For this post, we interviewed our good friend, Anna Yong, about her experience being an immigrant in the US. Her quotes are in italics.
She came here from Malaysia at 17 to pursue an undergraduate education, and met and eventually married her husband Joel Chan here. She started out on a student visa, not expecting that she would still be in the US 11 years later.
Although Anna was here first on a student visa (F-1), she transitioned to a dependent visa (F-2) once she graduated and married Joel, who was a graduate student. Later, she decided to begin a Master’s degree in Pittsburgh, requiring that she transition back to student status (F-1). While Anna was legally allowed to be in the country, the government did not issue her a new visa because she had already been in the US and had changed her status from a dependent (based on Joel’s job) to a student who could be here in her own right. In 2013, she wanted to travel home and visit family – having a visa would allow her to re-enter the country if she left. Anna describes a critical irony in the system:
“US visas are only issued at embassies outside the US, so we actually had to leave the country to apply for the visa. In other words, to find out if I would be able to re-enter the US (on my own with an F-1 visa), I had to first leave the US – exposing myself to the risk of not getting the visa and being stuck outside the US. Since the visa requirements were the same as the status I already had, we thought this possibility was more theoretical than actual. As we later found out, we were quite wrong!”
In early 2013, Anna and Joel travelled to Malaysia to spend time with family and apply for her visa at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. She describes what happened to her on the day of her visa interview:
“I waited about an hour to meet the assigned consulate officer. It quickly became obvious to me that he didn’t really understand my case. He expressed concerns about my ability to fund my education, the most important part of my case. But he overlooked that 1) I had already completed 1 out of the 2 years of my program, 2) I had a scholarship from the school to cover part of my fees, and 3) I was married to Joel who had income that was more than sufficient to cover the remainder of my fees and was obviously covering my living expenses. This last point was the most incredulous to me: when I noted that I was married to Joel, the officer replied that his income “didn’t count” – I needed to show that *I* had enough funds.
At this point I started to panic. I was completely at the mercy of the consulate officer. Legally, there was no recourse whatsoever for me if the officer made a mistake – there is no appeal. Further, if the officer denied my application, I couldn’t simply get a “second opinion”: his decision would remain on the record and greatly decrease the probability of a successful re-application.
This power imbalance weighed heavily on me: how do I dispute his misunderstandings (of which he was convinced) without angering him? I had heard stories of people having their applications denied because they had rubbed their officer the wrong way, or because the officer had had a bad day. Some of these stories came from family friends who were personal friends with visa officers. So I ended up not disputing the officer’s claims too much, hoping he would be reasonable. This turned out to be the wrong choice.
The officer decided to cancel my existing F-2 visa – effectively erasing any ability I had to re-enter the US – and formally requested that I come back to the embassy with more documentation showing that I had at least $25,000 (not including Joel’s income and the scholarship from the university) to cover the remainder of my Master’s degree. I left the embassy in fearful tears.”
After returning home, Anna tried to figure out what to do. Her parents offered to help with the financial requirements. Unfortunately, that was not a straightforward solution, either. Anna describes her situation:
“Because my parents run their own business, they often don’t have a ton of liquid assets available. But they did have a credit line from their bank that was large enough to cover this expense. So we decided to bring that as additional documentation. I was told that there was no need for an interview; I just needed to “drop off” this additional documentation. When I showed up at the embassy the next day, however, I was brought in for… you guessed it – another interview with the same officer! Being unprepared for that, I was not able to clearly explain how my parent’s credit line worked. The officer pressed me hard, and seemed unconvinced. Again, he didn’t issue me the visa I needed. Thankfully, I wasn't rejected, but the officer told me he needed more time to review my case.”
This was a stressful time for Anna and Joel. The severity of the officer’s questions indicated there was a very real chance that Anna’s visa application could be rejected and she could not return to the US with Joel.
“Rejection would mean Joel and I would have to live in two different countries for an indefinite period of time while we figured out a solution. Even if that didn’t happen, we were worried I wouldn’t be approved in time for my flight back home, which would mean purchasing another costly (>$1500) flight back to the US. For two long days after that, I waited, shed tears, prayed, and asked for prayers. There was nothing I could do but wait and pray. By the grace of God, our story had a “happy ending”: my visa was approved before our flight back to the US. Even now, as I reflect back on how I was feeling back then, I am filled with joy for the faithfulness of our good God!”
Anna now has more stability in her status here, and has even travelled to Malaysia since then without any immigration issues. The story she shared is one instance of the type of stressor that immigrants encounter over and over again. She looks back on her time in the US:
“In the 10+ years that I’ve been here, I’ve had to apply for a change/extension of my visa and immigrant status 7 times. About half the time, the process was easy and painless — the other half, not so much! It wasn’t just the application process that was challenging; it was the waiting, the unknown of the person dealing with the application, and my powerlessness over the situation that was so frustrating.”
The events since the 2016 presidential election have brought her anxieties into sharper focus. She reflects on her life in the last year:
“In this past election season, people have tried to reassure me about our new president’s stance on immigration by saying I have absolutely nothing to worry about because I’m not an illegal immigrant. To be honest, those statements aren’t very reassuring to me. Because of what I’ve been through, I know how incredibly challenging it can be to become and remain a legal immigrant. I have experienced first-hand how it’s possible to become an illegal immigrant even if you’ve done everything right. I know that the mistake of even one government official can negatively impact my chances of gaining/keeping legal status in the country. I’m so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to live in this country, but my journey here has been trying, and I wish people wouldn’t brush me aside when I speak of my concerns.
We became adults in this country, and we fell in love with it. We felt called to stay. But wanting to stay and immigrate here legally is complicated (and challenging at times). This is something I wished more people would understand. All that said, as a Christian, I know that our God is bigger than this country’s immigration system or any immigration officer (cue famous Sunday School song). It is by the grace of God alone that my family is able to be alive and well, living in this country. And that grace is worked out in the kindness of His people.”
She closes with something she shared with her friends in the US after receiving news of her visa approval:
“All of you have been such an amazing source of support for me, and I cannot be more grateful! I'm sincerely thankful for the words of encouragement that I've received from you.. It's been a huge reminder of God's faithfulness, love and grace when I find myself in a dark place. I think, through all of this, I'm more thankful for you guys – my friends and church family – than I am for receiving this visa.”