The Secret Life and Terrifying Journey of a White-Collar Undocumented Immigrant

With my perfect English, stable finances and penchant for Prada, I never saw myself as anything but American—until U.S. Immigration decided to throw me out.

The Secret Life and Terrifying Journey of a White-Collar Undocumented Immigrant

I had known Oscar for a year and a half when he asked me to marry him. We were on a bench in Battery Park and he was feeding the squirrels. I was shocked.

“Marry…oh my God…Oscar, I’m flattered. But I don’t think I’m ready.”

I was holding his hand. He looked so sad. At 32, I was still recovering from the breakup of a lifetime with a man I’d once considered to be my soul mate, a childhood friend of my late brother’s — both of us born in the former Yugoslavia. Brandon, the ex, was now a U.S. citizen and I was in limbo, with no green card, hiding in plain sight.

I was essentially starting from scratch, an illegal immigrant who had all but grown up in the U.S. My father served as a Yugoslavian diplomat in Chicago, hobnobbing with Mayor Daley and the police commissioner. His first term in the U.S. began when I was four. That’s when I got my very own Social Security card, courtesy of my father’s diplomatic status. I also learned to read and write in English, quickly growing to love all things American. This was the only life I knew. When we returned to Belgrade four years later, I pined for America until my Dad was reposted to Chicago, as the Consul General. By then I was 15. I enrolled in Catholic high school and graduated with honors, then went on to the University of Illinois to study art.

When I was 20, my father’s second term to the U.S. ended. It wasn’t until I was 26 that I came to live here on my own. By that point my father had died and I’d met Brandon. Together, we hatched a plan to move to New York, where he’d get a job and I’d get an MFA in art. He coached me through the process of obtaining a student visa, but once we arrived he cajoled me to forget about school, and I listened. Brandon wheeled and dealed, dabbling in the stock market and moving us into ever-more-posh apartments with views of the Manhattan skyline. When my student visa expired, I felt a pang of concern, but Brandon reassured me that if my illegal status ever became a problem, we’d marry. I told myself a visa didn’t matter. I wasn’t anyone’s idea of an immigrant, after all. I drove a Jaguar two-seater convertible, spoke English perfectly and grew up in the U.S. What other illegal immigrant could say that?

Except Brandon and I split — but not before he lost everything we had by recklessly playing the market. I may have been wearing Gucci boots and carrying a Prada handbag, but I was now most definitely illegal, with no family nearby, no identity or status, and no real way to get myself out of the situation.

Back on the park bench, Oscar interrupted my thoughts. “You know,” he said. “You could grow to love me. I could help you with your papers. It’s not fair for you to be illegal.”

Illegal. The word made me cringe. Oscar was also from Yugoslavia, but he was a bona fide U.S. citizen. If we married, he really could help with my papers. Still, I couldn’t get past the idea that the word illegal was part of this marriage proposal.

“Let’s just enjoy our time together,” I told Oscar. “Then we will see.”

“Okay,” he said, looking perhaps a little bit less sad. “Please give it some thought. I’m ready when you are.”

One year later, Oscar proposed again. This time, I said yes.

I was upstairs in my sister’s kitchen, planning the wedding details, when I said to her, “You know, I don’t need his papers.”

“I know,” she said. “But you do need to feel safe.”

“I’m more American than he is,” I insisted. “It’s annoying of you to suggest that I need a man for anything. The truth is, it’s not about the green card. I really like him.”

I did like him, and I was marrying him for real.

But unfortunately, marriage didn’t exactly bring us closer together. For one thing, Oscar had to navigate a two-and-a-half-hour commute from my house in Fort Lee, New Jersey to his job as a physician on Long Island. The plan was for him to start looking for a new job closer to the city as soon as he passed his medical boards. Until then, he usually stayed in his studio apartment near the hospital. I knew that other people had commuter marriages, but I worried the distance would take a toll.

Meanwhile, an envelope came in the mail: a one-year temporary work authorization with my name on it. How strange, I thought. Someone like Oscar, who has no real connection to the U.S., who is really just here to save enough money to go back home, who never even spoke English until his late twenties — this person is giving ME the opportunity to work and reside in the country I consider MY home. He’d been in a drab socialist school uniform back in Belgrade while I was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten, usually in my favorite suede shoes decorated with American flags.

I took the work authorization permit and stuck it in my art supply drawer. I didn’t have time to think about it anyway. I was in the process of buying my own place, a co-op overlooking the Hudson, with a view of Manhattan. My sister was co-signing the mortgage, my mother helping with the down payment from the sale of her summer home on the Adriatic Coast.

Oscar, however, was less enthusiastic. He didn’t like change. He loved the apartment I’d been renting; it reminded him of his crappy place on Long Island. Deep down, I think he felt that he was only in this country temporarily, so why trade up? He was a citizen, but to my eyes he acted like an immigrant, his only vision to work hard, then go back and retire in the old country. I don’t think he truly understood that despite my illegal status, I was home.

The hardwood floor creaked lightly as I stepped inside. The apartment smelled of fresh paint. I crossed the huge, empty living room to the windows overlooking the river. From this vantage point it felt as if I was floating on the water. I stood there a long time with my forehead pressed against the cold glass as the sun set over the river, watching the colors of the sky. But I couldn’t rest for long. I had just received a dream offer for a sales and marketing job with a luxury jewelry company. I was ready to put my art background and business skills to use. Plus, I had to get ready for my green card interview, just two days away.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Oscar’s mother had just died after a battle with cancer, and he was heartbroken. I was too, even though I’d never met his parents. (Because of my illegal status, I couldn’t travel outside the country.) In any case, after only a year and a half of marriage, Oscar and I were no longer a couple; we’d separated, amicably, two friends leading separate lives — me in New Jersey, him on Long Island. He wanted me to slow down and make compromises; I wanted him to stand up and make his own choices. He thought the two of us should be more important than anything else; I knew too well, from past experiences, what sacrificing myself for a relationship could cost.

Yet Oscar was still willing to participate in my green card application and interview. I was grateful but I also reassured him that I had no reservations about stopping the process. I’d lived without legal status for nine years already; I could wait a few more years. The day before the interview, I called him. “If you’re certain you want to proceed, we can leave together in the morning. We’ll tell them we’re separated, that we’re still trying to work things out. We have nothing to hide.”

“Okay, see you,” he mumbled.

After he hung up I reviewed the stack of documents I’d amassed, making sure everything was in order: Application, check. Wedding-gift registry, check. Wedding photo album, check. Statements showing bank accounts, tax returns, a decade of self-financing, and all the rest. Steven, my hotshot immigration lawyer, told me that I had nothing to worry about. “You?” he laughed. “You’re as American as they come. You’ll pass with flying colors.”

That afternoon, snow started to fall. By evening, the flurries had become a full-fledged blizzard. By the time Oscar reached my house, it was 1 a.m. and we were both exhausted. He slept on the futon in the kitchen, and neither of us got much sleep.

In the morning, it was still snowing, Oscar’s Ford Fairmont wouldn’t start.

“Don’t worry,” he reassured me. He got out and did the things he liked to do in these situations: He wrestled with various parts under the hood, trying to bring the car back to life by blowing on things and rubbing spit on them and tying them together with bits of string. It’s a very European approach to car mechanics, and of course it never works. By the time we decided to take my car instead, we were already late. I grabbed a bagel for myself. “You have to eat before we leave,” I urged, talking with my mouth full. “You know how you get.”

But the same gene that wouldn’t allow Oscar to pay a real mechanic to fix his car also prevented him from eating something to keep his blood sugar from dropping. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll eat something afterwards.”

Soon his hands were shaking and he was looking pasty and sweaty. “I told you to eat!” I nudged again.

“I don’t need anything,” he retorted. He never raised his voice, which usually made me even more persistent.

If only the immigration officers had seen us bickering like an old married couple, they would have rubber-stamped my green card application. I was so annoyed with my soon-to-be-ex-husband that I made an illegal turn and was pulled over for a ticket. That made us even later, which made Oscar more anxious and me even snappier.

Finally, we arrived at the courthouse in Newark and settled ourselves in the waiting room, surrounded by people, many in traditional garb and speaking their native languages, most accompanied by lawyers. They must need the lawyers to translate, I thought.

“Do you think Steve should have come, too?” Oscar whispered.

“Oh, no,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “He would have mentioned it.”

Meanwhile, immigration officers periodically stepped out into the waiting room and read names off a clipboard. One after another, the space emptied out. Then, a big, burly, disheveled guy with a puffy red face stalked out and barked my name.

“Here,” I said, raising my hand as if I were back at Catholic school in Chicago. He glared at me, but I wasn’t worried. I had nothing to hide. I had brought along extra documentation, way beyond what was required, including a letter detailing the assets I’d brought with me when I first arrived in this country. My goal was to prove that I had funded my entire stay, that I wouldn’t be a burden on the system. The officer stared at the papers as if I’d tried to smuggle a bomb into the place. He asked a few brusque questions, then barked out: “Where do you two live?”

“Well, I live where I have lived these past two years…” I hadn’t moved yet, so I gave the address of my crummy apartment in Fort Lee. “And Oscar lives close to his hospital job in Riverhead. Officer, we’ve been married well over a year, and like many couples, after giving it a reasonable try, we are separated right now, trying to work things out.”

That was all he needed to hear. The guy didn’t care about my papers, or my non-accent, or what I thought of as my gleaming American-ness. All he took away from the conversation was that we were living apart. In a few minutes, we found ourselves back in the waiting room.

“Wow, that was a fast interview,” I said to Oscar.

“A little too fast,” he mumbled.

Soon, another officer, a woman, called my name.

“Here,” I said.

She came toward me with a sheath of documents. “You have failed your interview,” she announced.

“Excuse me?”

“The officer in charge of your case thinks this is not a real marriage,” she said. “He believes that this was a marriage for money. Sign here.”

“Officer—” I stumbled over my words. “How can that be?”

“You paid this man to marry you, and that is fraud,” she explained patiently, as if to a child.

Paid him?” I was incredulous. “Just look at him!” Poor Oscar. It was rude of me, I know. He was actually very cute — tall, with curly brown hair — but more the absent-minded professor type, not a gigolo.

I never paid him a dime, and if I had, I would have insisted that he dress better.

The woman, unimpressed, gave us a choice: We could come back another time with a lawyer in tow, or we could wrap this up today if we signed a paper agreeing to forego counsel.

Someone else in my situation might have chosen differently, but I was determined to prove my innocence right there and then. I was appalled that the INS would think I needed to pay a man to marry me. I was the daughter of a diplomat! Had the guy not seen my documents? Hadn’t he noticed how long I’d lived here? I pledged allegiance to the flag at age four. That’s more than some of your officers can say!

By now I was shaking, my thoughts racing, overlapping. I left Oscar slumped in his chair and went off in search of a vending machine to get snacks for him, and to use the ladies’ room. I walked in and exhaled deeply. “I’m American, do they not see that?” I said to the mirror.

When I emerged, Oscar was nowhere in sight. Was he in a diabetic coma somewhere? Then someone told me: “Your husband is in a room being interviewed.”

“Don’t they need me there, too?” I asked.

Apparently not. So I waited and wondered, until my name was called again.

Another officer led me to a room where Oscar was sitting at a table, looking worse than before, if that was possible. His hands were shaking. His body was shaking. He was perspiring. I could see the train coming, but I was helpless to move off the tracks.

The officer on the other side of the table was looking as rosy as Oscar was pale. His chest was puffed out as if he expected someone to pin a medal on it.

“Is it time for my interview now?” I asked.

“No need,” said the officer. “We’ve already spoken to your husband here, and he has withdrawn his petition.”

“What?” What does that even mean? “Oscar?” I prodded. But he refused to look me in the eye.

I’d been accused of paying Oscar to marry me, and no one seemed interested in hearing my side of the story. In the time it had taken me to look for a Snickers bar and pee, my life was ruined.

“Your husband has withdrawn his petition, and you are now officially in deportation proceedings,” said the officer. “Sign here.”

He thrust a piece of paper at me.

“I won’t sign anything!” I pushed the paper as far away as my outstretched arm would allow. “You didn’t interview me yet!”

“We don’t need to,” said the officer. “We interviewed your husband. He is the American citizen.”

Oscar had an accent, not me. Oscar was schooled entirely in Belgrade, not me. I’d spent my life here, he spent his life there, and now his word was the one that would decide my fate.

I was starting to get the idea that I was in serious trouble. Until now, I’d thought of all the other people in the waiting room as the foreigners, the outsiders. Of course they needed help. I was an American — maybe not born here, but bred here. I had an American sense of entitlement, in the best sense: entitlement to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The smug-looking officer broke in on my noble thoughts.

“Another thing,” he said. “Do not leave the building until you go down to the third floor to post $500 bail. And keep the receipt.”

Bail…receipt…my God, I am a criminal!

Before I could say another word, the officer got up. “Good day, ma’am.” Our “interview” was over.

Down on the third floor, the bailiff explained from behind a little window that I was paying for the right to defend myself against a charge of fraud, and I would get the money back when the charge disappeared — or when I was hauled back to my country in handcuffs.

“What the hell happened in there?” I screamed at Oscar in the car, as I jerked the steering wheel around corners at 70 mph. If we died, at least it would be on American soil.

He mumbled something into his concave chest.

“Why did you do this to me? Why did you come today at all? Is this your way of getting back at me for separating? How could you in your right mind do this?”

“I had no choice,” he moaned. “They told me they’d put me in prison for, like, a hundred and fifty years.” He sounded as if he was on the verge of tears. “It may not be as bad as you think,” was all he could manage.

I wondered if my citizen husband even comprehended the language enough to understand what was going on, or whether he assumed he was merely having a friendly chat with the INS officer about our marital problems.

I’d been so confident in my American-ness. I’d thought that I was too American to fail.

At home, where I’d expected to be celebrating, I sat on the floor and cried. Oscar cried along with me. I didn’t want to be near him. As it grew dark, I got up, closed the door behind me, and raced off to my new apartment, where I crossed the empty living room to the window, the smudge from where my forehead pressed against the glass two days earlier still visible. I pressed my head against the same cold spot and sobbed. Only 48 hours earlier, I’d been on a roll. I had just picked up the keys to the apartment of my dreams; I’d landed my dream job. Now, I had nothing. I couldn’t take the job because I couldn’t legally work. I’d been so sure I would have my green card in hand in no time at all that I hadn’t even bothered to spend $250 to renew my work authorization form, now sitting uselessly in my art drawer.

You are subject to deportation. The words rang in my ears.

Now I truly was living the life of an undocumented immigrant. I couldn’t accept any legitimate jobs; I found a position at a financial firm but it wasn’t above-board and I was just waiting to be found out. I couldn’t even renew my driver’s license and instead carried around an international driver’s license of questionable origin. My heart skipped a beat at even the thought of getting pulled over. I lived this way, in limbo, for five years, paying exorbitant legal fees by selling property my parents had owned overseas, going from one lawyer to the next, desperate to stay in the country and fighting off deportation one court hearing at a time.

My saving grace came in the form of a lawyer who was an immigrant himself. He confided in me that as a boy living in the U.S. he’d been afraid every time the UPS truck pulled up to his door, worried that it was the INS. Eventually, his family did get deported back to South America. But he made his way back to the U.S. again, finished law school and vowed to help immigrants in need.

With his help, in 2005 I successfully refuted the fraud charges, giving me the opportunity to apply for a green card. I was ecstatic.

But that wasn’t quite the end of the story.

The prosecutor objected to the judge’s ruling and there was another delay as the time period to submit his reasons was one year, leaving me in limbo once again.

The last day and the last hour came and went; he never submitted his brief. I was able to adjust status and apply for my green card, which I finally received in 2006, after five years of deportation proceeding and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. I could now work legally, and just as important, apply for citizenship.

By 2012, I was ready to go to my first citizenship appointment when nature intervened: Hurricane Sandy roared into town, and I was thwarted once again. Several months later, I took the Oath of Allegiance. I’d always felt American. Now I finally am.