By Jose Bayona and Jonathan Camhi
Sherin Innis’ family was broken apart by the stress of the immigration process. Her husband, Vernon Innis, died from a stress-related brain aneurism in 2008. Doctors told her it was stress-related. She is convinced the stress came from her husband’s efforts to keep his family in New York despite broken promises from the New York City Department of Education while trying to keep his family in this country.
Vernon Innis was recruited to New York City in 2003 by the New York City Department of Education to help alleviate a teacher shortage. DOE promised Vernon, who was a professor at the Georgetown University in Guyana, a teaching job in a city public school.
DOE said that if Vernon took the job the city would sponsor him and his family for permanent resident status and eventual citizenship. Vernon was one of more than 500 teachers hired the DOE from various Caribbean nations from 2001 to 2003 – when the economy was better and the city needed more teachers.
“But the DOE never fulfilled that promise,” Sherin Innis said. To sponsor Vernon and his family for permanent status, the DOE first had to give Vernon a teaching contract. Sherin says Vernon never got that contract, but the DOE put him to work as a teacher anyway. Instead, Sherin says, DOE gave him a working visa for three years that he renewed in 2006, which allowed the whole family to stay here until 2009.
The working visa could not be renewed a second time, so by 2008, a year before it was scheduled to expire and the family would be deported. Vernon became increasingly worried and agitated that the DOE still would not give him the promised contract, which would in turn pave the way to permanent residency.
In 2008, after five years in New York City and still no contract from the DOE, Sherin remembers Vernon was worried about the family’s immigration status. His working visa could not be renewed for a third time, and the threat of having to move back to Guyana the next following year loomed over the family.
On the evening of April 19, 2008 the family was relaxing in their three-bedroom apartment in Queens. Their two sons, Emmanuel and Samuel, were playing computer games while Vernon was watching television. Vernon started to complain of a headache and then started to vomit. Sherin called an ambulance, but by the time that the ambulance arrived her husband was lying on the floor with his eyes staring into space.
“My sons were very destroyed. Their dad, their hero, just laying there on the floor, there was nothing they could do,” she said.
Her husband was taken to the hospital and put on life support, but it wasn’t enough. A brain scan showed massive bleeding and he died the next day from a brain aneurism.
After her husband’s death Sherin received a phone call from Helen Conrad, a lawyer assigned by the DOE to oversee the immigration process for Caribbean teachers. She informed Sherin that because Vernon died their family would not be able to get sponsorship to stay in the U.S. “When your husband died, your status died with him,” Conrad told Sherin.
Sherin and her sons stayed in New York City on a visitor’s visa after her husband’s death. In 2009, she received a working visa when she started to work as tutor at Touro College. Her visa will expire in February 2012, when she will have to move back to Guyana with her two sons.
For now, Sherin and her two sons had to move into a room in a house with three other families. The children sleep in the bedroom while she sleeps on the floor. During the winter she says it is too cold for her to go in the kitchen.
Sherin has a degree in accounting, and taught for many years at Queens College in Guyana, the most prestigious university in the country. She says she is fully capable of taking the teaching position that the DOE was going to give to her husband. If she gets the contract, then the Innis family can apply for the permanent status that the DOE promised them nearly eight years ago.
“I have a right to stay in America, to live here, because that was promised to us,” Sherin said. “It’s not fair, it’s not right. He came here, you promised him something, he died, and he had a family. It should pass on to the family.”
Sherin says that her family gave up everything they had in Guyana to come to the United States, and there is nothing for her there if the family has to go back. Since Vernon died, Sherin says, the only way her family can stay together is here in America, where at least her sons can visit their father’s resting place.
“We came here as a family, and he died. He’s buried here. At least give them the opportunity to visit his burial place,” she said.