The Immigration Iliad

I had the best lawyers, Ivy League backing, and Bill Clinton’s support. But I still don’t have a green card.

Illustrations by Jason Arias (photograph by David Franklin/Getty)

This essay was written for the My Time in Line series, in which immigrants are sharing stories on Medium of what it’s really like to get legal status. Join the conversation.

I grew up in New York City without legal immigration status. When I was four, my parents and I came over to the United States from the Dominican Republic. It was the summer of 1989, and we arrived on tourist visas to get prenatal care for my mother’s severe gestational diabetes. After my brother was born a few months later, my parents decided to stay and tried to adjust their status; as time ran out on their tourist visas, they’d recognized they needed proper papeles. Through the grapevine they’d heard of a person in Washington Heights who could sort out the paperwork. They handed over the money they’d saved to him. He took it and promised action — but nothing came of it. My parents had been punked.

My parents decided to stay anyway, believing New York City would offer their two boys better educational opportunities and a brighter future. With no savings and no steady income (it was hard to land well-paying jobs without employment authorization), my family hopped around from the Bronx to Corona to Jackson Heights, and I moved from one public school to another. By the time I was in third grade, Dad had had enough of working crummy jobs. He and my mother separated; Dad returned to Santo Domingo, while Mom tried to tough it out in New York.

Not long afterwards, we were evicted from a Queens apartment and forced to enter the shelter system. At our second shelter, I was fortunate to meet an arts instructor who invested his time and energy in helping me gain admission to an elite Manhattan private school for seventh grade.

Despite its many implications for my day-to-day life, I didn’t appreciate the truly obstructive potential of being undocumented until college admissions appeared on my radar. When I confided the secret of my status to my college guidance counselor (no one at my high school had been aware of my problem until that point), he encouraged me to approach an admissions officer at Princeton — the dream school I’d set my sights on — and ask whether my status would in any way affect my prospects of admission. I was assured that it would not. I applied early decision, and several months later I was admitted with a full, non-federally-funded financial aid package. Happiness.

But when the full financial aid package arrived at the end of my senior year in 2002, I discovered that there was a work study component. This was a big problem, since I couldn’t work legally. I spoke with two administrators at Princeton, one of whom suggested that my status problem could be easily resolved if I returned to Santo Domingo and applied for a student visa. This suggestion sounded fishy to me, so I decided to seek legal advice.

Although my family and I were as broke as broke can be and could not afford a lawyer, an administrator at the non-profit where I was volunteering that summer put me in touch with a well-regarded immigration attorney for a series of pro-bono consultations. The attorney patiently explained to me that returning to Santo Domingo was far too risky. Because I’d overstayed my tourist visa as a child, I’d be subject to a ban on reentry; it was also extremely likely that I’d be denied a student visa. I was told that my two main options were to hope for immigration reform — the very first version of the DREAM Act had been introduced in 2001 — or to marry a U.S. citizen.

Even at 17, I knew a fraudulent marriage could land me in serious hot water, so I wasn’t on board with the second option; all I had was hope. I enrolled at Princeton in the fall of 2002, and administrators reworked my financial aid by extending a university-backed loan to cover what I would have earned working.

Over the next few years, I worried quietly about the long-term ramifications of my immigration status and tried to escape those worries by immersing myself in piles of schoolwork. But even as I did well and received academic awards, I couldn’t shake the haunting feeling that something would soon go very wrong.

Late in my sophomore year, I declared a major in Classics. When pressed gently by a college professor as to why I wasn’t applying to study abroad, I shared the story of my immigration status. The professor pleaded with me to write to Princeton’s president and dean with a request for help. I wasn’t sure what they or anyone could do about my problem, but I wrote them anyway. At the beginning of my junior year, the university arranged for me to speak to Cornell Law’s Stephen Yale-Loehr, one of the leading immigration lawyers in the United States.

Steve and I reviewed my options. As I’d suspected, they were limited. Up until 2001, I could have adjusted status through the 245i provision, which would have entailed paying a fine. But this was 2004, by which point the provision was no longer in effect. I could fall in love and get married to a U.S. citizen; no dice there, since I didn’t yet have that special somebody in my life. I could wait out the congressional immigration reform game: the DREAM Act hadn’t yet passed, but some were hopeful that sooner or later it would earn enough bipartisan support to clear both the House and Senate.

Or — and this was the real long shot — I could try to have a member of Congress file a private bill on my behalf.

Thanks again to Princeton contacts, I was connected to a senior staffer of a member of Congress who’d been recommended as a potential sponsor of a private bill. There wasn’t much optimism that this approach would succeed, but the staffer and congressperson offered to think about it. Later, I was informed that the legislator would not back the private bill; I was encouraged to hold out hope for comprehensive immigration reform or amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

At this point, I was despondent. The only thing apart from friends that gave me much joy was my schoolwork, so I threw myself into that and gritted my teeth. Word slowly got out to mentors and teachers about the apparent intractability of my problem. The summer after junior year, I had a number of phone conversations with an alumnus of my high school who was a high-level executive for a prominent professional sports league. He undertook some inquiries to see if — despite my not being anything resembling an athlete — I might be eligible for a talent-based visa. But nothing came of that.

It wasn’t until my senior year at Princeton that a breakthrough happened. Steve from Cornell Law hadn’t given up on my case. In the winter of that year he outlined a legal rationale by which we could apply to adjust my status. The clock was ticking: my Princeton graduation was only a few months away. Although I’d been awarded a two-year fellowship for a graduate degree at the University of Oxford, the scholarship committee, Princeton administrators, and my own mother worried that once I left the U.S., I’d be banned from reentering for 10 years because of my visa overstay.

Steve’s plan was to help me adjust my status before leaving for the UK. We would request a non-timely change of status from my original visitor visa to F-1 student status due to extraordinary circumstances (as per 8 §C.F.R. 248.1(b)). The application would argue that I met the four requirements specified in that section of the immigration law: my failure to file a timely application to change status was due to circumstances beyond my control (I’d been a child, and my family had been dirt-poor); I had no other violation of non-immigrant status on my record; I was a bona fide non-immigrant with plans of returning to the Dominican Republic; and I wasn’t in deportation proceedings. If the change of status was granted, I would be able to graduate Princeton as a properly documented immigrant.

Steve and his firm Miller Mayer assembled the six-inch stack of corroborating materials — the seven-page legal rationale, 13 references, affidavits, and supporting documents — for a flat fee of $10,000. (I raised the money from mentors and supporters.) In addition to putting together this application, Steve and his assistant Lindsay Schoonmaker worked with contacts at my high school, the non-profit where I’d mentored, and Princeton to secure 10 letters from members of the House and Senate in support of my application.

Finally, in the hope that media coverage might bring attention not only to my case but to that of many other undocumented youth, I agreed to be profiled in The Wall Street Journal.

The application in all its heft.

We submitted the application on April 4, 2006; the WSJ profile came out in the April 15 weekend issue. But despite the letters of support and the merits of the application itself, the United States Citizenship and Immigrant Services decided not to issue a ruling. A special assistant to the USCIS contacted my lawyer and laid out the agency’s worry that granting me a change of status would “open the flood gates.” The agency wanted to help make me “whole,” but had no interest in exercising its discretion.

I graduated from Princeton that June, still undocumented and still in a bind. Graduation rendered my adjustment application moot, since I was no longer a student and therefore didn’t qualify for F-1 status. Staying in the United States after graduation exposed me to the real risk of deportation — after all, I was a publicly known undocumented immigrant. And prospects for the DREAM Act’s passage didn’t seem great.

Even former President Bill Clinton got involved, through Princeton connections and a senator who’d been working on my case. Clinton personally reached out to the director of USCIS on my behalf, but nothing changed.

Like Vergil’s Aeneas, I was aflame with rage (furiis accensus: Aeneid 12.947); but there was nothing I could do, no heroic or saving action I could take. And the realization of my own impotence only intensified the frustration.

In the end, I chose to take my Oxford scholarship, and departed the United States in September 2006. Prior to leaving, Steve and I discussed applying for a tourist visa to enable me to return to the United States for the holidays. Once I’d settled in at Oxford, I reported to the U.S. embassy in London to submit this application.

It was promptly rejected. The anger cascaded over me again.

But a unique opportunity then landed in my lap: I was offered a part-time research assistant position at Princeton that came with the possibility of a H-1B specialty worker visa. Once the H-1B visa petition was approved in November 2006, I filed for the visa and for a waiver of the 10-year ban on readmission. Meanwhile, Steve and Lindsay coordinated the submission of even more letters of congressional support. By this point, I knew better than to be optimistic, and braced myself for another rejection.

To my tremendous surprise and delight, I was issued a visa and the waiver of inadmissibility in April 2007; the visa was renewed a year later.

Correspondence with former President Bill Clinton, July 2006.

With the visa and waiver in hand, I was able to travel between the UK and the U.S. to work on the Princeton research project during my vacations from Oxford. When I completed my Master’s at Oxford in the summer of 2008, I returned to the U.S. on the H-1B visa. The same year, I was offered admission to Stanford University’s Ph.D. program in Classics.

Yet again, a new problem emerged. I couldn’t begin a full-time doctoral program on a work visa; I had to get a student visa before enrolling. It didn’t seem likely that I’d be issued a F-1 student visa if I applied from abroad, so Steve and Lindsay helped me submit a change of status application in the U.S. — with the full knowledge that the odds of approval weren’t great. Another stroke of good fortune intervened: after a seven-month wait, the application was approved and my status converted from H-1B to F-1 in April 2009. I began as a student at Stanford that June.

All this time, I was racking up debt: the work on these multiple applications and on soliciting and corralling letters and supporting documents cost $40,000 in legal fees. I am and remain very fortunate that Steve and his law firm were understanding of my economic circumstances and put no pressure on me to pay.

Fast-forward a few years to the completion of my doctoral studies at Stanford in 2014. While I was in the last stages of completing my dissertation, I was offered a position as a postdoctoral research fellow and lecturer in Classics at Columbia University. To accept the offer, I had to obtain work authorization — again.

The F-1 work visa allows recipients to apply for employment authorization through its optional practical training (OPT) provision. Because my Columbia start date came before the official conferral of my Ph.D., I applied for pre-completion OPT to begin my job and post-completion OPT to continue work after for a full year — the maximum amount of time permitted. Each of these applications cost $380 in USCIS fees. Their review took longer than expected, and the delay frustrated me to no end as I finished my teaching at Stanford. In the end, I was only approved for post-completion OPT. But finally, I was approved in time to begin working at Columbia in September 2014.

On my journey from Princeton and New York City to California and back again, I was lucky to have the most amazing person in my life at my side. In the fall of 2013, Missy and I got engaged after four years of dating. Last March, we got married in New Jersey and danced our feet off. That same month, I officially accepted a tenure-track offer as an assistant professor of Classics at Princeton. My term is slated to begin in July 2016 after another postdoctoral year at Columbia.

Since my F-1 OPT work authorization was set to expire this fall, Missy — a U.S. citizen — petitioned for me to get a green card after we married. We submitted what’s called a concurrent filing and paid $1,500 in fees to USCIS. Our hope was that the application would be approved and I’d be issued a green card by the end of September, but that hope was in vain: September came and went without a word from USCIS. Faced with the loss of income, I had to file an application for expedited temporary work authorization. (Another frantic dash through difficult-to-navigate paperwork.)

Fortunately, USCIS approved my request. I’m now cleared to work for another year while my permanent residency application makes its way through the bureaucratic maze. Although my wife and I can’t help stressing out about the application’s glacial pace, we’re determined to enjoy our newlywed lives as best we can.

This arc is exceptional in all sorts of ways. But there are lessons to be taken from it, one of which I will underline here. The lesson is simple, really. People who insist that undocumented immigrants “need to wait their turn in line” have absolutely no understanding of how the current immigration system — with its byzantine regulations and myriad impediments — works. Whenever I was presented with a means of regularizing my status, I jumped at the opportunity, even when that opportunity turned out to be evanescent or non-existent. I was lucky to be sponsored for a work visa; the vast majority of undocumented immigrants have no path to legal status, and even after executive action, most have no access to work authorization. Had I not enjoyed access to excellent legal counsel and resources at Princeton, Stanford, and Columbia, I would have been completely screwed. I almost was.

I still don’t have permanent residency, let alone citizenship. But I have many feelings, not all of them charitable, about those who scream that undocumented immigrants are not law-abiding. I challenge these screamers to fill out the same paperwork I’ve had to fill out for the past few years and experience the same anxieties and fears I’ve felt. I’m sure they would wilt under the pressure.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta is the author of Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League from Penguin Press.