By Iman Malik
The U.S. immigration system reduced my parents to numbers in a database, headshots on stacks of paperwork and signatures on forms in a pile of hundreds of thousands of visa applications. That is why, when I ask them to take me through their immigration journeys, I cherish the details that are woven into their stories: instances of luck and misfortune or evidence of a rags to riches archetype. Details like these reshape the systematic process into human stories of perseverance, sacrifice and courage, revealing the true toll of becoming a permanent resident.
My mother and I in Austin after my birthday party at Build-A-Bear Workshop.
My mother came from nothing.
She was born in East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh and her father was a captain in the resistance army fighting for independence. She is the middle child in a family of five siblings, so when her father divorced her mother and her two older brothers made their way to the U.S, it became her responsibility to help her mother and take care of her younger brother and sister.
So she took a year off from high school and started working at the age of 15. She was living in Abu Dhabi, where the minimum working age was 18. But expenses — food, rent, school tuition — were high, so she needed the money to support her family. She wore makeup to look older and told employers she was 18.
In reality, she was a high school sophomore spending every extra hour she had working at beauty counters in malls. She would stare wistfully at the expensive makeup and perfume she sold while studying in secret so she wouldn’t fall behind. She would hide her siblings behind the counter and occupy them with the toys she bought using any extra savings she earned. She was barely a teenager, yet she bore the responsibilities and faced the struggles of an adult. She had to grow up too quickly, making countless sacrifices so her siblings could remain sheltered from the difficulties of growing up in poverty.
She is the strongest woman I know.
My mother carried heavy burdens, and anyone without her courage and conviction would have crumbled beneath them. No 15-year-old should ever feel pressure to provide, but my mother rose to the occasion. She is powerful, strong and brave, but to me, her humanity is the driving force behind it all — it sustained her through hardships, but more importantly, led her to success.
After going back to high school and graduating, my mother finally had the opportunity to apply for her student visa. She stood outside the U.S. embassy before sunrise with her paperwork in her hand. She presented the immigration officers with her forms, sat through an interview and did everything she was supposed to do.
She was rejected.
She had one more try to earn her student visa but she was denied again. My mother was devastated — she had to wait an entire year to re-apply. Finally, the following year, her student visa was approved and she went back to Bangladesh. Her family threw her a huge party — everyone shared her excitement at the prospect of achieving the American Dream.
Her older brothers had already graduated and were working in Florida, so my mother attended community college in Cocoa Beach and transferred to Stetson University, where she graduated with a degree in Business. While she was in college, she learned that one of her old classmates was also in the U.S. and reconnected with him over email. They attended boarding school together and had known each other since 7th grade. My mother was elated to find someone from her childhood in a country that was completely foreign to her.
My father and I after my first band concert in fourth grade.
My father came from money.
My grandfather grew up in Azamgarh, India, surrounded by gangsters. He vowed to earn enough money so he could leave Azamgarh and its violence behind. He became a successful banker, so even though my father was born in Azamgarh, he moved away when he was just four years old. My dad lived all over the Middle East and eventually attended high school in Dubai.
My father valued his education more than anything else because he saw how much it had altered my grandfather’s life — he studied day and night and rarely left his desk. He spent almost all his time on his dining room chair, consuming tubs of ice cream each week and rarely speaking to anyone. His health took a downturn, but he was the smartest among his peers.
He was admitted into Delhi College of Engineering and it was there that he realized his dream of coming to the U.S. My father was the only Muslim in his class and in the class before him, there were no Muslims. Because of his religion, he had to compete twice as hard to earn respect from his teachers and classmates.
He was at the top of his class, but it came at a price: prejudice, ignorance and disrespect. My father realized that India is not, and never will be, for Muslims.
He applied to complete his Masters in Electrical Engineering in the U.S. Once he was admitted to the University of Michigan, he applied for his student visa. Everything was going well, until the interview. The immigration officer told my father that since he didn’t have strong ties to India, it was unlikely that he would leave the U.S. to go back there after earning his degree.
He was rejected.
It didn’t matter that he had money. It didn’t matter that he had an I-20 which confirmed his acceptance to one of the top engineering schools in the nation. It didn’t matter that my father had the opportunity to receive an education that would allow him to make valuable contributions to society.
None of it mattered because the immigration system is built to work against immigrants.
My father proudly identifies as a “hacker.” He wanted his own dorm room in college, so he bought the building manager sweets until he was the only student without a roommate. His chemistry teacher kicked him out of class after my father challenged him to answer three questions — the professor was embarrassed that he couldn’t answer any of them. During one of his classes, my father noticed his project partner started a fire in the lab, so he calmly walked out and told the professor he had been absent — everyone got a 0 except him.
So when his visa was denied, he knew what he had to do. He convinced the immigration officer that he was going to come back to India to start a business, spinning an entire narrative of reconnecting with his extended family and culture back home.
Now, it is my father’s 25th year residing in the U.S. The only tie he has to India is the license plate on his Audi sports car that reads “AZAMGAR.”
While he was finishing his masters, my father received an email from one of his old classmates asking how he was and whether or not he remembered her from middle school. My father responded that of course he remembered her, and that they should meet up sometime. My father visited my mother in Florida and eventually attended her college graduation.
My parents during my mother's graduation from Stetson University in Florida.
After earning their degrees, my father was working as an engineer in Austin, Texas and my mother was working as a technical writer in Orlando, Florida. To start their jobs and travel outside of the U.S. freely, both of them needed an H1-B Visa. But the visa had to be stamped at a U.S. embassy in an outside country in order for it to be validated. My parents didn’t dare travel back to their home countries to get their visas stamped — if they were denied, they would have no way to get back into the U.S.
So my parents flew to El Paso, Texas and travelled to Juarez, Mexico in a minivan full of immigrants and driven by a coyote — a person paid to shepherd people across the border — so if their visa was denied in Mexico, the coyote would be able to take them back to the U.S. illegally.
Luckily, their visas were approved and in August of 2000, my parents got married. My mother moved from Orlando to Austin and found a job there in a few months. Both my parents had H-1B Visas, but they needed their employers to file for their green cards: documents that would make them permanent residents.
A few years later, they successfully compiled all the necessary paperwork — including birth certificates, employment certification and proof of medical tests — and drove two hours to the immigration center in San Antonio, Texas the day before their interview was scheduled.
My parents pose together in Oakland, California during the summer of 2019.
During the interview, my parents sat across from the immigration officer and watched as he flipped through their documents to make sure everything was correct. He paused when he arrived at the medical test forms. The doctor had forgotten to sign one of the documents — my parents couldn’t get their green cards without that signature.
The same day, my parents drove back to Austin and luckily, found the same doctor who administered their medical test. He signed the form and my parents rushed back to San Antonio. But when they got there, they learned that the officer who conducted their interview was out for the day and wouldn’t be back for the next two weeks. My father refused to wait — he had come to San Antonio for a green card and he would leave with one that day.
So he called the immigration lawyer for the company he worked for, who happened to know the director of the San Antonio immigration center. That was the director’s last day on the job — she was retiring the next day — and in the closing hours of the immigration center, she looked over my parents’ paperwork, nodded her head and approved their green cards.
I am the daughter of two immigrants who fought hard to come to this country. I am the result of their ambition, their intellect, their perseverance and their bravery. They sacrificed everything so I, their child, could have a better life.
The least I can do is make something of it.