 

As expected, the archives had no birth certificate and could only issue a certificate of no record.

I was often communicating with my cousin at night during her business hours. I was getting obsessive about my search and getting little sleep. I was losing hope of finding anything at all. One evening, my mother called to tell me that her friend’s brother took a bus from Lagonoy to Naga in search of the baptismal record. She said that he actually saw the document! The church would not give him a copy since he was not a family member. We discovered that my mother’s records were under “illegitimate children” because my grandparents had a civil wedding and not a Catholic ceremony. The document didn’t even list her father!  Regardless, the document existed. I sent additional communication to correct the spelling of her name. It wasn't even the name that I know as my mother. It was a different name given at baptism and her mother’s maiden name since her father was out of the picture in the eyes of the church. 

It was a huge relief knowing that we had accomplished what we had set out do and knowing that these documents were en route.  I had no idea what my cousin was spending on procuring these documents. Again, she was my big sister and told me not to worry about it. 

I did one last thing to complete the mission. I contacted my mother’s cousins who live here in the US and are naturalized Americans. Again I used 3 words that I do not like to use under any circumstance, “please-help-me”. I asked them to write affidavits that they know that my mother was born on this date and in this place. Actually, I wrote the documents and emailed it to them. Both added information as they saw fit before having it notarized. My one aunt in California wrote about knowing my mom as a child and that her parents were a big influence in her development. She said to me over the phone that she also did not have a birth certificate. She had asked the Catholic Church in Manila to write a letter saying that she was a parishioner for many years. My mother’s other cousin wrote a similar affidavit. He is a Vietnam veteran and actually has a birth certificate since he was born in Manila. I do not know how this document or the structures that housed it stayed intact during the war! Both provided proof of citizenship. I myself wrote an affidavit to tie together the documents I had collected in the span of weeks. I printed out emails to show our due diligence in our search. I also included a copy of my cousin’s Philippine passport and driver’s license. I wanted them to know I didn't make up the email correspondences or the person who has helped us so much. 

I have turned myself inside out looking for these documents. I asked for help in a way that I had never done so before. I rationalized that it wasn't actually for me although keeping my parents in the country benefited my overall well being. The work paid off. At some point my mother told me that she and my father received letters from USCIS saying they had a backlog and that it would take longer than normal to process their applications. On the other hand they had deemed both their cases as one that did not require interviews. My father didn't have an interview. My mother did have one. USCIS requested she get another certificate from the local police department that she had no criminal record (another certificate of no record). I was relieved she wasn't asked for more documents from the Philippines. I couldn't have found anymore! USCIS takes biometrics of fingerprints. I believe these are used to search the system for a criminal record. My mother’s hands are typically so dry that she had to get fingerprinted twice. USCIS’ request for an additional certificate tells me that her second set of fingerprints were unclear. Once she obtained the document, she was to bring it to an appointed time at the USCIS service center in their area. None of us realized it was an interview. They didn't even need me to be there, which according to the instructions was standard. I was grateful the US government “shut down” during the first two weeks of October didn't further delay their case.

Immigration reform of the current system hasn't yet occurred but I considered this a battle won. There were Filipinos and Americans, families, coming together for a cause in untouched pockets outside of the media battleground at opposite ends of the globe. I can only imagine that such collaboration in making the world a little smaller is what is necessary to affect change at all levels. I know for me, this is only the beginning. 

On a different note. I had begun writing this post before typhoon Haiyan struck my homeland. The devastation is heartbreaking. I chose to donate to the Philippine Red CrossIt doesn't have to be with the Red Cross but I urge you to help if you can. Much love, Jennifer S.

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