Veralyn has spent almost her whole life in the United States. She doesn't even remember Sierra Leone - her birth country from which her parents moved when Veralyn was an infant. Her dad has a green card. Her younger siblings are all citizens who were born in New York. Veralyn, however, is confused about her own legal status.
She's not a citizen, she doesn't have a green card and she doesn't even know what rights she has. She can't work, can't get financial aid for college and is frustrated about her situation. When Veralyn starts to ask questions, some of her family members get nervous and uncomfortable.
Veralyn was mentored by Leital Molad.
WNYC RADIO ROOKIES: LEGAL STATUS?
First Broadcast: June 15, 2005
REPORTER: Veralyn Williams
Running Time: 9:27 (excluding Host Intro, Outro and Music)
TRANSCRIPT (7 pages total)
HOST, INTRO: WNYC's Radio Rookies trains young people how to tell their own stories on the radio and held its last workshop in the Mosholu section of the North Bronx. 19 year old Veralyn William's parents moved to the Bronx with her when Veralyn was an infant. Even though she's lived in the U.S. almost her entire life, Veralyn's legal status has been a mystery to her. This is her quest for answers.
VERALYN ("VERA"), NARRATION: My dad reminds me of some of the politicians I see on TV, like in the last presidential debates. I mean, they say a whole lot, but most of the time, they aren't telling me what I want to know.
VERA: Just so I can clear it up, what's my legal status right now?
(Vera's questions continue beneath her narration.)
VERA, NARRATION: My dad is most annoying when the subject is serious, like with my immigration status.
DAD: Your legal status right now - when I got my green card under the suspension of deportation, you and your mom were entitled to get your green card also at that point. Something happened which I don't really know, and they told me that I had to apply for you guys. I – You should be okay because under the relief program, you're entitled to stay in the United States. It's just a matter of time, before you get your – everything is in the works. It's just that, it takes forever
VERA, NARRATION: Confused? Well, imagine how I feel. My parents moved here when I was just a few months old. I always knew I was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and that I wasn't a U.S. citizen, but I didn't know what that meant.
(African music comes in and continues beneath the next section.)
VERA: Oh yeah, I know this song.
VERA, NARRATION: I consider myself Sierra Leonean because I grew up hearing Creole, listening to all kinds of African music and eating cassava leaves with rice.
(Vera sings along, until the music fades out.)
VERA, NARRATION: But America is my home because I know nowhere else. Here is where I learned to speak my mind, and I know I don't want to have to answer to anybody. So I need to be making my own money.
When I was fourteen, I wanted to get a job, but my parents didn't want me to work because they said I was too young. Two years ago, when I was 17, I did get a job tutoring kids. I worked a whole week and didn't get paid because I didn't have a Social Security number.
Then it came time to fill out my financial aid form for college, and I had to check being a citizen or a permanent resident. So I asked my parents if I had an Alien Registration number, because if you're a permanent resident, you have one. I found out that I wasn't even a permanent resident. And that meant I couldn't get any financial aid. Since my parents could only afford a local college, what I wanted to do, I couldn't do anymore, like go to Spelman or Howard University and live in the dorms.
I resented my parents for putting me in this situation and for keeping the truth from me. I wanted to know why I wasn't allowed to work, why I didn't have a Social Security number, and what were they doing to fix things.
DAD: I must confess that I've been really laid back and that I should have done more, you know, to try to get your status changed. But it's better late than never.
VERA, NARRATION: When my parents first got here, my dad filed for asylum for us. It was denied, so he filed for something called "suspension of deportation." A lawyer told him not to include me and my mom in the petition, because if my dad got deported, then we would get deported too. So, when the judge approved my dad's application, he got a green card, but we didn't.
Though I've lived in America all my life, technically it feels like I don't exist. I never thought I'd have fewer rights than my younger sister and brother, who were born here.
VICTOR: You are?
VERA, NARRATION: My brother Victor is 12 now.
VERA: I am different! 'Cause I'm not, – I'm not a citizen like you and Lovis are.
VICTOR: So just get the green card.
VERA: And do you think it's easy to get a green card?
VICTOR: I'm not sure. How do you get a green card?
VERA: You have to apply for it, and sometimes it takes years to get it.
VERA, NARRATION: My family doesn't understand why I feel so frustrated and helpless. When I started asking my Uncle Nathan questions, he made it clear he didn't want me talking about this issue on the radio.
NATHAN: You do not want to go like this, hear me! You do not want to do that, Vera!
VERA: Everybody keeps saying, "Do something, do something, do something." And now I'm trying to do something, and everybody's –
NATHAN: I never said, "Do something!"
VERA: So what do you want me to sit in la la land for the rest of my life?
NATHAN: I said – what I told you to do is go to your dad.
VERA: I've been going to him for freaking four years!
NATHAN: Okay, VERAlyn! That's you, but – okay. So you put the blame on your dad.
VERA: I didn't make to choice to come here, and basically, what you're saying for me is to just sit here and wait for him to do something.
NATHAN: Veralyn, Veralyn, believe it or not, when your dad came over here, that's the best thing he could have done for you. Okay? Do not – you don't understand. You do not understand. You th–
VERA: When somebody gets their green card, they're supposed to put their dependents under it. I was supposed to been get a green card. Tell me why that's not – why I don't have a green card.
NATHAN: Then you should be mad at your dad, for not doing that from the get-go.
VERA: So what am I – so I'm supposed to just sit here and be mad?
NATHAN: Okay, there's one thing you could do. You could sit here and be mad, right? And the other thing is, you could – is – is – you could get yourself deported, right? –which is what I firmly believe you're on the route of doing. Do you understand that September 11 has changed – changed the rules of the game?
(Sound of the argument continues beneath the narration.)
VERA, NARRATION: Uncle Nathan thought talking about this was dangerous for me.
VERA: … why don't you know the facts before you sit here and start jumping in my face?
NATHAN: Okay, do not talk to your Uncle Nathan that way. I'm not trying – I'm not trying to get up in your face, or whatever. I'm just telling you my opinions. Okay? And I'm telling you ‘cause I have your best interest at heart.
VERA, NARRATION: Everyone goes on about my best interests. My uncle is a green card holder and has a job he likes, so how could he possibly know what I'm feeling? My mother doesn't have a green card yet, but she also doesn't understand. Maybe that's because she's had papers that allowed her to work as a teacher, and that's what she always wanted to do.
VERA: Do you think that I'm not grateful for the things that you and Dad do for me?
MOM: I think you're very ungrateful because you are not aware of what some other people go through. And we – I think we make sacrifices for you. And in a way, I think if you did have your – your green card, you would have showed ungratefulness even more because maybe you would have left, or you would have done certain things maybe that you shouldn't have done. So not having it, I think, is helping you in a way that maybe you don't even realize - ‘cause it's giving you that strength to try to do well.
VERA, NARRATION: I am grateful that I'm here in America, getting more opportunities than I would have gotten in Sierra Leone. But it's not enough to just be grateful, to sit back and wait. It's been hammered into my head that as long as I be the best that I could be, I can achieve this American dream. But now my mom wants me to settle for less?
VERA (shouting, fighting with sister): You clean the place up one day! You want a medal?
(The shouting continues beneath the narration.)
VERA, NARRATION: When me, my sister or my brother misbehave, my mom sometimes threatens to send us back to Sierra Leone.
VERA (continuing to shout): I clean the kitchen every week! … Leaving stuff all over the table …gook and stuff all over the table!
VERA, NARRATION: The funny thing is, I couldn't go back for a visit if I wanted to. Without a green card, it would be hard to get back into the U.S.
(Sounds of the argument continue.)
VERA (shouting): This is my shirt, too!
VERA, NARRATION: I know if I go back, I'll be an outsider because of my feminist and outspoken ways. (Sounds of the argument fade out.) But I just wish my parents didn't have to leave a country that they love.
DAD: Okay. One thing you should know – we were really living an affluent life in Africa. We used to travel. I used to go to Europe for weekends, and I used to do business, too. I used to sell smoked fish in the United States, in England, and we lived a very, very comfortable life in Freetown.
VERA, NARRATION: Listening to my dad reminisce about how his life used to be makes me wish I had a chance to live in Sierra Leone longer. But I know the war made that impossible.
DAD: It wasn't safe, especially if you're a Creole. I'm glad that I got out, because a lot of people died in that war – over 500,000. So you should thank your stars that I was smart enough to get out.
VERA, NARRATION: I think it was brave of my parents to leave their home. I just wish my dad thought ahead all the time.
When my dad got his green card, the judge told him to file for me and my mom separately. My dad waited two and a half years to file for me. If he hadn't waited, I'd have my green card by now. Why wasn't he thinking about my future then?
My dad's excuse: I was still young, and it didn't seem to matter at the time. Plus it would have cost one or two hundred dollars. He said he finally filed for me when he did because the laws were becoming stricter.
(Sound of papers being shuffled.)
VERA: You got the letter today?
(More sounds of shuffling paper.)
VERA, NARRATION: Lately, things have started happening for me. A couple of months ago, I finally got an immigration notice from the Department of Homeland Security.(Sound of letters being opened.)
VERA (reading from the letter): Approval …
VERA, NARRATION: I was so relieved to find out that my green card application had been approved.
VERA (reading from the letter continues): "The above petition has been approved. We have sent the original visa petition…"
(Sound of Vera reading continues beneath the narration.)
VERA, NARRATION: Because of how long it took to get this far, I thought it was going to be months before I would hear from them again. But two more letters came very soon after the first one.
I had to declare an agent, the person who would receive all the papers that would come throughout the rest of the process. I decided to name myself. (Sound of mom saying "I-13") I don't want to leave it up to my parents anymore. They might procrastinate and they often don't know what they're talking about.
(Sound of mom talking about "work permit")
VERA, NARRATION: Like, when the papers came, my mom said I could finally get a work permit.
VERA: Why don't we call the hotline?
(Sound of dial tone, and phone buttons being punched.)
VERA: For English, press one.
VERA, NARRATION: But after I called the immigration hotline, I found out she was wrong.
VERA (on phone to hotline): Hi. I just have a few questions. My application has been approved, and can I work while I'm waiting? No, not at all? Like, ‘cause I am a student, so like my father was like the – I'm not – I don't have any visa. I've been here – but I've been here since I was like, you know, months old, and like, you know, I've been having trouble, like getting financial aid and all that stuff, of course. But I wanted to know whether I would be able work, like if there's any kind of visa available for me…No? Wow. …Okay.
VERA, NARRATION: I was disappointed. But I know my situation could be a whole lot worse. My family still thinks I shouldn't talk about this issue until I actually get my green card. But I think because immigration is such a taboo subject here, immigrants often don't know what they need to know to become legal.
VERA: What's the next part, Dad - that they have to call for, and tell me when I have to go for an interview or something?
(Sound of Dad responding in the background)
VERA, NARRATION: Now at least we talk about immigration at home. (Sound of dad talking about "visa") My dad is about to file for citizenship, and my mom's green card (Sound of dad "priority date") is on its way.
VERA: I have to wait for my priority date now.
VERA, NARRATION: I just can't wait to get mine.
FOR WNYC, I'M ROOKIE REPORTER VERALYN WILLIAMS.
(Music and host outro.)
Veralyn has just completed her freshman year at Hunter College.
Go to WNYC.org to learn more about the Rookies.