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Paper Citizen

America is a proud nation of immigrants—try telling that to everyone on the other side of the door. Life as a white-collar undocumented immigrant in New York.

I don’t look illegal. That’s what I told myself as I peeked over the wall of a cubicle at the financial firm where I worked in midtown Manhattan. Strangers in suits were hauling boxes of documents out of the CEO’s corner office. Earlier, one of them had flashed a badge at me and shouted, “FBI!” just like in the movies. I prayed they wouldn’t be coming for me next.

Practically hiding under my desk, I heard various colleagues whispering urgently over the walls of their cubicles, interrupting my thoughts: “They’re here for the boss... It’s money laundering.”

Just then, the agents converged on the elevators as the CEO stepped elegantly through the doors. The Feds cuffed him then and there. I plopped into my swivel chair, still not believing it wasn’t me who was being led away.

It wasn’t often that I was forced to think of my situation so starkly. I’d been working as a high-level sales rep at this New York City financial firm for over two years, courtesy of documents I’d purchased on the street for $850 from a Montenegro “businessman” in an Audi Cabriolet. Being illegal, as in alien, I’d gotten adept at compartmentalizing my fears, distracting myself with work, driving, even shopping to try to feel normal.

Just that morning, I’d been heading to the office, my fast-moving reflection flashing across the glass storefronts. Every so often, I’d sneak a peek at myself and my latest prize, a long black shearling coat I’d gotten on sale at Bendel, marked down—half off half off half off. What a great find. I paused to admire my silhouette, my blond hair falling softly over the coat’s shoulders, my roots freshly done. Life was good.

Usually, I walked around feeling that I belonged and I almost believed it, except for the occasional reality check that reminded me how precarious my life in the US really was.

Like three weeks earlier, when I’d been driving home after a party with my lawyer friend, Adriana. As we approached the Lincoln Tunnel, we saw police directing cars into a single line. “What’s going on?” I wondered out loud. “Drugs?”

One of the officers opened the door of a beat-up vehicle ahead of us. A girl in her twenties got out. The officer cuffed her. “My God,” I said. “What did she do?” Adriana, in her calm lawyer voice, said, “Maybe driving without a license. I think this is a license and registration checkpoint.”

Holy Jesus. My own license happened to be expired. I could walk into the DMV to try to renew it, but I had no valid ID to show. Thank God Adriana was behind the wheel tonight and not me.

“Goddamn illegals,” Adriana muttered, as we watched the young woman being led away in handcuffs. The officers waved us on. My friend went back to talking about a banker we’d met at a party that night. Did I think he’d call?

 

I was four when I came to this country from then-Yugoslavia. By the time I started kindergarten, 1970 in Chicago, I felt as American as any of my classmates. My first crush was on an African-American boy in a yellow turtleneck. Every morning we all pledged allegiance to the flag. I remember the sweet smell of plastic lunch trays, my first slice of bread from a cellophane bag. I fell in love with Barbie—a doll whose knees could actually bend. To me, my new home felt like magic.

After school, I spent my days running around the hallways of our high-rise building with my friend Angela, whose mom was an actress and left colorful boas in her wake. My own mother wasn’t quite so hip. She’d been on high alert since the day I was born, which happened to be only five months after my brother, Boba, died of leukemia at the age of eight. I was my brother’s spitting image, I was adored, and my parents were determined to keep me safe, my mother escorting me to school in Chicago and picking me up, too. It was embarrassing, but I can’t say I blame her. My father was a diplomat and the recipient of almost daily threats from Croatian and Serbian extremists.

But the most traumatic part of my new American childhood occurred when I was eight, when my parents informed me that we had to go “home” to Belgrade. My father’s four-year term as Consul was over. “What are they talking about?” I wondered. “I am home.”

Belgrade literally means “white city.” But in the mid-70s, it was dark and gray, no billboards or neon to light up the scene. I was forced to learn a new alphabet of Cyrillic letters and to wear a drab uniform to school. All my classmates were Caucasian, none of their mothers wore boas, and my life suddenly seemed like a mirror image of the country’s unofficial motto: “We all are and should be the same.”

My life suddenly seemed like a mirror image of the country’s unofficial motto: “We all are and should be the same.”

It was as if I’d fallen into one of my mother’s kidnapping nightmares.

I didn’t see Chicago again until I was 15, when my father got a new position there as the Consul General of Yugoslavia. The first thing I did was head to McDonald’s—no more stuffed cabbage for me! I entered Cathedral High and graduated with honors in 1984, then went on to the University of Illinois to study art. While my parents hobnobbed with Mayor Washington, I spiked my hair with toothpaste. I had stepped back into a Technicolor world. My classmates were future filmmakers, painters, photographers, all of us challenged to express ourselves, no Big Brother watching. Life felt electrifying, full of endless possibility.

By the time my father’s term came to an end again, end of 1985, I was almost 20. I wanted to stay in the US, but I had no coordinates for self-reliance. My parents took care of everything for me; I was helpless without them, or, at least, I thought I was. When your parents doubt you and feel they can do it better for you, you doubt you. In that respect, at least, I wasn’t fully American. All my friends at the university hardly saw their parents. I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine mine not being around for daily problem solving, a home-cooked meal, my mother checking to see if I’d donned enough layers when heading out into the cold Chicago winter or calling my friends’ land lines to see when I’d be home. Besides that, my father was ill, recovering from a massive heart attack. So, when he ordered me to pack my bags for Belgrade, I cried, but ultimately, I did as he said.

 

The third time I returned to America, six years later, I was with a man I’ll call Brandon. He was a childhood friend of my dead brother Boba. I’d unknowingly carried his boyhood photo with me for decades, on the very first page of a yellowed family photo album, the black-and-white image showing two little boys—Boba and Brandon—and my older sister, pressed together. I met Brandon two days after the death of my father, who had died worrying about what would happen to me, his seemingly rootless, high-spirited daughter. “I can’t go until my baby finds a man,” was one of the last things he said.

Yet he went anyway, and Brandon, a successful former architect dressed in Armani, came by to pay his respects. On top of that, he happened to be a US citizen—it was so eerie, almost like a sign. What were the odds? The attraction was near instant. Within days, we were together non-stop, finishing each other’s sentences, as if my brother Boba had somehow introduced us in another life. Brandon felt like family.

Which is why, only four months after we’d been reintroduced, I accepted Brandon’s offer to accompany him to the States, though not his offer of marriage. It was the tail end of 1992, Yugoslavia was on the brink of civil war, and everyone was leaving. My plan was to get a student visa to attend graduate school in New York City and begin a career in the arts or fashion, since I’d already gotten a bachelor’s from the Fine Art academy in Belgrade.

Brandon quizzed me before my interview at the US Embassy.

Why all the fuss? I was practically born there.

But his prepping paid off and my new passport was approved, with a multiple entry two-year student visa.

I craved the energy and ingenuity I’d first sensed when I was four and discovered Barbie, that in the US there was a doll whose legs could actually bend.

“Why would you leave? You have it all here,” whispered a friend as I said my goodbyes. In truth, I had too much of everything, thanks to my father’s work ethic and frugality: two cars, two apartments, a house on the coast, a house in the countryside. I appreciated all of it, but I hadn’t earned any of it. I wanted to live in a place where I’d be pushed to think for myself rather than merely regurgitate the groupthink of Yugoslavia’s socialist-communist regime. And it was the best communism had to offer, being referred to the “West of the East.” I craved the energy and ingenuity I’d first sensed when I was four and discovered Barbie, that in the US there was a doll whose legs could actually bend. Now, at 26, I was finally going home, on my own terms, ready to embrace a system and ideals I considered my own.

Brandon stepped in to take care of everything. Like my father, Brandon was an overachiever, a caretaker, and he made everything happen, made it easy, using the money we’d both brought over to lease a large, ultra-modern two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey with a stunning Manhattan view. I assumed he’d find work at an architecture firm, but he wanted to be an entrepreneur, he told me daily. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I left the details up to him. I’d grown up with an abundance of love and trust; it never occurred to me to question Brandon.

When autumn rolled around, I was accepted to study a one-year accelerated program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Except Brandon urged me to turn it down, get a job, and put off school. “It’s time for you to grow up,” he chided. “Do it for us!”

I thought it over. Maybe Brandon was worried that we would drift apart if I ended up in New York City. Maybe he was even afraid we’d break up. Who wouldn’t be touched by that?

Still, I was worried about losing my student visa. “If I’m not in school, technically it’s not valid.” Brandon explained, patiently, “It’s a two-year visa. You have nothing to worry about. You can go back to school at any point during that time.”

“And don’t forget,” he went on. “I’m a US citizen. If anyone ever questions your status, we’ll get married and that will be the end of it.”

Clearly, he had it all under control.

To be honest, I felt entitled, different from other illegals who had snuck across border crossings, who could hardly speak the language. I spoke perfect English and had a college degree. I’d always felt as if the US were my true home. Besides, due to my residency at the age of four, I had my own social security number, which meant I could work without a green card. Didn’t I deserve to be in a different category?

Brandon, it turns out, had plans for us. One day, he handed me an ad he’d snipped from the paper: Great $$!, no experience necessary! The job was working for phone lines, talking to people from all walks of life, long before the era of internet chat rooms, Facebook, and Twitter.

When I went for the interview, I discovered it was mostly people passing time, talking about their problems and worries—things, it seemed, the callers couldn’t talk about with anyone else: married yet falling in love with a co-worker, quadruple real-estate investments, and on it went. There was also a dominatrix line I overheard and almost had a seizure.

It wasn’t my first choice of profession—consulting with people who were willing to pay $2.99 a minute for the privilege. But Brandon assured me that I’d excel. “You’re so good with people,” he enthused. “Do it for us.” I’d crossed the Atlantic for more choices; now I felt like I was in a bind. My almost-husband wanted me to do something that I didn’t want to do, that felt wrong, and weird, somehow. Yet I’d grown up watching my own parents’ powerful love and how it had saved them after the loss of my brother. “Us” was a powerful word in my subconscious vocabulary.

I did what he asked.

As Brandon predicted, I had a knack for the work. My Pisces compassion kicked in, and soon we got a credit card terminal and launched our own phone-chat business that even included a psychic line. Instead of shoe design, I used my design skills to craft an ad for our services, with a cute little phone and a heart. Soon we were making a good living. Nothing to it, especially with Brandon handling the details, as usual.

 

When you’re an illegal immigrant:

  • You get stopped by the police with words like, “Miss, I picked up something expired—are you driving an unregistered car?” (“Oh, no, officer, it’s only my driver’s license.”)
  • Not having a driver’s license is like not having an identity—you don’t exist.
  • Insurance for your car is three to four times the normal rate, though it is still an option.
  • You cannot accept a dream job offer, something you deserve, but have to opt for obscure ads, and even then everyday you’re constantly reading the looks of people, your boss and colleagues.
  • For the first seven years I thought police officers could deport me.

 

You’d think I’d have gotten a clue that something wasn’t quite right with Brandon when he bought me a Jaguar, a 12-cylinder two-seat convertible, then got himself a Range Rover a few months later, despite the fact that we both worked from home and didn’t need to drive anywhere.

By this time, Brandon had taken up day trading, online. So even when he purchased a speedboat, perfect for romantic moonlit dates racing on the Hudson, I kept my mouth shut. After all, I’d never heard the term bipolar. There was no reason to question his impulsive behavior, much less his purchases. I was 31 by that point, my two-year student visa long expired; I’d still never written a check, never even used an ATM. Brandon continued to assure me that we would marry if my status ever became a problem. So I kept manning the phone lines while Brandon talked endlessly about his various systems for picking stocks.

It had been five years, and we were still finishing each other’s sentences. Mostly, I reveled in our good fortune. Maybe what happened next wouldn’t have happened if I’d had more people to confide in. As it was, I had only two friends, a couple who’d come from Belgrade years earlier. Every time I visited, they asked, “Why did you allow this man to override your visa status?” I tried to ignore them, to stifle my growing feelings of discomfort, but it was hard to close my eyes to the fact that Brandon had begun spending nights in his home office, surrounded by handwritten columns of figures, weaving a pattern in ink like needlepoint. Mornings, I’d find him asleep in his chair, his head on his desk.

One morning, February 1997, everything changed. Brandon lost hugely in the stock market and began self-medicating with Lithium and Zoloft. He was spiraling quicker, far sicker than I’d even imagined. At the end of the month he walked out of the shower toweling off his hair—which he had dyed canary yellow. Then, a few weeks later, he shaved his hair off altogether. A month after that, he brought home a gun. “It’s not just any gun,” he said proudly. “It’s the James Bond model. A Walther PPK .32 caliber. There’s a shooting range in Hoboken.”

“Why shooting?” I asked. “You love tennis.”

“Tennis is boring,” he said. “This is fun.”

It didn’t stop there. In his office one day, I noticed a hot pink Post-it with some numbers on it: 5’7”, 125 pounds, 36C, brunette.

Brandishing the evidence, I confronted him. “I don’t feel good around you anymore, so I’m thinking of dating,” was his only explanation. With that, our non-marriage was over—along with my chances at a visa. Devastated, I proposed that we split the phone business (which was now all we had) fifty-fifty.

Brandon laughed, crossing his legs on the desk. “Let me remind you—my idea, my business. And you, you just work for me!”

Which is how I came to visit an attorney whose offices overlooked Central Park. I told him all about Brandon, the business, then blurted out, “Oh, and I forgot to mention—I’m out of status.” I saw amazement in his eyes, but he calmly told me that the American judicial system didn’t distinguish between legal and illegal; it gave everyone an equal chance to fight for their rights.

I felt as proud as if I had written the Constitution myself.

Brandon may have been a citizen, but I kicked his butt in court. I got to keep the business—quite a feat for a woman who had never written a check. To be frugal, I moved into a rundown place in Fort Lee, NJ. The walls were covered with so many coats of paint, the bathroom door wouldn’t close. But when I signed the lease, I felt proud. It was my first time on my own.

 

Two years later, I found myself back in the lawyer’s office. “Wow, this is really bad,” he told me bluntly, when he finished reading the papers I’d handed him. “Kiddo, immigration isn’t my beat, but the US government wants to deport you.”

“I grew up here!” I burst out. “I should get points for merit.”

He laughed. “Try passing that through Congress, kiddo.”

It was plain and simple, he told me. As I had no guarantor, and was in the country on my own, it was up to me to make the case that I deserved to be in America. The assigned judge was a woman reputed to be very tough on illegals. By this time, I was 35, it was 2001 and I’d been in the US for eight and a half years. I’d finally moved on from the phone business. At first I supported myself with a part-time job in jewelry sales, a job I could do without documentation (they didn’t ask for any), then I saw an ad for a finance sales position and was hired by the firm in Midtown.

Ironically, I had also won the visa lotto—a lottery where the green card is the prize—that I’d applied for a year earlier. Plus, there was also an amnesty program that I could have taken advantage of if—and this was a big if—I was merely illegal. The trouble is, I was illegal and in deportation proceedings. I also had a labor certification—an employer petitioning for my green card—and a dream job offer in high-end sales and marketing. In any case, the US government—my government, at least in my mind—wanted me out. “She’s innocent, Your Honor,” said my attorney. As he and I stepped into the hallway after our first meeting with the judge, I turned to him with a plan in mind: “I want her to see everything,” I said. “Starting from my kindergarten pictures, my report cards….”

“Oh,” he said, “that won’t be necessary. There’s a format, and this judge is meticulous.”

“I want her to know who I am,” I insisted. “I am not just a number and I’m not just an alien!”

Strangely, I was filled with confidence. For the first time in my life, I knew exactly who I was—American. The United States was my country; I had the history to prove that.

“I want the judge to really get to know me through my file,” I told my lawyer, warming to the idea. “I want her to see the photos of my father with the mayor of Chicago!”

“It’s not the standard format,” he repeated.

Fuck the format.

 

My file for the judge took on a life of its own, 500 pages in all. Today, it would have its own Twitter handle. I figured that if my case was going to take five years or longer as my lawyer estimated, the judge would have time to read it.

I submitted anything that might prove I’d been an upstanding non-citizen—my first chubby-faced diplomatic passport I’d used to enter the US at age four; all my A’s in morality and religion. A model would-be citizen.

Then: September 11th. My hearing was scheduled one week after the horrific attack. In court for my appointment in Newark, my lawyer never arrived. His law office was a block from the Twin Towers; all was chaos. Instead, his young assistant shuffled through my mammoth file, confused, and the judge got annoyed. “We’re rescheduling!” she announced, which meant more time in limbo.

There was nothing to do but go back to my job which was in midtown Manhattan, my boss not yet implicated, my only ID the social security card I’d gotten as a child, with a warning printed across the top in black letters: VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT ONLY WITH INS AUTHORIZATION. Before my first interview at the firm, I’d whited that line out on the copies and sailed through, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But my status, it seemed, was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

After my boss was indicted, I took a job at a high-end jewelry company that was hiring at the time. My status was an issue only when my boss asked me to fly to Milan for a gala event. What she didn’t know is that if I left the country, I would have been barred from re-entering for 10 years. So I lied and said I couldn’t go. “My mother is sick,” I told her.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2005 that I finally made it to trial, four and a half long years after my deportation proceedings had begun. I still remember the way the prosecutor swaggered down the hall, his chest puffed up so high it seemed he would burst his buttons. “All rise,” the court officer sang out, then the prosecutor launched in, questioning the first witness, an immigration officer who referred to me as “a good looking girl from Ukraine.”

Well, he was wrong about the Ukraine part. And why did he mention my looks? A woman judge wouldn’t like that.

The judge did look skeptical, especially given that the officer’s testimony was based on recollections from five years earlier. “You have no notes?” she pressed. “We are to rely solely on your memory?”

“Correct,” he admitted.

I could tell that she was not pleased.

After that, it was my turn. Trembling, I stepped up on the stand and swore to tell the truth. Statements were made, witnesses cross-examined, until at last, the excruciating day came to an end. I’d had a fair trial. Now came the wait, the decision that would determine my very identity, which meant more to me than anything in the world. I felt as if my whole being—my very existence—was at stake.

It took the judge four months. Finally, after an eight-page summary of the proceedings, in which she read each word aloud, she declared her decision. Not guilty. My green card would date from the day of her verdict.

Four years after that, the man I’d been dating proposed. We married in a church in his hometown in northern Italy. I now had my green card; I could travel. I applied for citizenship five years later and was chosen, along with 30 others, to be sworn in on the Today show. On a cold, bright morning, I stood with the group in Rockefeller Plaza, reciting the Oath of Allegiance: “I hereby declare... that I will support and defend the Constitution... and that I take this obligation freely… so help me God.”

As I intoned the words, I couldn’t help flashing back to those cold Chicago mornings of my childhood, the smell of plastic lunch trays in the air, when every day I’d face the flag with my hand on my heart, surrounded by my classmates of all stripes and colors, all American. Just like me. I did it, Dad. You don’t have to worry about me any more.

Vesna Cremona is a sales directory in the jewelry industry. Her life pushed her to become a writer. Today she lives in New York with her three passports. More by Vesna Cremona