About these stories: As Congress debates an overhaul of the country's immigration law, The Eagle examines its potential implications locally. The following stories share the realities of who the immigrants in Berkshire County are and what they've had to overcome in their pursuit of living in the United States whether legally or illegally.
Stephen Lawrence picks up the pile of receipts from the lunch rush, a smile across his face. It's been another profitable afternoon for the restaurant, but there's something else behind the grin: pride.
WHAT IS A GREEN CARD?
Otherwise known as a permanent resident card, it's someone's authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. It is granted through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There are several ways to obtain a green card, but most people get them by being sponsored by a family member or a employer in the U.S. Others can get a green card by proving they are a refugee or asylum-seeker.
Six months ago, Lawrence, co-owner of the Spice Root Modern Indian Cuisine in Williamstown, became a United States citizen and his hope is that millions of other people with a drive and determination can follow in his footsteps.
As a select group of Senators crafts a potential overhaul
At 19, Lawrence left his home in New Delhi for "the land of opportunity," which ended up being somewhere near Hartford, Conn. He had little more than a love for cooking and a slew of homemade recipes.
After five years of working in the food service industry, scrimping and saving every dollar he could, he had enough to start Spice Root with the help of friends and business partners.
It took twice that long to become a U.S. citizen, however. Lawrence is 40 years old now.
Although he already knew English from studying it in primary school in India, the bureaucratic process involved in applying for naturalization, even after holding a green card for more than a decade, was arduous.
"Everything was hard," he said. "The paperwork, interviews -- it wasn't easy, but worth it."
The Obama administration is calling for comprehensive immigration reform that has to include measures to bolster the economy, the nation's security, and a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants -- but not a fast track.
The bill, being formed by a bipartisan Senate leadership group, dubbed the "Gang of Eight," may not have it completed until after the Easter recess, which runs through April 5.
The path to citizenship
When it comes to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S., many Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the state's former governor, Jeb Bush, have changed their positions. They now back the prospect of allowing illegal immigrants a way to obtain U.S. citizenship -- as long as they pass a background check and pay any taxes they owe and a penalty for either coming to this country illegally or staying beyond their visas. Before, Bush and others had said illegal immigrants should be returned to their native countries.
Many Democrats, including President Obama, suggest they be put at the end of the list when applying for naturalization.
WHO ARE THE GANG OF EIGHT
ON IMMIGRATION REFORM?
Leading members of the U.S. Senate comprise the bipartisan panel working to write an immigration reform bill. Its members are: Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Back in Williamstown, Stephen Lawrence said if a person hasn't committed serious crimes and if they're part of a community and have a reason to stay in the country, an illegal immigrant shouldn't be deported.
"If you work hard, you should be rewarded even the people who came here illegally," he said. "If their background is clean, they're not criminals and they're working hard, they should get to be citizens, too."
The Berkshire Immigrant Center, which helped Lawrence thousands of others per year with their citizenship, estimates there are nearly 12,000 immigrants -- naturalized or residents -- living in the county and up to 500 people living here illegally -- meaning without a green card -- visa or expired visa.
Hilary Greene, the center's executive director, said the country is in dire need of "fair and just immigration reform." She said that should include keeping families together, treating hard-working immigrants with dignity and respect, protecting their fundamental civil and human rights, and creating a workable, realistic and less expensive path to permanent residency and citizenship.
Annually, the center helps an average of 160 people in their pursuit of naturalization, but many of them can only begin the process. Currently, it costs an individual $680 just to file the N-400 application form for U.S. Citizenship.
"Many people begin the process, but wait months, and in some cases years, before they save up the money to apply," Greene said. "Some wind up abandoning the process altogether because they often need to focus on just meeting basic needs and supporting their families."
Fear of deportation
Chantal Leven has spent nearly half of her life -- she is 50 years old -- in fear, terrified by the prospect of being deported back to Montreal, Canada, and thus separated from her husband, friends and family.
Just after graduating high school, Leven traveled to the Berkshires to attend the Kripalu Yoga Center in Stockbridge and to work there under the group's religious nonprofit status at the time. It was there, in the late 1980s, she met Dan, her future husband.
"I really wanted to live here," she said. "I had fallen in love with this place and was determined to stay."
Here, she lined up a job as an au pair so she could get a work visa and eventually a green card. She returned to Montreal and found someone to sublet her apartment.
Her belongings packed in the car, Leven back drove toward the U.S. border. All the guard needed to see was the amount of stuff she had piled in the car to figure she wasn't going on vacation. She was denied entry into the U.S.
"I didn't know what to do. I had nothing to go back to," she said.
Two days later, she bought a plane ticket and headed to the airport. But when she handed her ID to the customs officer, she was rushed into a side room and ordered to strip down to her T-shirt and underwear.
"They went through everything, every single item I had with me," Leven said. "That moment scared me for the rest of my life. There I was, barefoot, practically naked with the female officer looking at me as if I was some hardened criminal asking me what each receipt was for in my wallet."
WHAT IS A VISA?
A visa allows a foreign visitor entry into the U.S. There are two kinds. Nonimmigrant visas allow people to visit the U.S. for a period of time. Immigrant visas are for people looking to be in the U.S. while seeking permanent residency.
Nearly three hours later, police escorted her out of the airport and was told that she would "never, ever, go back to America again."
Leven took a taxi back to Montreal to start her life over again. A year and a half later, she was still thinking about Dan and about teaching yoga in the Berkshires, with no way to cross the border.
Eventually she learned her name had been cleared from a database detailing people not allowed to enter the country. As she drove through the border, her body was filled with an icy chill. She made it through without incident and reunited with Dan, but there was still the problem of getting a visa or green card.
Leven spent six months in the Berkshires, working various cleaning and cooking jobs "under the table," convinced that someone was going to approach her, know she was living in the U.S. illegally, and either arrest or deport her.
She said she couldn't leave Dan again. So on her birthday, she asked him to marry her. Not for a green card or a path to citizenship, but because they belonged together, forever, she said.
Even though Leven was granted her citizenship this past January, she's still "very nervous" talking about living in U.S. illegally.
"We had to do so much to prove our marriage was legit, that it wasn't just a way for me to live here legally," she said. "I've had a green card for more than 20 years, and all that time, I was so scared to cross the border back to Canada. I've never been able to relax."
Leven said no one should have to feel like that.
The tone of reform
Robert Gittelson, president of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a primarily Republican-based lobbyist group, said the party "has a lot of ground to make up to be successful in the future" and that they "need to better their relationship with the Hispanic community."
-- Robert Gittelson, president of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
As both political parties stump and vie to advance their own agendas, Gittelson said no matter what law ultimately gets written, the text needs to be tactful.
Despite the Gang of Eight's bipartisan collaboration to create immigration reform, those opposed to overhauling the legislation and laying out a path for naturalization are continuing to put up road blocks and use hurtful terms, he says.
"The anti-immigration lobbyists are pressing forward with their message anyway and are therefore doing a true disservice to conservatives all across the country," Gittelson said. "Tone alone will not solve the moral crisis engendered through having 11 million undocumented people, their 5 million citizen-children and the several million or legal citizen spouses of the undocumented that are living desperate lives. Tone alone will not solve America's inevitable economic difficulties as we struggle to remain the most productive economy in human history, or protect our nation's borders against drug and human smuggling, it won't remove the magnet of illegal immigration because it won't insure that our nation's businesses verify that all employees are eligible to work her legally."
WHAT IS CONSERVATIVES
FOR COMPREHENSIVE IMMIGRATION REFORM?
CfCIR, for short, is a conservative group comprised of preachers, professors, politicians and advocates who call for a bipartisan solution on immigration reform. Its tenets include respecting the God-given dignity of every person, protecting the unity of the immediate family, respecting the rule of law, guaranteeing the security of national borders, ensuring fairness to taxpayers, and establishing a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and wish to become permanent residents. Source: cfcir.org.
He continued: "There needs to be a more welcoming and compassionate tone in how we deal with undocumented people. They came here, I think, to pursue the ‘American Dream' and right now they're stuck living in its shadows, in a status that doesn't afford them that opportunity. They may be better off now than then they were in their home country, but there aren't avenues to explore entrepreneurship."
Gittelson formed the group three years ago after seeing a lack of conservative groups lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform. With the economy still on the rebound, Gittelson said a long-term solution could be found in immigration reform.
"There's a very simple formula for success in this country: desire, a willingness to put yourself out there and an opportunity," he said. "I don't think it needs to be an easy opportunity, but they may have had very good reasons to come her, like to feed their families but they either came here and overstayed their visas or came here illegally and there needs to be some kind of penalty."
Many lawmakers, like Florida Sen. Rubio, agreed with Gittelson stating that if someone has been convicted of a serious crime they would not have any opportunity for citizenship.
Gittelson said there also should be a motivation for the undocumented people to stay here.
"There needs to be roots in the community, a steady job, children, housing, then we should find a path for them to stay here and become a citizen," he said. "America is the land of opportunity, the shining city on the hill. We are the exceptional nation. We are also a nation of immigrants, so we must have an immigration policy that is as exceptional as our nation. We deserve and demand that our politicians come to this discussion with open minds and open hearts, with their eyes squarely on the determination to solve this dilemma as pragmatists, as patriots, and especially as Americans."
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