I have half a post waiting to be written. It’s about trains, and my love of Amtrak and the National Parks Service. But that’s going to have to wait.
Today, I had an appointment with a USCIS (US citizenship and immigration service) about my employment authorisation document (EAD). This is the little – but oh so important – card that says I’m allowed to work in the USA. I’ve mentioned my troubles with this before; as my application had been pending for more than 90 days, I was advised by the immigration lawyers that I could make an appointment in person, and plead my case for expedited processing. It was a long shot, they said – but I had nothing to lose.
I was given this advice two weeks ago, but the soonest I could get an appointment was today. So, bright and early, I braced myself to face Seattle’s commuter traffic and headed down to Tukwila. Armed with a swathe of immigration paperwork – copies of my i-94, my visa, my husband’s visa, our marriage certificate, my expired EAD, my i-797C, my appointment notice – as well as a letter from my employer explaining how important it was for me to go back to work, a bunch of (redacted) emails about scheduling difficulties for my clients, and three pages of notes on what to say; I was nervous, and trying not to get my hopes up. I’d rationalised that if I got a sympathetic immigration officer – someone who had a family member with autism – I had a good chance of persuading them that I deserved to be back at work.
Walking towards the USCIS office, I was surrounded by other nervous/hopeful faces, each clutching their own bundles of paperwork. Inevitably, I exchanged tense smiles and nods with all around me – subject to the same plodding bureaucracy, we had an instant bond. Waiting to get through security, waiting to get checked in, waiting for my ticket to be called – I waited with my fellow immigrants, slouching on plastic chairs and reading the ‘fun facts’ flashing up on the ticket screen (Did you know that USCIS processes 23,000 applications a day for various immigration benefits?!)
Finally, my number is called – slowly, in English and Spanish – and I fumble in my bag for my key pieces of paper. Walking over, I return the greeting of the smiling officer – good sign, Monday morning hasn’t destroyed her will to live just yet -, take a deep breath, and say my line “I would like to request expedited processing of my EAD application on the basis of my employment. I work as a behavioural therapist providing one-to-one support for children with autism.”
Before she opens her mouth, I can tell from her sad smile and sideways glance that this isn’t going to work. She nods ruefully and looks at me, “oh, my son has autism”. My tiny inner optimist screamed “yay!”. But it wasn’t going to matter.
She sighed, “there’s… there’s not really anything I can do. It’s pretty common right now for them to take 120 days, or more”. What little hope I had sank. She was kind, helpful, sympathetic and understood how important I am to the kids and families I work with. But she was powerless. I got her to check that there wasn’t anything wrong with my applications, at least; “there’s no derogatory marks, or problems that I can see. It’s not held up. It just takes time”. I bit my tongue, then told her I really needed to go back to work. “I know, I see that. But there’s nothing we can do about it here, it’s up to Nebraska to process it. You could write to them, asking for it to be looked at with urgency. But they need to decide that, not us”. “So all I can do is write to them, send them my documents, and hope that it lands on the desk of someone sympathetic?” “Yes. I’m sorry. Good luck, and take care, okay?”
I thanked her, collected my papers and walked away. The next eager face was called up – I silently wished them luck. Walking away, an older gentleman flanked by his sons – or perhaps grandsons – caught my eye and nodded sadly at me, a half smile on his face. I hope things went well for him.
Sitting on the stone benches in the sunshine outside, I resisted the overwhelming temptation to just cry. I am still trying not to cry right now. I hate how powerless I am. I hate how hard it is to just get the chance to go to work legally. I hate how worthless this whole process makes me feel.
But I put that aside, subjected myself to more Seattle traffic, came home, put some angry music on, wrote a letter, pulled everything together and sent it out, marked urgent, to the service centre in Nebraska. Will it work? I can only hope. Which is, frankly, exhausting.
No one should have to go through this level of hassle just to work legally. I’ve had a parent offer – more than once – to just pay me cash. But despite my protestations to punk-ish rebellion, I follow the rules – at least, the kind of rules that are likely to get me arrested and deported.
Thing is though? I’m okay. This sucks for me, and it niggles at my sometimes-fragile mental health. But I’m okay. I’m not struggling to make rent, or pay bills. No one is relying on my income to get by – my husband makes a good wage, and we’re going to save less and have to rethink a few big purchases, but we’re still comfortable. I’m not going to think twice about spending $20 to get my plea to Nebraska ASAP. I’m not even going to worry about ordering several fancy beers, or stop buying organic chicken. I am privileged – I *loathe* this waiting, but I can manage financially.
Add to that, when my application went past the 90 day mark, I had backup. My husband bothered the relocation team, and I got advice from immigration lawyers that we don’t have to pay for. (Sure, their advice was wrong – if they’d suggested two weeks ago that I write to Nebraska, then maybe I’d be back at work right now. But I digress). I am privileged – I can access good (well, acceptable) legal advice quickly, easily and for free, because of our connections.
Furthermore, I can rattle out a (reasonably) eloquent letter to plead my case in 10 minutes, and I can understand – more or less – the jargon on the USCIS website, and make my way through it without too much confusion. I’m irritated, but not daunted, by the mass of paperwork required of me; I found it easy to fill in the necessary forms. I’m an (over)educated native English speaker who (dare I say it) enjoys writing persuasive letters. I am privileged – I can understand what is required of me, provide it, and state my case clearly and persuasively, because of my background and education.
And lastly, of course, I’m white and British and middle class. I come from a country without a history of terrorism – just colonialism, which is apparently more palatable. My presence in this country doesn’t come under extra scrutiny. No one looks suspiciously at me at immigration. I’m not the immigrant that gives rise to feelings of fear and loathing in the minds of Trump and his ilk. Hell, I’m basically a WASP that got on the boat 400 years too late. I am privileged – I am welcomed into US society on the basis of my race, nationality and class.
So out of all the people waiting for their employment authorisation right now, I am probably one of the most privileged. And I still want to cry. I cannot imagine how I would feel if I couldn’t make rent, or if my employer had fired me rather than supporting me, or if I couldn’t understand the complex and frustrating process around me, or even if I couldn’t spare the $20 to get my letter to Nebraska by tomorrow. I cannot comprehend how hard this would be. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more aware of how much my privilege protects me from harsh realities, yet remains impotent against the bullheadedness of the bureaucratic machine.
So I won’t cry. Or at least, not for long. I’ll write another apologetic explanatory email to my employers, and an angry-snarky one to the lawyers pointing out how they wasted my time today. And I’ll go for a run and listen to angry music. I’ll try to watch enough Sailor Moon to understand what’s likely to happen in my friend’s D&D game later. There I’ll see friends, who will continue to comiserate and support me. And I’ll keep holding on, and remembering how incredibly fortunate I am. And hoping against hope for myself and everyone else waiting.