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Green Card Stories: An Introduction

by Laura Danielson and Steve Yale-Loehr

Editor's Note: This article is the introduction to Green Card Stories, a new book that features dramatic narratives of 50 recent U.S. immigrants-each with permanent residence or citizenship-in compelling essays by nationally recognized journalist Saundra Amrhein and exquisite portraits by award-winning documentary photographer Ariana Lindquist. The book was created and produced in collaboration with renowned immigration lawyers and scholars Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr. Laura and Steve co-wrote the introduction reprinted below.

Each of the 50 stories is as old as the foundation of this nation, but also reflects the global trends and conflicts of the 21st century. Arriving from all corners of the globe, coming for work, love, to study, invest or escape persecution, the people in this book share a steely resourcefulness and a determination to fulfill their potential in America.

Though the places from which they come have changed-today largely from Latin America and Asia instead of Europe-the essential drive to make it in America remains constant. Green Card Stories demonstrates that today's immigrants are just as hardworking, energetic, and eager to contribute to U.S. society as past generations of new arrivals.

The stories in this book-of sacrifice and hope, of pride and success-appeal to the heart. These are mostly stories of ordinary, hard-working people: shopkeepers, engineers, teachers, construction workers. A few showcase artistic, athletic, and business talents that have led to success and fame. Some immigrants have come from extraordinary circumstances, others from humble beginnings.

Many of the individuals in Green Card Stories overcame significant hurdles to get where they are today. Yet amid the difficulties, another story also emerges in these pages-about the kindness of strangers, the desire to support others who are working to fulfill their goals, and of the crucial role of education in improving one's future.

Green Card Stories puts a human face on immigration, moving the debate beyond the divisive political arena and into the landscape of everyday America. These 50 individuals are but a tiny fraction of the numerous immigrants who are positively contributing to our nation today.

50 stories. 5 continents. 1 America.

The Green Card Stories team is holding several book launch events and panel discussions in New York City January 30-February 1. For more information about the events or to order the book, go to

When we first conceived Green Card Stories more than 15 years ago we never dreamed that immigration would become such a potent, divisive, and political topic. Back then, there were just these remarkable, inspirational stories that called out to be told. Now, however, these stories about our newest Americans add context to the growing national debate about immigration and remind us that we are predominantly a nation of immigrants. These newcomers immigrate to the United States for the same reasons millions before them have: to seek refuge; to follow love; to build and create; to support families.

There is something unique about the immigrant spirit. Most people, no matter how dire their circumstances, do not leave their homeland. Those who make the journey to America come with courage, determination, and resiliency. Hopeful ambition has characterized immigrants throughout our nation's history and is imbedded in our national make-up. The stories in this book put a human face on immigration, moving the immigration debate beyond the political arena and into the landscape of everyday America. Focusing on the inherent human drama of immigration, this book reflects who today's immigrants really are, how and why they came to America, and why they decided to stay. It tells the true story of our nation: E pluribus unum - out of many, one.

Immigration has been historically both a central component of the American experience and a cause for questions and anxieties about the integration of newcomers. As a society we have debated the terms of inclusion and questions about our national identity. Contemporary migration does not differ in this respect. Today's immigrants, however, differ from past groups in distinctive ways, rekindling political and policy debates about immigration's costs and benefits.

For one thing, recent immigrants hail predominantly from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, rather than from Europe. According to the 2010 U.S. census, Latinos represent 56 percent of the nation's growth in the past decade. Immigrants from Asia now account for 28 percent of the total U.S. foreign-born population. Ethnic minorities now constitute 37 percent of the nation's overall population. Immigrants comprise one in seven U.S. residents and one in six U.S. workers. Experts predict that by 2020 minorities will constitute an absolute majority of all children, making this emerging youth population our country's next work force.

Another distinction is that there has been a shift in settlement patterns away from traditional gateway areas such as our border and coastal states to non-traditional destinations such as the Midwest. State and local governments have responded by tightening laws and imposing further restrictions on housing and employment in an attempt to crack down on undocumented immigration.

As has been the case at other critical moments in America's immigration history, some strident voices oppose the assimilation of our newest wave of immigrants. Talk show hosts and radio shock jocks make their living by stoking people's fears, and people who come from foreign countries with different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds are a natural target. These negative voices reinforce a wide range of prejudices and stereotypes. They do not, however, tell us anything about who these new immigrants really are, how they live their lives in the United States, and what social and cultural contributions they make to American life.

Green Card Stories' purpose is to capture the true diversity and impact of today's immigrant America, showing how richly nuanced a society we have become through immigration. The stories in this book - of sacrifice and hope, of pride and success - appeal to the heart. These are mostly stories of ordinary, hard-working people: shopkeepers, engineers, teachers, construction workers. A few showcase artistic, athletic, and business talents that have led to success and fame. Some immigrants have come from extraordinary circumstances, others from humble beginnings. A few entered the country without papers or overstayed their visas. Many have come to seek refuge from political strife or economic hardship.

Contrary to the long-cherished image of an America with arms open to the masses, we allow only a select few to enter on a permanent basis. Getting a green card is not easy, even for the most highly qualified and sought-after applicants. For most, the process of acquiring permanent residence is a long, arduous journey of both bureaucratic obstacles and personal transformation. Immigrants' status during the process is tenuous and uncertain, and often depends on maintaining a critical relationship with an employer or a relative.

There are four main ways people qualify for green cards. First, about a million people a year immigrate through their family connections. The system gives preference to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, which includes spouses and unmarried children under 21. Citizens can also sponsor their parents, but only after the children have reached the age of 21 (making the concept of "anchor babies" a decades-long proposition at best). All other eligible relatives (adult children, spouses and young children of permanent residents, and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens) have to wait their turn under a complicated system that has both per-country and worldwide quotas. The wait for eligibility can range from a few years for the spouse of a green card holder to more than 20 for the brother or sister of a U.S. citizen. During that time the applicant is generally not allowed to reside in the United States.

A number of those profiled in Green Card Stories obtained permanent residence through family. This includes the adopted Redmond triplets, former actress Lily Chen, and Nelly Boyette, who spent years convincing the immigration agency that her marriage to a U.S. citizen was real. Because the Defense of Marriage Act still keeps gay marriage from being recognized on a federal level, same sex partners have had to find other means of immigrating to live with their U.S. spouse.

A second way to obtain a green card is through employment. The last major modifications to the U.S. immigration system were made in 1990, when a five-tiered employment-based quota system was developed, allowing a maximum of 140,000 workers to immigrate to the United States each year. Similar to the family-based system, the employment-based system involves both worldwide and per-country quotas. The top category is for those with extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researchers, and multinational business managers and executives. The next is for those whose work is both exceptional and in the U.S. national interest. A number of people profiled in the book obtained green cards through these elite categories, including bronze sculptor Coral Lambert and renowned transportation engineer Mikel Murga. Another category is for foreign nationals who invest at least $1 million ($500,000 in rural or high unemployment areas) in companies that create ten jobs for U.S. workers, as in the case of French chocolatiers Vincent and Isabelle Koenig.

Those who do not fit into any of these categories must be sponsored by employers, who must establish through an arduous labor market test that there are no qualified U.S. workers for the position. Competitive wages must be paid and the program is monitored closely by the U.S. Department of Labor. Even when the labor market test is passed, applications for jobs that require only skilled labor or bachelor's degrees are backlogged. David Day, a carpenter from England, had to wait more than six years before he could immigrate. Long visa waits have increased significantly over the twenty years since this system was developed, and it is now estimated that Indian nationals filing employment-based petitions must wait more than twelve years to get their green cards. Given the pace of technology and the relatively short window of opportunity, it is unrealistic to expect employees to wait this long. And for unskilled workers, there is simply no functioning employment-based system that allows them to immigrate.

A third method is through a lottery. About 50,000 people a year win green cards through a lottery program designed to increase the number of immigrants coming from under-represented countries. The idea behind this program is to increase immigration diversity. Japanese embroiderers Shuji and Masa Tamura were lottery winners. Charles Nyaga, however, won the lottery only to find that he was denied because the immigration agency didn't adjudicate his application in time.

Finally, people fleeing persecution in their own countries may qualify to enter as refugees or apply for asylum or related forms of relief in the United States. Only about half of all asylum applications are approved, and about 40,000-60,000 refugees or asylees become green card holders each year. More than a half-dozen immigrants in Green Card Stories were granted refugee or asylum status, including Hayder Abdulwahab, a former bodyguard for U.S. forces in Iraq, and Gulnahar Alam - once an abused child bride in Bangladesh and currently a prominent activist in New York for domestic workers. Others benefitted from related forms of relief such as the Violence Against Women Act and humanitarian parole.

There are rare exceptions to these four methods of immigration. They include a limited and now-defunct special program based on military enrollment; a visa for abandoned juveniles; and the discretionary relief granted by a judge should deportation cause exceptional hardship to a U.S. relative. Several of the people profiled in the book fell into these categories. A number of them had undocumented status as teenagers until their cases were resolved. They grew up among other American children, worrying how they would go to college or find a good job until they qualified for relief. Thousands more each year do not qualify - hoping for passage of the DREAM Act, which would allow certain undocumented children to legalize their status if they go to college or serve in the military.

Overlaying the family and employment quota systems is the very tough general rule that immigrants who have entered the United States without documentation or have failed to maintain status are ineligible for any immigration benefits, even if their applications have finally made it to the top of the pile and become current. The end result is that many "undocumented" individuals who live in split American families - married to U.S. citizens or as the children of U.S. citizen step-parents, for example - cannot emerge from the shadows and become legal. U.S. employers of critical employees who might otherwise be eligible for employment-based green cards are similarly unable to sponsor them.

Nearly all of the people included in the book obtained their green cards after 1986, the year that Congress passed the bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act that was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The bill allowed more than 2.5 million people to legalize their status. It also imposed sanctions on employers who hired undocumented workers and stiffened penalties for those who are here without authorization. A few of the people profiled in the book entered as undocumented immigrants before the bill passed and were granted legalization through the 1986 law or paid a penalty for status violations back when our immigration laws were more forgiving. These individuals include Cleto Chazares, who is now a high school principal, and successful restaurateur Hugo Ortega. Today, under our policy of "zero tolerance," they would be ineligible for green cards and would not be able to contribute to the wealth of our nation. Without the option to immigrate lawfully, millions of similar immigrants live in America's shadows as undocumented workers, fearful that any day they may get caught and sent back to a life of poverty and hardship.

The irony is that despite how difficult we've made it for individuals to legally immigrate to the United States, nearly all economic indicators point to America's need for increased immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, immigrants accounted for half of the growth in the U.S. labor force, in both skilled and unskilled labor, in the 1990s. Between 1990 and 2005 immigrants started 25 percent of the nation's highest-growth companies, employing 220,000 people in the United States. They are 30 percent more likely to start a business than are U.S. citizens, and represent nearly 17 percent of all business owners in the United States, even though immigrants comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population. Immigrants co-founded over half of the Silicon Valley companies since 1995, including Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!, who is profiled in this book.

Furthermore, a Duke University study found that immigrants invent patents at twice the rate of nonimmigrants. The report also estimated that from 1998 to 2006, the share of patent applications from foreign-born nationals residing in the United States rose from 7.3 percent to 24.2 percent. Research also indicates that skilled immigrants helped boost GDP per capita in the 1990s by between 1.4 percent and 2.4 percent. Currently, immigrants represent almost a quarter of all scientists and nearly half of all degreed engineers in the United States.

Immigrant workers will become even more valuable as America's aging baby boomers strain the country's need for health care, Social Security, and basic labor. It is estimated that Social Security and Medicare will be serving twice as many people in 2030, from 40 million to 80 million. We have been closing the door and hanging up a "not welcome" sign just when we need immigrants the most.

Many people agree that our current immigration system is badly broken and needs fixing. A focus on enforcement alone is insufficient. Americans must come to terms with the fact that we need a functional program that capitalizes on immigrants' ingenuity while meeting the labor and educational needs of our nation. Green Card Stories demonstrates that today's immigrants are just as hardworking, energetic, and eager to assimilate into U.S. culture as past generations of new arrivals, even while in some cases maintaining certain traditions or their native languages alongside English. If our subjects share a common trait, it's a mixture of dedication, talent and steely determination. Each of them fought hard for the right to stay in the United States - from Angela Andrade, who escaped a devastating earthquake in Colombia to become a domestic worker in New Jersey, to Sudanese "Lost Boy" Peter Ajak, who escaped unspeakable horror in his birth country only to end up detained and imprisoned in a U.S. jail because of a misunderstanding.

Contrary to public perception, U.S. immigration laws are very tough, and many of those profiled in Green Card Stories experienced that first hand - from successful businessman Francis Price, nearly deported for a lawyer's mistake in Jamaica, to Argentinean artist Mario Pikus, who will never be able to acquire U.S. citizenship because of confusion over a military waiver he signed decades ago.

But amid the immigrants' hardships, another story emerges in these pages -about the host country itself and the remarkable kindness of strangers in America. Repeatedly, immigrants spoke of the enormous impact of Americans who intervened to provide significant assistance: the guidance counselor refusing to give up on a migrant student who had dropped out of school and joined a gang; the employers who not only sponsored immigrants but provided them safe shelter and a home; the anonymous benefactor who financed part of a medical school education; the kind conductor who held up a train as one recent arrival ran for his ticket. The slightest to the grandest acts of kindness made a lasting impression on the immigrants in Green Card Stories, often changing their lives. Many of the immigrants, in turn, became advocates and activists for others.

And yet another story can be read in these profiles - one that will, like immigrants themselves, shape the future of this country: the crucial role of education. It was the single biggest factor that helped many of the people profiled in the book get ahead. For some, a path to enter the United States and obtain a green card was made possible because of the education or promising academic background they acquired in their birth countries. But for many, academic success in the United States was the avenue not only out of poverty but toward a flourishing career and life.

Beyond education, immigrants said repeatedly, their ability to prosper here was directly attributable to the fact that the United States still gives so many people a chance to thrive. A number of those who were detained or ran into the biggest problems and legal battles with the immigration system nevertheless retained faith in the American system, emphasizing what a unique place they believe America to be. One profilee said that America is special because hard work is rewarded and most Americans want to see others succeed. Not all places in the world are like that. In America the default answer to a question is often "Why not?" In some other countries the default answer is "no."

The process of deciding whose stories to include took several years. Initially we, as the editors and immigration attorneys on the project, reached out to our colleagues across the nation for help in recommending former clients with compelling stories. Photographer Ariana Lindquist and journalist Saundra Amrhein also knew of or had already worked on stories about immigrants. The four of us found more possibilities through newspaper and magazine articles. Our goal has been to include people from all corners of the world, to convey the diversity of immigration categories through which people have successfully immigrated, and to show the variety of cities and towns across America where they have settled. We know we have missed many countries, professions, and American destinations, and that many more wonderful and important stories remain to be told. Green Card Stories has only begun to tell the story of who today's new Americans really are.

We are grateful to all of the immigrants who have generously given hours of their time to tell us their stories and pose for photos, their only compensation being the opportunity to share their life experience with you. Several people approached by our team declined, either afraid to relive what for them was a very painful period or worried that their journey would somehow become politicized in the acerbic discussion that frames talk of immigration today. But many more were hungry to recount their histories, to show that they are proud to be a part of this nation and to raise their families here. The moment they got their green cards was a rite of passage, that crystallizing moment when they became free to stay. This was true for all of them, whether they are highly acclaimed professionals, celebrated artists, or working class people of more humble origins. Most have gone on to become citizens - a momentous step for many like Randolph Sealey, who placed it above the accomplishment of becoming a physician.

This truly has been a collaborative process, starting about 15 years ago as a dream of Laura's, solidified through the expert guidance of Steve, brought into focus by photographer Ariana Lindquist, and given voice by writer Saundra Amrhein. Ariana and Saundra spent the better part of a year traveling across the country to interview and photograph the 50 profiled individuals. We hope that everyone who reads Green Card Stories will gain a greater understanding of the immigrant experience and possibly even act on behalf of our newest Americans.

About the Author

Laura Danielson is the chair of the Immigration Department at Fredrikson & Byron. She has been an immigration lawyer since 1989, is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences, and teaches immigration law at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is also co-author of Immigration Law in a Nutshell and co-editor of Green Card Stories ( As a member of the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers (, a premiere group of twenty-one U.S. lawyers, she has been especially active in developing its global consortium of immigration practitioners in countries throughout the world. Splitting her time between Minneapolis and Fredrikson & Byronís Shanghai office, Laura is committed to developing and providing global and investment-related immigration services, particularly EB-5 matters for foreign investors. Concentrating on arts, business and investor-based immigration, Laura works with companies, investors, and other professionals in non-immigrant and immigrant visa matters. She also has expertise in I-9 audits, employer sanctions, family immigration, asylum and naturalization matters.

Stephen W. Yale-Loehr is co-author of Immigration Law and Procedure, the leading immigration law treatise, published by Matthew Bender & Company, Inc. He also teaches immigration law and refugee law at Cornell Law School, and is of counsel at True, Walsh & Miller in Ithaca, NY, where he practices immigration law. He also co-writes a bi-monthly column on immigration law for the New York Law Journal, and chairs the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)'s Investor Committee and the Business Immigrant Visa Committee.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.