Interview by Kevin
For this post, I interviewed Lucas Saenz. His education and medical career has taken him from Colombia to Pittsburgh, where he also met his wife, Christa.
Kevin: How and why did you come to the US? What is your immigrant status?
Lucas Saenz: Everything started my first year in medical school back in Colombia in 2001, when I realized that all my medical textbooks were written in the US. That sparked a desire in me to travel to the place where the books were written, to learn about how medicine was practiced there. Around the 5th year of medical school, in 2007, the opportunity came and I travelled to the US for the first time, to Miami. I was 24 years old. A Latin American shadowing program at the University of Miami provided my first one-year visa. In the following years, I travelled back and forth to different cities in the US under different immigrant statuses, such as business travelling visas, student visas, and research scholar visas, which is what I currently have.
What are the biggest differences between your life here and your life back home? What challenges do you face from being in a culture you didn’t grow up in?
The biggest challenge for me at the beginning was language. I couldn’t express myself or understand others well. Back in Colombia, I thought I knew English, since I had learned it in school since a young age. However, coming to the US made me realize how little I really knew. It wasn’t until I had spent two years here that I felt comfortable with the language and could communicate as I wanted to. The other challenge was knowing no one and losing my social circle. It took a lot of time to get to know people, not only because of the cultural barriers but also because I am an introvert. I moved around the US a lot, which also made it more difficult to build relationships. I was used to moving, since my growing up years were characterized by moving throughout Colombia. However, when doing it in another country, even simple things became difficult. Shopping for food, buying a phone, finding a church – all these were hurdles that had to be faced. One of the nice surprises, though, was that there were always people who were willing to help.
Back in Colombia, there were always people around me, whether it was family or friends. We helped each other out all the time. Here, however, I have had to learn to be more independent and individualistic, which has also forced me to become more practical. Not being close to my family and knowing all the time how they are has also been a big difference, not only for me but also especially for my mom, as she worries about me being far from home. This has forced us to strengthen our dependency on God and learn to love in other ways, from a distance.
With time, I adapted to the culture and enjoyed my time here. I found a good church, friendships grew, and I was able to assimilate to the workflow. Since coming to Pittsburgh in 2014, I attended Bellefield Presbyterian Church and through that was introduced to PRISM (Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministries). Getting involved with PRISM gave me the opportunity to reach out to other international students who were in similar situations as me, and to share my faith with them.
PRISM is a ministry that helps international students feel at home in Pittsburgh. It’s also where you met your wife, Christa. Tell us about that life-change!
God changed my life in ways I didn’t expect here in Pittsburgh. Christa and I met in a Bible study hosted by PRISM, and now, two years later, here we are married. My visa status is still related to my work, which adds a little bit of uncertainty. We haven’t been able to visit my family in Colombia yet, since there is a possibility that I wouldn’t be able to reenter the US on the way back. Figuring out my immigration status can be complicated and must be done in the correct timing, but we are thankful to be married and know God will help us in the future as we go through the process.
It has been enriching for Christa and I to get to know each other and learn about our backgrounds and what has shaped us as people. Coming from different cultures, there is even more to learn. We learn a lot from each other’s families, customs, different ways of thinking, and even different ways of daily living. It opens our perspectives and broadens our worldview. Of course, this can also bring challenges, as we have to learn how to communicate well and not make assumptions based on our own experiences.
You have medical training both in Colombia and the US. Do you have any challenges practicing medicine with that background?
There is a long road still to go in my education. Although I already completed 6 years of medical school (3 years of critical care training in Colombia and 3 years working in Pittsburgh), I will need to repeat some of my previous education to become a pediatric cardiologist here in the US. This means that I will need to take several exams and be certified in many fields. Even though it is a lot, it is worthwhile.
How has God and the church played a part in your journey?
Knowing that there is always a degree of uncertainty in my immigration status has driven me to depend on God. To know my citizenship is in heaven is an idea that has become more real to me. As an immigrant, I’ve faced some difficulty at church connecting with people. The differences between me and many other people that attend church here makes it easy for all of us to form stereotypes and not easily connect. However, I have met many people who are willing to cross those barriers and reach out, and those people have greatly influenced me.
What uncertainties do you face as an immigrant in the US, and how do you face that?
Since the last presidential elections, fear in internationals has grown, to the point that we restrict our travels outside the US and are even more uncertain about the future. Personally, it causes me to try to do everything according to the right timing and procedures as I move towards applying for a green card and citizenship. As an immigrant, I feel a lot of pressure to work hard, be competitive, and exceed expectations at work to keep my immigrant status. It also gives me a sense of expectancy for what God will bring in the future, since we never know what the future will hold and how things will change. A verse that has been an encouragement to me is Ephesians 2:19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
By Evelyn and Kevin
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.”
Interview by Kevin
For this post, I interviewed Kate Kim. She’s worshipped at City Reformed since 2015 when she started as a PhD candidate at Pitt. As an immigrant, the stakes are much higher for her in her career path, and requires a great degree of trust in God’s faithfulness for circumstances that many of us easily take for granted. I asked her to reflect on her identity and place in the US.
Kevin: What is your immigrant status?
Kate Kim: I am currently on an F-1 student visa. I was initially a dependent on my parents’ visas until I turned 21, when I had to switch to my current visa.
Tell us you how and why you came to the United States.
My family (my parents and younger sister) and I came to the US in 2001. In Korea, it’s everyone’s dream to study abroad, especially in English-speaking countries. Around then, English was mandated as a required subject starting in the 3rd grade in Korean schools, and learning English is very important for one’s success. The Korean education system is highly repressive and highly competitive. So, when there’s an opportunity, people move abroad to English-speaking countries. My parents came to the US for our sake (their children), for us to have a better education and a better life. To do that, my Mom enrolled as a graduate student at a university and got her masters in linguistics; we came to live in the US as dependents on my mom’s visa.
How old were you when you moved? What made it easy/difficult to move here?
I was 12 when I moved to the US in 2001. This was months before 9/11, so it wasn’t difficult for our family to move to the States, especially because my mom was coming to the US to study. There were, of course, many difficulties in getting accustomed to a new culture. My sister and I were 6 and 12-year olds, so learning English was not a difficulty. We caught up really fast. But for my parents, the language/cultural barrier was hard, and is still hard for them.
One thing that was difficult for me in particular, was that I was just becoming a teenager, and because I was culturally split (Korean at home, but trying to assimilate with other kids at school), I had a lot of anxiety and shame from being different from other kids. I couldn’t relate to my peers at the same level of experience, although I spoke English fluently soon after I moved here. While I went to school in the US from 6th grade all the way to graduate school, all under legal status, I am still considered a non-resident alien in the US. While in college, I realized that unlike my other friends, I couldn’t apply for federal loans, couldn’t work part-time jobs anywhere I liked, couldn’t vote, couldn't take a gap year after college (in order to maintain my F-1 status), and couldn’t apply for certain professional schools. This is when I felt most lost and isolated, because in all other aspects I relate to the American culture, but legally, I am not an American.
Tell us about your ties to your country of birth, and to the US. What is “home” to you?
I’ve lived 12 years in South Korea, and 16 years in the US. The last time I visited South Korea was in 2006, when I was in high school. So, I don’t remember Korea very much…the memories I have are from my childhood, and I’m sure so much has changed in the last decade. So, when I think of “home”, I’m conflicted. Where is home for me?
A few years ago, my parents got their greencards, sponsored by their work. At that time, my sister was 18, and I was 24. The law states that for immigration purposes, once you turn 21, you are no longer a dependent, so my sister got her green card through my parents, while I didn’t. My parents and my sister are now on their path to US citizenship, and plan to make their “home” here. However, I am still on a student visa, and need to find my own way to permanent residency. In a few months, I will graduate and be a scientist with a PhD in the biomedical sciences. However, it is now difficult to get a work-related visa (H-1B) even in a science field. This makes my path to getting a green card much harder. I was hoping to do my post-doctoral research in the US while on an H-1B visa, meanwhile applying for permanent residency. However, this road has gotten tougher now.
What challenges do you face living in a country that is not your own? How do you deal with them?
Because I am bicultural, there have been many conflicts. Because I’ve spent more time in America than I have in Korea, I am more familiar with the American way of life. However, I can’t be a full part of it, because there are always restrictions on nonresident aliens for school and job applications. And of course, I cannot vote here. So, I am always culturally split.
I haven’t been able to visit Korea for more than a decade because I was on my student visa (some students like myself take a risk in visiting their home countries because there’s no guarantee we will be granted visas to return to the US to complete our studies). I have no connections in Korea besides my relatives. So, with this confused cultural identity, I’ve learned to rely more on my identity in God’s Kingdom. I’ve been instilling in myself that whichever country God intends for me to live, my identity in God’s Kingdom is constant, and that gives me comfort.
How has the 2016 presidential election and the current administration affected your life as an immigrant?
The calls to decrease immigration and the number of H-1B visas being granted* make me nervous, because my plan was to get an H-1B visa for post-doctoral studies, and eventually apply for permanent residency.
What do you wish people understood about your journey as an immigrant?
Even though I’ve lived legally and paid taxes in the US for 16 years, I was disqualified from getting permanent residency together with my family a few years ago, just because I was over over 21 years of age. My younger sibling who had the same experience as I did in the US was granted permanent residency, because she was younger than 21.
I am back to the start in my immigration journey – only this time, I am alone. The road to permanent residency has gotten more difficult, even for US-educated scientists like myself. I hope to be able to stay in the US with my family, but I also understand that God may have something else planned. And I trust that whatever may come of my immigration journey here in the US, God’s plans prevail, and for his good purposes.
* Even if current numbers are maintained, H-1B visas are already extremely hard to get. – Kevin
By Melanie Hommes
[Evelyn: In the discussion about immigrants, some types of immigration can sometimes get overlooked. We asked the Hommes family to share their story of how their unique experience with immigration changed their lives. Jim and Melanie Hommes have gone through the difficult process of international adoption twice, and have gained two wonderful children – Mei and Jacob – into their family. We sent some questions and prompts to Melanie, and she wrote the following response.]
We are a diverse multi-ethnic family both in our immediate and extended families, having family members from Japan, China, and Mexico. In fact, our children like to joke that dad was born in Japan (as a missionary kid), they were born in China, but mom was only born in Ohio!
International adoption was the way that God provided for us to have a family. We went through the immigration process to bring Mei and Jacob to the United States. The international adoption process changed the year that we adopted Mei (2004) and was still in effect when we adopted Jacob (2012). There were a lot of forms, official documents, special notarized seals, fingerprinting, and interviews – all before we left United States soil. Once in China there were more forms to fill out, more interviews to undergo, and sworn statements that we would always love and care for our children. Then, the legal adoption took place, and finally we received the official brown envelope which was to be guarded at all costs and delivered intact and unopened to airport immigration officials when our airplane touched down on US soil. If the official brown envelope instructions were followed correctly, it meant that our children became automatic citizens the moment our airplane landed in the United States. After months (for Mei) and years (for Jacob) of paperwork and interviews, citizenship papers arrived in the mail within 45 days of our return home from China.
Mei and Jake were babies when we adopted them, aged 13 and 18 months respectively. As we raise our children, we desire that they will have an appreciation and respect for the three countries – Japan, China, and the US – that make up our lives. We fill our home with books, movies, pictures, and stories of all three places, eat a variety of foods, and celebrate some Asian festivals like Chinese New Year. We talk often of the time we have spent in each country, and have picture albums to look at from our trips. As a family, being multi-ethnic is a natural way of life as my sister and her husband adopted a girl from China, Jim’s younger siblings are adopted from Japan, and his older sister is married to a man who immigrated from Mexico. It is important for us that the time Mei and Jacob spend at school and at church show the richness of diversity and the richness of adoption. We have been blessed by Pittsburgh Urban Christian School (PUCS) and its commitment to diversity and reconciliation as well as the presence of many adopted children who have shared life with us there. At church, it is a blessing that our children can see so many men and women from Asia worshiping and serving God. When Mei and Jacob were young they would sometimes comment excitedly that there were people at church that looked just like them.
While some people have experienced negative repercussions from the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, our immediate family has not felt them. However, we have felt the difficulty as we join in supporting family members and friends who are more directly impacted by immigration practices and policies, and who may face opposition, delay, and fears of deportation.
Even with our immediate family, for the last few years we have begun carrying everyone’s passports when flying within the United States. We started doing this because we don’t all look alike – what if an official didn’t believe that we are a family? In addition, my sister and her family live in Canada, and when they crossed the border to visit us at Easter, in addition to my niece’s passport, they brought her birth certificate and adoption certificate, due to hearing stories of families being separated at borders. This is also something for us to consider when we travel across borders or when we fly domestically. So far, in Pittsburgh, we have not felt any specific negativity toward us as a multi-ethnic family, although we have occasionally experienced some negative reactions as we travel to other places.
Both God and the church have played a big part in our family’s adoption story. God brought us together as a family through adoption just as He adopts each one of us into His family. Though there are relatively few adopted children at City Reformed, the church has embraced our children and welcomed them as the covenant children that they are. As Christians, we should embrace adoption – international or domestic – as a valuable part of building the household of God. In many ways, adoption demonstrates not only God’s generous provision for his children, but it also gives the church a visible reminder that ultimately the strongest and most lasting bonds between us are not of blood, ethnicity, or nation, but of faith in our loving Father who has chosen to adopt us as eternal heirs with Christ.
Telling one’s story is an art form; we pick and choose what to include to communicate particular aspects of ourselves. We do this based on who is asking, and what we perceive they’re interested in knowing about us. For immigrants, we are frequently asked how and why we got to the US – it is a door for others to know us. In my first year in Pittsburgh, I got plenty of practice telling that story.
At City Reformed, we’re blessed with a significant number of immigrants, each with their own stories. My own story has been shared in a previous post by my wife. In the coming posts, we invite you to read to the stories of those who have experienced what it is like to be or walk alongside immigrants.
We invite you to listen, and to better know the sojourners (in many cases, these are people you share communion with). You may know them, or of them, but we invite you to listen not just for the details of their experience (which you may have heard before), but for the unique loves, burdens, challenges, and perspectives that are revealed in the telling of their stories.
Since the 2016 presidential election, telling an immigrant’s story can take on added dimensions. I have found that my upon hearing my story and any anxieties I have about immigration, some quickly dismiss my concerns because “I’m one of the good ones” (someone coming here for graduate study). In such an exchange, my story has been used to make a point, which makes it hard to feel like the hearer cares about knowing me and seeing things from my perspective.
In this polarized culture (that we’ve written about previously), it is worth reflecting on whether we have acquired some bad habits for listening. To hear someone’s story and see only how it supports or disproves a belief is to miss the chance that someone has offered to know them better.
We invite you to view these stories as doors through which you can better know others. In this day and age, it is exceedingly rare to share fellowship with those who differ from us, but the church offers us that invaluable opportunity by joining those of every nation and tribe into one body. We cannot know the fullness of human experience without the help of others who are willing to share their stories.