Twenty-one years ago today, I got off a plane at Sea-Tac International Airport as a fresh immigrant to the Unites States. I was exhausted after an almost 24-hour trip with a layover. It was only my second airplane trip ever, and I’d prepared poorly for it. Back in Bucharest, Romania, because I knew I was “going to America,” I’d dressed for the occasion: a woolen turtleneck, a long woolen skirt, nylon stockings, and mid-heel pumps. It hadn’t occurred to me that my “best clothes” would conspire with the dry air in the cabin to create a constant storm of static electricity around me. When I landed, my skin itched, my hair was sticking out at the roots, and my face was splotchy and sore.
I had $200 in my purse, borrowed money to last me until my first paycheck from Microsoft, but that day I didn’t need to worry about money because my future manager and a few developers on our team took me to a vegetarian Indian restaurant to celebrate. It was a lovely gesture, and everyone was so nice, but my stomach had never encountered Indian food before.
When my manager finally brought me to my temp-house in Redmond that evening, my body had reached its limits. One of the first things I did after I locked the door was throw up that wonderful expensive food. After a while, I climbed into a very tall bed and tried to fall asleep, but no such luck. Between the 10-hour difference jetlag, my inability to hold down food, and the fear of sleeping on the ground floor without bars on the windows (the kind of security expected in my home country), I was not doing well on that February 7.
Luckily, I knew a couple of Romanians in Redmond and I called them on the phone. When they asked me if I was okay, I started crying. I wasn’t okay. I was alone, on the other side of the planet, away from everything I’d ever known. There were no bars on the windows. I was terrified. So they came and picked me up, and let me sleep at their place for a few nights, until I got myself together. They will forever have my gratitude.
Once I started at Microsoft, life found its groove. I had my first flat tire, my first Seattle earthquake, and my first American flu. I also started making friends. My first project was canceled, and I found myself out of a job. Then I found a job at a new videogame platform named Xbox. It was a good time, as I remember. Back then, the mission statement of the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) said the agency “secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” (which, of course, had its own problems when taken out of the INS context). Microsoft assigned me a lawyer, and my yearslong green card application process was set in motion.
Then 9/11 happened, and immigration hit another wall, coming on the heels of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). In the aftermath, as Congress voted on the Patriot Act and debated immigration to no avail, for us people caught in the system it was a strange and worrisome time. The “priority date” given to my H1-B visa renewal (a precursor to my green card) would freeze for months at a time on the INS website (later USCIS: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).
More than five years in, I abandoned my corporate-sponsored green card petition and reapplied through marriage to an American citizen. I hired an immigration lawyer. More fees and forms and appointments. I remember visiting a medical center to get immunized, since I had no valid proof of vaccination from Romania. I remember a tray full of syringes. Some shots went into my right arm, some into my left, and off I went. It never occurred to me to inquire about the “chemicals” put into my body, like today’s antivaxxers. Who, I assume, would have a hard time going through immigration. Oh, and all my biometrics were collected, too. So, boo-hoo “freedom.”
Two years after I received my conditional green card, we filed a petition to remove conditions on residence. The following year, I was eligible to apply for citizenship.
After nine long years, I finally received my citizenship in what had been a best-case scenario. It had been easy even when it felt hard. I’d had a good job waiting for me here, the support of my company, and then of my husband—and always good lawyers. I was also from a country most people didn’t care about enough to make my life hell.
Each year I felt more at home in Seattle. It wasn’t until 2015 that the word “immigrant” became dirty for a large segment of the American public. Under the Trump administration, the USCIS mission statement changed to say that the agency now “administers the nation’s lawful immigration system.” No more “nation of immigrants.”
The public discourse turned bitter. Listening to some politicians and media figures, you’d think we become US citizens the moment we set foot in this country—together with our families at home, and their friends. And we decide to come here just because we want to mess with America. It would be laughable if it weren’t so harmful, especially to the many undocumented immigrants who have no path to citizenship, thanks to IIRIRA and other terrible laws. For immigrants brought here as children, the story is particularly heartbreaking.
As we lived through an administration that unleashed a war on immigrants and even coined a catchy name to go with it—extreme vetting—I realized there was a need for more immigration literacy in our public discourse. One evening in October 2018, my husband suggested I write something along those lines. But if I did, I needed a story people would find entertaining. Not a stuffy, melancholic, introverted meditation on the hardships of immigration, but a page-turner.
I began by interviewing an immigration lawyer about asylum applications, immigration courts, and ICE prosecutors. I hadn’t imagined how many questions I’d have once I started. I also studied public court documents from Washington State, and kept an eye on immigration news. I read thrillers and dreamed to follow in John Grisham’s footsteps in terms of meaningful and thrilling content, because why not? Aiming high. When I was done, I had a thriller that takes its readers through the Kafkaesque maze of immigration, but without drowning them in legalese. It’s the story of a Romanian American single mom who’s also an immigration lawyer, and who finds herself in the center of a conspiracy involving a corrupt prosecutor, criminal cartels, and ancient artifacts.
The novel is called Extreme Vetting and will be published by Ooligan Press (Portland State University) on February 7, 2023, exactly 22 years since my grand entrance at Sea-Tac. A wonderful coincidence, of course—and the publication date might still change. Ooligan Press considers it a timely story, and I’m ever so grateful to them for taking a chance on it. I don’t know where this book will fit in the public discourse—if at all—but I’d love to share it with you, and I hope you’ll join me in welcoming it a year from now.
Fun fact: The newest USCIS mission statement reads, “USCIS upholds America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve.” While it’s a positive statement, it gave me pause. The word “immigrant” no longer exists in the mission statement of an agency that includes “Immigration Services” in its name.