THE BLOG
05/14/2013 11:55 am ET | Updated Jul 14, 2013

An Immigration Story

Debates about immigration policy are back in the news. At such times, it's helpful to remember the other side of policy: hundreds of thousands of individual stories. Immigration has always involved hardship, but unfortunately I never fully came to grips with that reality until it became part of my own reality. Ours was supposed to be an open-and-shut case: a fiancée visa. Our timing, however, was admittedly unhelpful: right after 9/11.

Médine and I had long been friends and had even discussed marriage. One day, however, I received a letter from her that a relative had carried out of the country. Civil war had come to Congo-Brazzaville, and she didn't know whether she would live or die. By the time her letter reached me, her town had been abandoned and burned. For the next eighteen, anguished months I could do nothing but pray for her safety. Meanwhile, she was often traveling miles through snake-infested swamps and fields of army ants to get food for her family.

When the war ended and we were able to resume communication, we decided to marry, but were very naïve about international politics and policies. At the time, because of the recent war, her country lacked a functioning U.S. consulate, so she and her 3-year-old son would have to travel to Cameroon. It took awhile in the postwar situation to get all the papers that the U.S. government understandably required. For example, even though she had kept her passport while she was a refugee, the new government required new passports. For another, she had to get documents regarding her marital status. (She had been married briefly in Congo, but the husband had strangled her while she was pregnant and turned out to be a bigamist.)

A week after she finally reached Cameroon my teaching semester ended and I flew there to be with her while seeking the visa. We had been advised that, for some reason, a marriage visa took twice as long as a fiancée visa at that time, so we should wait and then marry in the U.S.

The requirement, though, was for me to return to the U.S. and file. A contact also informed us that one of her needed documents was inadequate, unknown to us, so she had to return to Congo while I fretted further for her safety -- and her son cried that she might never come back. When I finally had the documents in hand and my lawyer was preparing to submit them, 9/11 happened -- and immigration policy changed virtually overnight. On top of that, the Vermont Service Center was shut down due to an anthrax scare, and petitions became backlogged.

My fiancée had spent 18 months displaced from her home in Congo. Now she spent months displaced in a country not her own, waiting for a visa to my country. Conditions were better and the family hosting her was gracious, but now she was far from family and friends and lonelier than she had been as a refugee. As a professor I had an unusual gift in that I did not need to report for work during summer and winter breaks. Apart from those periods, however, I could not be with her or her son.

Through a senator's intervention, the fiancée visa was expedited after I returned to Cameroon. We happily took our copy of the form to the consulate, only to discover that the consulate needed the form directly by diplomatic pouch from the United States; our copy of the document was not adequate. The consulate kept expecting the form by diplomatic pouch at any time, but it never arrived.

After more than two months back in Cameroon, I had to return to the U.S. because my next semester was starting. We had already missed our first wedding date. What broke my heart most was the sincere pleas of the boy, David, now 4. "I will come to Philadelphia with you tomorrow," he kept promising. When I finally had to leave without him he cried. "Who will play with me?" A friend took us all to the airport; afterward Médine found a place alone and sobbed.

"The consulate must have lost the file," the woman at the immigration service assured me. The consulate, however, insisted that the immigration service must have lost the file. Similar stories from friends suggested that the fault likelier lay with the overworked immigration service, but it didn't matter. The woman on the phone warned me that whoever lost the file, I would have to start over with a new petition, and that could take six more months. We were devastated, and it could have really been six more months had the consulate not had mercy on us in view of the evidence already provided. (I should mention that once Médine and David were in the United States, immigration officials here were very courteous to them.)

Our experience was painful, but we watched even more painful experiences among friends who did not have such established legal grounds to have family members with them. Of course there are many factors to consider when debating the logistical details of immigration policy. But debates about policy should never lose sight of what immigration involves in the lives of the real people that immigration rules affect. When my wife and I think about immigration, our first thoughts are about the concrete pain of real families separated by international borders.