By Nancy Lopez
Let's call her Veronica. I met with her at an Alameda coffeehouse near the Island apartment she has rented with her girlfriend for the last two years.
Her orange hoodie highlighted her dark skin. She spoke softly — her voice wary, calm and resigned. Around her arms were beaded bracelets.
Under a brown fedora, Veronica’s hair is cut close to her scalp; she recently donated her hair in honor of a friend with cancer. At 5-foot-7 and with an athletic build, it's not surprising that Veronica played soccer and volleyball in college.
But unlike most of her friends who graduated and went on to work at “regular jobs," Veronica has worked under the table as a nanny for the last five years, ever since she left college in 2005, two courses shy of a degree.
When Veronica's student visa lapsed six years ago, she got a job babysitting. Since then, she has built up a loyal clientele. Now she works regularly for four families.
“I’ve always been a natural with kids,” Veronica said. “They’re drawn to me and I’m drawn to them.”Veronica measures her words when she speaks. She aims, she says, to always “mean what I say and say what I mean.”
“I can, as normally as possible, support myself."
Straight talk can be a challenge, though: there are many aspects of her life she has a difficult time explaining. The details of her legal situation are complicated and painful to talk about.
“I don’t have a way of starting or growing a career. I don’t pay taxes. I don’t pay into retirement funds. I’m not moving forward in terms of what socially you’re expected to do,” Veronica said.And coming out to her traditional Panamanian family — it took several years for her mother to accept that girlfriends were not simply a phase — has held its heartache.
After she first came out to her parents, her mother often wondered out loud if Veronica could be happy with only a woman for the rest of her life.
Veronica met "Danielle" in college, but they didn't become romantically involved until years later. Now that the two have been together as a couple for nearly two years, Danielle wishes she could sponsor Veronica for legal residency. But that’s not an option. Even if California were to recognize same-sex marriage, immigration law does not.
Caught without options for staying legally, Veronica doesn’t know when an immigration official might knock on her door. And while she has considered returning to live in Panama, she feels the United States is her true home.
The granddaughter of a Panamanian politician, Veronica was born in Panama, the middle of three siblings. She lived a comfortable upper-middle class life in Panama City. But when the U.S.-backed Manuel Noriega came to power, he suspended constitutional rights, closed down newspapers and clamped down hard on dissenters, including Veronica’s father. Her family was among the many that received death threats.
“I remember coming home from school one day, the streets were empty and nobody was at my house,” Veronica said.Soliders had barricaded her block. She watched as one lit a tire and rolled it down the street, a show of government power. Afraid and confused, Veronica ran the other way to her aunt’s house. No one was home there either.
“I crawled underneath my aunt’s bed and saw the shoes of a soldier walking away,” Veronica said.With the threat-of violence ever-growing, her family decided it was time for them to flee the country.
“My mom gave us each a bag and said, 'You can pick your favorite things to bring,'” Veronica said.She chose a doll, a hair brush, a necklace and a plant called a mimosa.
“There are these plants that when you touch them, they fold closed and they grow anywhere, but my mom said we couldn’t bring plants,” Veronica said.Veronica, her mother, her father and her two siblings flew from Panama to Miami, from Miami to San Francisco. They went to live with an aunt in a Bay Area suburb. That was 1987.
Her parents, with help from a lawyer, applied for asylum.
The family's immigration status uncertain, they did their best to adapt to California life. Placed in first grade, Veronica's first challenge was to learn English.The teacher paired her with another girl who drilled her with flash cards while the other children did their lessons. Veronica was eager.
“I wasn’t a kid who stole, but I stole those flash cards,” said Veronica, laughing.In bed at night, she sounded out every syllable of every word on the flash cards. She wanted to be able to communicate. She wanted to fit in.
She was acutely aware of how she was different. She envied her friends' big houses and yards, and she was embarrassed by her family's small apartment and the bedroom she shared with her two siblings.
But her father, who had worked for an American company in Panama, was able to as secure a good job. Her mother volunteered at a community group, working with immigrant children and their families.
In 1989, the United States invaded Panama and removed Noriega from power. Soon after, the family’s request for asylum was denied on the grounds that the danger they feared no longer existed.
Veronica’s parents appealed, citing a continued threat. Their case stood pending for nine years. Immigration lawyers say it was not entirely unusual in the 1990s for asylum cases to sit idle for that long.
At home, Veronica's parents didn't talk to the children about the family’s tenuous legal status. The children and family continued to acclimate to life in the States.
But the precariousness of the situation resurfaced when Veronica was a junior in high school. One fall day, Veronica’s parents received a letter from the Board of Immigration Appeals saying the family had 60 days to leave the country.
Her parents appealed, aware that now they were simply buying time. Indeed, with their second appeal, they bought two more years. Veronica excelled at sports, got into Cal State and planned to major in childhood education.
During her freshman year in college, a second letter was delivered to the family. Veronica and her family were asked to appear before a judge in the winter of 2001.
“We stood there for five minutes and the judge said, ‘Denied.’”For Veronica, the morning’s final verdict marked the beginning of a decade of uncertainty.
In the winter of 2001, an immigration judge uttered the word “denied” to Veronica's family's last appeal for political asylum in the U.S.
The family of five had lived in the United States for more than a dozen years. Veronica had been through elementary school, junior high and high school in the East Bay. She was in her first year at Cal State East Bay.
The family packed their things and returned to Panama. But Veronica’s father had established himself as a valuable asset at the company where he worked, and he submitted a request for a work visa.
After a month, the request was granted and the family once again returned to the East Bay — all except Veronica's oldest sibling who, at 21, was no longer eligible to return as a dependent.
Back in the United States, Veronica went back to college. Life resumed.
Although her parents did not know it, Veronica had a girlfriend. She had been exploring her sexuality for awhile, noticing women in high school, but afraid to look. By college, she knew she was completely drawn to them.
“Yes it was scary at first, but I didn’t think less of myself or really judge myself,” says Veronica. Still, she hid her sexuality from her parents, unsure of their reaction and afraid of their judgment.
Over the next four years, while she was still in school but no longer eligible to be her father's dependent, Veronica returned to Panama twice, the first time to obtain a student visa and the second time to extend it.
Yet she did not have a long-term solution for obtaining legal status on her own. She found the situation daunting and the complexity overwhelming. She remembers going up the student office for foreign students to get help and advice, and then walking away, lacking the will and heart to face her situation head on.
For Veronica, whose entire world was her life in the United States, the idea of being barred from living in the only country she knew was unbearable. Her feelings were made more muddled by the incomplete process of coming out. Her friends knew, but her parents did not.
At school, she floundered. She withdrew from classes, dragging out school so she could retain her student status, an attempt to avoid what, at times, felt inevitable: losing her legal status and having to return to Panama for good.
“I was rebelling and freaking out,” Veronica said.Everything felt murky. She was doubtful about how long she could keep extending school, especially with her failing grades, and about what the future held for her. She also suspected her mom knew about a new girlfriend — and she felt unable to commit, not wanting to bring someone else into the uncertainty of her residency.
“I felt guilty for having someone else be in this situation,” said Veronica, “In a situation that causes pain and is out of my control.”She spent less and less time at home, sleeping over at friends’ houses. Finally, frustrated by her behavior, Veronica's parents insisted that she do her school work and comply with a curfew.
“I followed through for maybe two weeks and then I left,” said Veronica, who was then 23. “I left with three pairs of underwear, some socks, a T-shirt, some basketball shorts and that was it.”“I walked away from school and I walked away from my parents,” she said. For a couple of years Veronica lived at friend's homes, struggling.
To explain her departure, Veronica wrote her parents a letter.
In four single-spaced pages, she poured her heart out. She told them she had been in a relationship with a woman for more than a year. She told them it wasn’t just a phase she was going through. She told them that the uncertainty of her status, and wrestling with what they would think of her sexual identity, was more than she could bear dealing with under the same roof.
“I wanted them to have something in front of them so that I wouldn’t forget to say something or that I wouldn’t forget to explain something,” said Veronica, holding out her hands over an invisible letter.For the next six months, her mom would send her a text every day, with the same message: "Come home."
“I never responded because I wasn’t ready,” said Veronica. “I needed that time to feel strong enough to stand there as who I was, the whole me, and not need their approval.”In an Alameda cafe years later, Veronica pauses. Tears roll down her cheeks. It’s painfully complicated, still.
Veronica stayed with friends during that time. She didn’t finish college. The hopelessness she felt about her legal situation the challenge of coming out caught up with her and made her stagnant.
She let the days pass her by. The school semester came to an end and soon after, her student visa expired. After a lifetime lived in the United States, she was 23 and undocumented.
To sift through the legal specifics of Veronica’s story is difficult: the family's asylum claim, the numerous appeals, her dependent visa, her student visas.
The accumulation has left Veronica exhausted and wary of false hopes. She still avoids telling people her story; she doesn’t want people’s pity.
When she does talk, people often try to help. They jot down a name and number for a lawyer friend who they hope might have some answers for her.
“I’ve been in the situation for how long?” says Veronica. “I’m sure I’ve done everything I could do.”But to know whether she ever had a chance, a real chance, of becoming permanently legal is difficult. The key for many heterosexual people, who can marry their way to citizenship, is not there for Veronica, even though she is in a long-term relationship with a woman with whom she would like to build a family.
“Unless I married a dude,” she says jokingly.She almost did, twice, but never had the heart to go through with it. A high school boyfriend offered to marry her, but she said no. The second time, a good friend of hers offered to marry her. They got as far as the marriage interview, but Veronica says she didn't have the heart to put up the front. Also, she felt the friend really loved her, and it would have been heartbreaking for both of them.
To date, immigration law doesn’t recognize gay marriage, which for a straight couple would offer a ready solution. And the law doesn’t offer permanent solutions to people who were brought to the United States at a young age and who, like Veronica, have established deep roots in this country.
If Veronica had finished school, she would at least have a degree to her name, though she figures her situation would be largely the same: an expired visa, no legal way to land a job and living with the fear of being deported.
In retrospect, Veronica acknowledges that dragging out school only to drop out probably hurt more than it helped.
“Many LGBT people go through that,” said Steve Ralls, the spokesperson for Immigration Equality, a national organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants.
“They move from temporary visa to temporary visa, hoping to stay in the U.S. for as long as possible. But they just aren’t able to continuously jump from one option to the other,” he said.Ralls points out, however, that those who have access to visas are the fortunate ones. Generally, it is difficult for most people to even obtain a visa, with many wait lists currently backlogged for years.
Attorneys also say that overstaying a visa, as Veronica did, dramatically lessens a person’s options for becoming permanently legal. Although one can apply for what is called a cancellation of removal, the guidelines are stringent. The person must have resided in the U.S. for 10 years, prove they are of good moral character, and have a spouse, parent or child who is a green card holder or a citizen who can show they will suffer extreme hardship if the person leaves — which would be difficult for Veronica to show.
Robert Jobe, a San Francisco attorney who’s an expert in handling asylum cases, says the people who are most successful in legalizing their status are gay people who can prove they can’t return to their country for fear they will be persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While he hasn’t seen such claims from Panamanian immigrants like Veronica, many cases do come from immigrants from other Latin American countries, like Mexico, El Salvador and Brazil, where there is a well-documented history of persecution against LGBT people.
“Being gay can affect your immigration status in a whole lot of ways,” said Jobe, “not always necessarily for bad, but oftentimes it is.”Of all her family, Veronica is the only one who remains in legal limbo. Her youngest sibling graduated from a four-year school and secured a work visa. And her oldest sibling, over 21 at the time the family was told to leave the United States, never returned here after the family’s final asylum claim was denied.
Recently, though, Veronica’s fate took a possible slight turn for the better when her parents became legal residents. Although they must wait two years to apply for citizenship, they can petition for Veronicaa now, as green card holders. She’s planning to meet with an attorney to file the petition.
But since Veronica is over 21, she likely has to wait roughly 10 years for her case to be reviewed.
“Ten years? It just seems pointless,” says Veronica, her voice revealing the frustration simmering within her. At the café, the sun is high above. Veronica has shifted in her seat and now faces sideways, looking into the distance as she speaks.
Ralls, with Immigration Equality, says there is another hope for Veronica. The Uniting American Families Act, which would allow U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents to sponsor their same-sex partners for immigration benefits, is pending in Congress and could become law as early as 2012.
Also, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a memo in June, stating that immigration officials would exercise discretion in which individuals to remove. This could spare people like Veronica, who have resided in the U.S. for a long time and don’t pose a security threat, from being deported if they are discovered to be here without proper documentation.
Ralls understands Veronica’s frustration. He says immigration law is outdated. It can be a cumbersome and oftentimes oppressive system that makes it difficult for anyone, but especially LGBT people, to become legal.
“Her story is a perfect example of the double impact that LGBT people feel under current immigration laws,” said Ralls.Veronica wonders what will happen if she has to leave the country. Danielle, her girlfriend, wonders what it would be like if Veronica had legal residency.
“This is why there do need to be permanent solutions to allow people who were brought to the U.S. to be able to remain in what is the only country they know as their home.”
When they first started dating, Veronica warned Danielle that being together might not be such a good idea. At any moment, she said, an immigration official might knock on their door and say, "It’s time."
Danielle, for her part, never thought twice about falling in love with Veronica.
"Let’s deal with it when the time comes," she told Veronica. "Let’s enjoy this right now."Danielle is 27 and a native-born United States citizen from the Bay Area. She works as a school counselor.
“Just because she may not be able to live here,” said Danielle, “doesn't mean I could just let my feelings for her go.”
The two women met in college, but only began dating in recent years. Since then, Danielle has struggled to find a balance between the hopelessness that creeps up on Veronica, and her own faith that they will have a future together.
Danielle recalls Veronica returning to Panama back when they were in college. But it’s not until recently that she learned the bits and pieces that make up all of Veronica’s story: why her family fled to the United States in the first place, how she tried to keep her status legal, and how she’s run out of options, living in legal limbo.
As their relationship has grown, however, the reality of Veronica’s situation has seeped into the glue that holds them together. Moments of happiness can be followed by sorrow that Veronica can’t hide but oftentimes doesn’t want to talk about.
“It’s an elephant in the room. It’s just bad news that’s always there,” Danielle said.But for Veronica, her status is a guilt she has a hard time living with. How can she bring someone else into her precarious situation, into her life-stalling situation?
“I tell her, 'It’s not just your situation anymore, it’s ours.'”
She wants to finish college and go on to graduate school. She would like to remain in the Bay Area with her girlfriend, near her family and friends. “It keeps coming up and kind of stabs at you all the time,” said Veronica.
Veronica also wants to marry Danielle. They want to have kids and raise a family together.
“I think right now that’s the biggest issue,” said Danielle, “just moving on to having the lives that we both want, but not being able to do so. If Veronica were a man, or if I were a man, it would be solved.”For Danielle, it is frustrating not only to see but also experience the limited rights LGBT people have under state and federal laws — and how they impact her personal life. In the state of California she can’t legally marry Veronica. But even if she could, current immigration law does not recognize same-sex marriages, essentially barring her from sponsoring Veronica as her partner.
“It’s crazy to know you’re an American and you have all these rights, except this one,” said Danielle.Veronica is a “little hopeful,” with LGBT issues taking center stage in the immigration debate. But she doesn’t see legislation moving forward fast enough to have a positive impact on her situation.
A mandate that allows gay partners to sponsor their partners for residency and U.S. citizenship has been included in a recent immigration reform bill and sits in Congress. Its passage into law depends in large part on whether next year’s Congressional membership stays the same.
Veronica's best bet is to file a petition for residency now that her parents are green card holders and can sponsor her. In the meantime, she must remain single and wait.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work out,” said Veronica, “but it will somehow.”