The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

Jacques Brinon, Associated Press

When you're up against immigration, it's hard to get good help

  • Article by: Doug Wilhide
  • October 6, 2013 - 10:53 PM


Noa, our grandson, has left Japan and is living with his mother in France. He is an involuntary expatriate.

A few months ago on this page, I outlined one of the unacknowledged travesties of the mess that is our immigration system. We received dozens of comments — most supportive and appreciated. Here is an update.

My son and his family were living in Japan while he taught English there. When they went to the U.S. embassy in Tokyo to get re-entry documents approved, an employee of the embassy “denied” them. He said our daughter-in-law, who is French, had violated the terms of her green card by staying outside the United States for too long. She should have left her husband and returned to the U.S. sooner — with no job, no place to live and a nursing infant.

This nonsense has split the family apart. Instead of coming home, they traveled to France, where our daughter-in-law could stay with her parents. She had to surrender her green card and apply for a new one — a costly and lengthy process. We are still waiting to find out when Noa and his mother will be allowed back into the United States. Estimates have ranged from three months to more than a year to “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Noa’s father, our son, is back in Minneapolis teaching high school and finishing a master’s degree. He’s working hard, trying to fill the time until he’ll see his family again.

Noa turned 2 on Sept. 26. He can count to five (in French). He walks around wearing a fedora, chatting on one of his four cellphones (none of which actually work). He still laughs like a dolphin. During Skype sessions, he sometimes looks behind the computer to see if his Dad is there.

After the Star Tribune article appeared, we heard from people in similar situations. Some were misinformed. They thought that if you married a U.S. citizen, you became a citizen (not true). They said my daughter-in-law should have followed the rules (she did). Many said something like: “It doesn’t matter if you follow the rules — even if you can figure them out. What counts is which official you run into and whether they’re having a bad day.”

We contacted our representatives for help. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office has tried — people there have contacted customs and immigration, but have been rebuffed at every turn. People in U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s office said they couldn’t do anything different. Those in U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s office responded after a few weeks with a canned message about his “concern” about our “broken immigration system.” U.S. Sen. John McCain’s office sent essentially the same message. Both thanked me for my “interest” and asked for campaign contributions.

As the debate on immigration continues (or gets pushed aside), I feel a frustrating disconnection. It seems like the wrong issues are being debated:

Part of the debate is about border security. This is a euphemism for building a wall around the Southwest and spending billions on border patrol guards. The latest data I’ve seen show that net migration in that area is zero. Fences and armed guards won’t do anything to protect, for example, Manhattan, Washington, Boston, our major ports of entry or, for that matter, Pigeon Falls. They won’t get Noa and his mother home.

We hear about pathways to citizenship. As far as I can tell, this means that most undocumented immigrants must jump through difficult hoops, pay thousands of dollars and endure a decade or more of waiting. It means that kids born in the United States to noncitizens will be treated as inferior to their schoolmates through no fault of their own. Noa’s mother had documentation, but it didn’t matter. She has been forced to reapply for the same papers.

Some of the debate is about whether immigrants are a burden to taxpayers or our best economic hope for the future. The evidence shows that most immigrants (documented or otherwise) pay taxes and are essential to many U.S. industries, from farming to hospitality to software manufacturing. My daughter-in-law worked when she was in the United States, paid taxes and would do so again — except she can’t get here.

Our immigration rules are complex, difficult to decipher from confusing websites and often contradictory. When the most important interaction real people have is with arbitrary bureaucrats who make absolute decisions, there is no “system.”

The immigration and customs service appears hopelessly backlogged — a quagmire that began when Republicans (for the most part) decided to place everything about immigration under the banner of “national security.” The politicians go around and around about the issues they think matter. The best are helpless before the bureaucracies. The worst send out campaign boilerplate. None of this helps get my son’s family back together.

Noa and his mother remain in France. They Skype often, but there are silences as they look at each other on a flat screen. My son hopes he can tell Noa that this will never happen again. But he knows that is not the case. U.S. immigration will always be there to make things difficult for families like his.

Meanwhile, Noa has grown — kids change daily at this age. He wasn’t here for his birthday. We’re still hoping he’ll be here by Christmas. This Christmas.

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

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