In the wake of all the discussion about illegal immigration, it is perhaps important to understand the onerous process to become a legal immigrant. I have had an eye-opening experience walking alongside my friend Riziki Mastaki, a political refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as she goes through the “proper channels” to bring her father over as a legal immigrant. Her story adds color and humanity to the black and white facts as it illustrates the daunting bureaucratic roadblocks and debilitating lack of support for those attempting to immigrate legally.
I met Riziki in 2005 and was immediately taken with her optimism, in spite of experiencing near-death and violence in her home town of Goma and nearby Rwanda. She was so happy to be able to live and work in America and went to a community college at night to learn English and I was there to celebrate when she was sworn in as a US citizen in 2007 in order to get a passport to visit her family after a ten-year separation.
Unfortunately, any hope of visiting her family was crushed when her village became embroiled in yet another conflict that threw her family into daily economic and physical jeopardy. Although her father was able to afford to put all of his children to school and to save for retirement, he lost all financial resources when his home and computer repair business were destroyed by war and the earthquake.
One of her siblings, who had previously been kidnapped and forced to be a child soldier in the previous war was chased by rebels and shot in the leg. Another brother was strangled in his bed and another sister and her husband were shot when they tried to thwart rebels from raping her. Although some of Riziki’s siblings have successfully found refuge in France, in the wake of the recent uprisings, many have fled for safety as refugees to Kenya.
Since one sister died from the deplorable health conditions in the refugee camp there, they chose to eke by an existence in Nairobi. As refugees, they are not allowed to legally work to support themselves and depend, in part, on the help from their family and on donations to the Mastaki Family Fund and the sales of hand made scarves from Knit Together in Peace. Although there are organizations that help refugees once they arrive in America, there is little or no support for refugees, other than overcrowded camps, while they wait for their paperwork to be processed. This May, it will be a year that Riziki’s family members have been in Nairobi and they are still waiting.
In addition to helping to support her siblings in Kenya, she has also been working with an immigration lawyer to bring her parents here as a legal immigrant since October 2010. Saving money (sometimes from working two or three minimum wage jobs), she has spent over $4,500 in legal fees, postage, applications for passport and visa, affidavit of support, birth certificates, medical exams, shots, DNA testing, and a green card for just her father. All of this was in addition to supporting herself.
All of this paperwork takes time and has to be mailed back and forth to Africa, sometimes getting lost in the mail along the way. Once they had all of the required paperwork, Riziki paid $600 to fly her father to the capitol city, Kinsasha, on January 9, 2013 to meet with immigration authorities for the final approval for his visa. Each time he showed up for his Thursdays-only appointment, he was given another hurdle to scale until he finally received his visa on April 2, 2013.
Fortunately, her father was able to stay with cousins while he was in Kinshasa so Riziki was able to save her earnings and donations for his $1,300 plane fare. She has moved into a two-bedroom apartment and has been lining up job interviews for when her father arrives on April 28, over 2 ½ years since they started the process!