Column: An exceptional woman is one of many caught in immigration system’s web

Columnist Patrice Apodaca's son Bret Weinberger and his girlfriend Dominique Roberts in Paris.
(Courtesy of Patrice Apodaca)

I’d like to introduce you to a very special person.

Her name is Dominique. She is my son’s girlfriend, and she is, without exaggeration, one of the finest human beings I have ever known.

Domi, as we often call her, is intelligent, kind, perceptive and hardworking. She’s a brilliant teacher, but she’s also a talented artist who draws, paints, sings like an angel, makes tasty empanadas, loves fiercely and lights up a room with her dazzling smile.

My son’s life — as well as the lives of everyone who knows her — is immeasurably better for having her share it.

As of this writing, this remarkable young woman who I love like a daughter is stuck in immigration purgatory, a cruel place she occupies through no fault of her own.

I’ll tell the story from the beginning.

Domi, a native of Argentina, first came to the U.S. in 2015 as a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Williams College, a highly regarded liberal arts institution in Massachusetts.

The prestigious Fulbright FLTA program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, draws educators from around the world and is intended to foster understanding of foreign cultures and languages.

In December of that year, Domi attended a conference and did volunteer work in Washington, D.C., after which she headed to Miami for vacation. She was on a bus traveling from the airport to her lodgings when a tall young man plopped down beside her.

At first she was annoyed because he kept bashing her with his backpack, but then they struck up a conversation. It turned out they both had reservations at the same hostel, and that night they met for dinner.

From that serendipitous first meeting with my son a relationship bloomed that would profoundly change both of their lives.

After Williams, Domi was accepted into a master’s program in foreign languages and pedagogy (the study of teaching) at the University of Delaware. She graduated with honors in December.

The university asked her to stay and teach spring semester classes. It seemed like a perfect transition, allowing her to earn her way as she burnished her resume and prepared to apply for doctoral programs, while my son pursued his own post-graduate studies at UCLA.

They were making plans for the future.

She applied for work authorization in October, submitting all the required documentation. Approval should have been a matter of routine, as was typical in such situations in the past.

But on Dec. 17, Domi was contacted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. More evidence was required for the work authorization. A lot more.

So Domi spent her winter break compiling 150 pages of documents, a Herculean task that consumed the Christmas holiday that she had hoped to spend relaxing with our family.

There were many sleepless nights as she rushed to file the paperwork promptly and accurately, a job complicated by enormous gray areas and fine print.

The semester is now well underway, and she still has no answer. I imagine her weighty file buried in a pile on the desk of an overworked employee at USCIS, where burdensome new regulations and increased processing times have also left hundreds of international students stranded in a tangle of red tape and uncertainty.

It’s a mental picture that calls to mind Charles Dickens’ fictional Circumlocution Office, which he described as the epitome of “how not to do it, in motion.”

The university managed, with great difficulty, to find a substitute to cover the classes for which Domi assiduously prepared and designed instruction plans. That it is willing to wait for her work authorization is testament to the high value placed on her professional abilities.

For now Domi lives day to day, unable to do her job and unsure where she stands.

We wonder why she was put in this position.

Is it because she spent a semester teaching in Spain — even though she obtained all necessary approvals and the university’s blessing?

Was she singled out because she is from a Latin American country? None of her European colleagues were required to submit additional “evidence,” and they all received their work authorizations, as expected, by December.

Or was her application flagged because of her frequent trips and longs stays with my son in California?

She received no explanation, and I expect she never will. One of many ironies is that any questions related to Domi’s status could easily have been resolved with a short letter, e-mail or phone call, rather than a book-sized volume meant to satisfy a maze-like, ever-changing set of rules.

The wait is excruciating.

My son, who I love with the white-hot force of a thousand suns, and the woman he cherishes careen from despair to cautious hope. It’s hard to watch their heartache, but their deep bond, tender support of each other and commitment to building a better future are the pillars I hang my own hopes upon.

It goes without saying that immigration is a hot button issue — perhaps the hottest. Ask a dozen people what they see as the problem, and you’ll get a dozen different answers.

I’m not trying to pick any fights, but this I know:

You can’t fix a broken system by breaking it further, or by hurting — whether by design or due to misconception — good, honest, principled people who are only trying to do what’s right.

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