[MK: I asked Evelyn to contribute to this foundational section as our first guest blogger. I knew that she had an important view because she essentially stands with a foot in two worlds. She was born and raised in the U.S., but married to someone who is not a citizen. Her in-laws are an ocean away, and visiting them means a trip into a foreign country. I wanted her to share a bit of that perspective to help us enter into an experience that is different from our own.]
I never imagined I would be affected so closely by immigration issues.
My husband (Kevin Soo) came here as an immigrant on a student visa to pursue his graduate education in 2013. We started dating in 2014, married in 2016, and as of two months ago he has a green card that gives him legal permanent residency. Although I work in a university setting where there are many international students, I only started to realize just how complicated immigration is once I joined my life to an immigrant.
Many of Kevin’s overseas family and friends thought that he became a US citizen the moment he married me. If only it was that easy! In his case, the laws of his home country do not allow him to hold citizenship in a second country, so if he does decide to become a US citizen when he is eligible, he must renounce his Malaysian citizenship. This means when he returns home to be with family, his own country would consider him an outsider. Or, if he decides to keep his Malaysian citizenship, he won’t have the same legal status as our potential future children.
Immigration law affects immigrants around us in many ways that are often invisible to us. Those who are immigrants know just how all-consuming a pending case can be. Terrible phrases like “what if” and “maybe” cause distress, uncertainty, and anxiety. We felt this deeply when the first travel ban was issued in January, because it appeared to focus on Muslim-majority countries. We found ourselves starting to say those terrible phrases, because Malaysia is also a Muslim-majority country. It didn’t take much imagination to see Malaysia being included in any future travel bans. Many well-meaning friends and family tried to tell us that we had nothing to worry about, but the immigration process offers no guarantees. So long as Kevin is not a US citizen, he is here only at the goodwill of the US government. As we have seen with rising tensions between many countries worldwide, that goodwill can change in just an instant.
Our immigrant friends and neighbors bear heavy weights. One of the weights Kevin and I bore was the burden of proof to show that our relationship was legitimate. This started a very strange process for us where we scoured our houses for tangible things that proved our intangible love for each other. Neither Kevin or I are overly romantic, and so I never felt like we had enough “stuff” to absolutely prove we were married for legitimate reasons. I found myself obsessively hoarding anything I thought could be evidence, because any one thing by itself (photos, letters, cards, ticket or movie stubs, etc.) felt like it could easily be dismissed as fake. Those terrible phrases came up in conversation between us many times: “What if they don’t think 30 pictures is enough? Maybe we should send 50.” “What if something gets lost in processing? Maybe we should send two copies of everything just in case.” Kevin’s green card application that we mailed in weighed over two pounds.
A week after we sent our application, Kevin’s father, Soo Ewe Jin, died unexpectedly from complications in his battle with cancer. When a green card application is in process, applicants are not allowed to leave the US without prior permission from the US government. Due to a technicality of the timing when we submitted Kevin’s application, it was impossible to get permission in time to leave the country and be with his family. He was not able to attend his own father’s funeral.
We carry that burden with us, too. His father was a well-known newspaper columnist throughout Malaysia, and our absence was noted by the many thousands of people who paid their respects. Kevin’s mom and younger brother had to explain again and again why he wasn’t there. We carry all these burdens with us.
This is just one way my husband and I have been impacted by his status as an immigrant, and compared to what I’ve heard from others, we have had it pretty good overall. I’ve found that every immigrant’s story involves some degree of sadness and sacrifice, and it grieves me that so many immigrants suffer through this alone, out of sight of most Americans. Immigration is not without real cost.
Marrying an immigrant made these issues much more personal to me, casting them in a much brighter light. Many of you will never be related to an immigrant, but there are still many ways to meaningfully connect. Immigrants are quietly carrying their burdens among us, even in our congregation. May we strive to bear the burdens of all of God’s image-bearers, especially the immigrants.