Julie Notarianni, MCT/Seattle Times

Immigration rules keep Minneapolis family apart

  • Article by: Doug Wilhide
  • May 8, 2013 - 8:30 PM

My grandson got deported before he even had a chance to come home. Or that’s the way it feels.

Noa, who recently turned 19 months old, has just learned to respond when someone calls his name, by raising his hand, clapping and laughing like a dolphin. We watch him growing up via weekly Skypes. His father (our son) and his mother (our daughter-in-law) have been living in Japan and were planning to return home with Noa this summer.

Then they discovered just how messed up our immigration system really is. Our son is a U.S. citizen, and so is Noa, but his mom is French. When they went to the U.S. embassy in Tokyo to get the paperwork to come to Minneapolis, she was “denied.”

There are more than 22 million American citizens married to people from other countries. Nearly every one of them can tell stories like ours — of a “system” whose rules are so complex they are almost a parody, and of the reality that makes trying to follow the rules irrelevant: It often boils down to whom you talk to and when you talk to them.

These are the people who are victims when a bureaucrat makes a decision that breaks up families. This is the part of “comprehensive” immigration reform that gets lost in the politics.

In 2005, our son married a woman from France. They lived here while he taught math and she secured a green card (after many frustrating months and many thousands of dollars) so she could work at the University of Minnesota and in other administrative jobs.

They moved to Seattle, where they continued their careers, but when the recession hit, teachers were fired and jobs were scarce. So my son took a teaching position in Kobe, Japan, where Noa was born.

Most people think that if you marry an American citizen, you become one. Not true. Most believe that once you achieve “permanent resident” status (a green card) you can come and go as you please. Not true. Most people believe that as a U.S. citizen you can bring your child back with you when you return after working abroad. Technically true. But if the child is an infant and his mom has been “denied,” then, realistically, not true.

The rules, as far as we can decipher them, make it hard for someone with permanent resident status to travel outside the country. You can take short trips — six months or less. After that you start encountering problems. Customs and border patrol people can accuse you of “abandoning” your resident status. If you live outside of the country for more than two years, you have to get special permits.

Our son and daughter-in-law researched all this and applied for the appropriate waivers. They collected and saved all kinds of documentation — from tax returns to the location of the storage place in Seattle where they keep most of their stuff. They have pictures from Christmas 2011, when they brought young Noa home to visit. They have an e-mail trail documenting their attempts to get it right.

They thought they were in good shape when they traveled to the embassy in Tokyo. But a bureaucrat there decided that our daughter-in-law “chose” to stay in Japan for a third year, thus abandoning her green-card status. I’m not sure why this guy expected her to leave her husband, take an infant back to the United States, find work and live by herself, but that seems to be the “choice” he expected her to make.

After the shock wore off, our son and daughter-in-law contacted immigration officials and border patrol people in Seattle (their point of entry). They consulted immigration lawyers. We contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Everyone had an opinion, and almost all of them were contradictory. Some said our son and daughter-in-law should fly to Seattle and take a chance they could get back in the country, then sort the other stuff out here. Others said if they tried that they could be refused entry and might be arrested for fraud. Klobuchar’s office was responsive but not much help: In matters like these, a bureaucrat in Tokyo has more clout than a U.S. senator.

I understand that the “big” issues around immigration reform are important. Yes, those millions of undocumented workers need a path to citizenship, even if it is tortuous and lengthy. Yes, we need “secure” borders (though I’m not sure that building a fence through the desert scrub helps much). Yes, we need to be vigilant against terrorists — though one may wonder how effective our current system is: Those young men from Chechnya had green cards and had no trouble getting back and forth to Boston.

But my son and daughter-in-law are not terrorists. Noa is just a kid with an American dad, a French mom and a funny laugh. They are a young family that traveled abroad because that was where a job was. They want to come home and resume their lives here. But because one bureaucrat made a decision we are powerless to change, they have to split up.

Our daughter-in-law will surrender her green card and take Noa back to France, where she will begin again the whole, long, expensive process of getting a new one. Our son will return to Minneapolis and look for a job. He hopes to see his wife and son in about six months.

Noa turns 2 in September. We hope he can be here for Christmas.


Doug Wilhide is a writer who lives in southwest Minneapolis. He can be reached at

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