Martine's Immigration Story
I was born in Zambia, Africa but my biological mother and father were from DR Congo (formerly Zaire). My mother and I moved to DR Congo shortly after my birth and when I was four years old, we migrated to the U.S. on visitor’s visas. My mother brought me along as her youngest child, to join the rest of her siblings who were already established in the United States. My mother later remarried to an American born citizen, who was the greatest step-father I could have imagined. She eventually became a permanent resident, which meant that she held a Green Card. Life was relatively normal until the first shoe dropped. My step-father fell ill and died when I was thirteen. A year and a half later, my mom died when I was fifteen. That’s when my life completely fell apart and I lost my faith.
I was orphaned and had no home or relatives to trust or rely on. I met a stranger one day and her kindness shifted the trajectory of my entire life. I got into boarding school and had a benefactor pay for my high school education. While some of this might be considered fortune, I had to be ready when each opportunity presented itself.
It wasn’t until I reached college that my status became a question. It was around September 11, 2001 that I was placed in removal proceedings and my immigration nightmare started. I felt like a fugitive because I anticipated being detained by ICE at any given moment. I was stateless so I never owned a passport or any form of government issued ID. The only ID I possessed was my college campus student ID. In the course of my seven year journey in deportation proceedings, I toggled between six lawyers. Each one offered conflicting advice, and some of whom seemed impatient with me. My case only worsened when my third attorney misrepresented me in the court and angered the Immigration Judge (IJ). It seemed that the judge took out his frustrations on me and had a terrible reputation. Fate slighted me once again.
I lived a double life of a seemingly contained girl-next-door in order to win the support of school administrators and friends yet deep down I felt I was on the brink of insanity. I couldn’t bare the weight of reliving my trauma in an immigration courtroom year after year only to have the judge accuse me of being a liar and to feel like my own lawyer abandoned me. What would become of me? Would I end up in a detention facility somewhere indefinitely? If so, I was sure I wouldn’t make it out alive because I would lose the will to live.
Through the recommendation of my former benefactor, I walked into Charlotte England’s law office. She saw me and for the first time I was no longer an alien number or an immigration case that sat in a lawyer’s filing cabinet. Her validation offered me strength because I didn’t feel alone. I had an advocate. I started to use my voice and to harness my power. I later found a therapist who specialized in immigration cases. Eureka! For the first time, I didn’t have to expend my energy explaining the fundamentals of immigration; my therapist got it. She even knew about my immigration judge’s reputation. Therefore, she was able to offer me practical coping tools that I applied in advance of my hearings. Having allies to accompany me to my Master Calendar Hearings or to sit in on my meetings with my lawyers was a lifesaver because I didn’t always have the mental and emotional capacity to process everything that was occurring; I needed a soundboard. Finally, I began to educate myself about immigration and my own case because after all, I had to be my greatest advocate. Even though I wasn’t a lawyer, I owed it to myself to understand the basics of the policies that were being implemented and how they would impact me. I had my team and I had legitimate resources to sustain me throughout the rest of my battle. I was no longer alone, caught in my immigration nightmare.
After going public about my case, speaking at the late Senator John McCane’s Town Hall on Immigration and acting as a panelist on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Dream Act in 2006, the unbelievable occurred. My case was sent to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) twice and after the second time, they saw me and heard me. They provided a lengthy response as to why I deserved to be in America. They remanded the case back to the same immigration judge and demanded that I receive permanent resident status, a green card. Today, I am a U.S. citizen. The battle was won and now it’s time for me to go back and fight for others.