Ana: A Painful Waiting Game

Photo by Alissa Ambrose


Ana is an undocumented immigrant, who asked that her face not be shown.

By Alissa Ambrose

Ana is one of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States who hopes for immigration reform that would create a clear path to legal residency. Legalization would allow her the right to work, pay taxes and travel freely, but most importantly, legalization might mean she could go home to save her brothers life.

Ana came to the United States from a small city in Russia, where she had worked two jobs to make $150 a month, on a temporary work visa. She earned a master’s degree in English literature in 2008 from West Chester University in Pennsylvania, then moved to New York City with dreams of becoming a teacher or librarian.

“I actually was looking for my American dream. You come and work hard, you do what’s right and I was hoping I would get a job,” said Ana, who asked to be identified by her first name only since she could be deported.

American-educated foreign students are eligible to work for one year after graduation through a program called Optional Practical Training. After that, they need to be sponsored by an employer.

But sponsorship, an expensive and lengthy process for employers, is more common in highly specialized fields such as technology and science than it is for teachers or librarians.

When Ana’s year was up in July 2009, she stayed in New York even though she was unemployed. Like many on temporary visas, she simply ignored the deadline to return home. She now works full time in an office for cash, unable to apply for legal positions without proper working papers. Living without a sense of security, unable to save, or even plan, for the future, is unsettling.

“I want to be able to do the right thing,” Ana said. “I try to do everything right, but I didn’t want to go home to a godforsaken place.”

In New York, even without papers, she is able to afford a relatively nice life. She shares a modest two-bedroom apartment with a roommate in Brooklyn and has a close-knit group of friends in the Russian community who like to spend weekends camping and traveling to Russian music festivals.

But Ana’s happy life was shattered in October when she received a devastating email from her father. Her only brother, Alex, has a rare form of blood cancer; perhaps a bone marrow transplant could save him. As his only sibling, Ana was the most likely person to be a match, but she would have to return to Russia to be tested.

Ana’s first instinct was to rush home, even though she knew that going back meant never returning to the United States. In Russia, whether or not she was a suitable donor, she would become a financial drain on her family.

“Going back to Russia right now would mean being another burden for my dad to feed,” she said.

Her parents and her brother told her not to come. They wanted her to have a better life. They would find another donor, or another form of treatment for her brother. Ana agreed. At least for now, she feels she can be more helpful from here. She sends home extra money to help defray the cost of Alex’s chemotherapy treatments. She spends hours researching cancer treatments – information – that is harder to access in Russia.

“I feel like I should be there and I think about going back,” she said.

She will go home if her family asks, but hopes that she will somehow gain legal residency so that she can go help her brother and then return to America.

Ana knows that President Obama has made legalization a theme in recent speeches, but she acknowledges that it doesn’t look like change is coming anytime soon.

It is, she says, a painful waiting game.

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