Martin is not quite five years old, but he’s a veteran of trans-Atlantic cell phone calls. He and his father are separated by immigration rules and an ocean, so photos and phone calls are Martin’s main connection with the man who once held him close.
Martin’s parents come from two different continents. Mom Naomi Hagen grew up in farm country in central Wisconsin. Her mother and step-dad still live on a farm there. Naomi moved to Minnesota, got a bachelor’s degree in education, and is “close” to completing a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Bethel College. She has a teacher’s license, and has worked for nonprofits and for a consulting firm.
Nana Opoku Asare had been successful in Ghana, working in information technology and computer systems, but he wanted more out of life. When he had the chance to move to New Jersey and work with his uncle there, he took it.
In a thoroughly modern manner, Naomi and Nana met through the internet. They got to know each other over a period of months, and finally decided to meet in person. After that, their courtship proceeded along traditional lines – dating, meeting each other’s families, an engagement. Finally, their wedding day arrived. On July 18, 2003, they became husband and wife in the same small Wisconsin Lutheran church where Naomi’s grandparents had been married.
Right after the wedding, they filed an application for Nana Opoku Asare to become a permanent legal resident of the United States. They didn’t think there would be any problem. They filled out the paperwork themselves, figuring they didn’t need a lawyer. They had heard that the spouse of a U.S. citizen could become a legal resident without much delay.
Immigration took a year to process the papers, said Naomi, and then sent more forms to the couple. Some of the forms asked for more information, and there was the standard immigration medical exam – and lots of fees. At some point, the case was transferred to an office in Kansas.
As the paperwork continued, Naomi became pregnant, and they looked forward to the birth of their baby. Martin was born in May of 2005.
The bad news came soon after – Nana Opoku Asare would have to return to Ghana to adjust his immigration status. Because he did not have a current visa, he was not eligible to adjust his immigration status inside the United States. Naomi remembers an ominous phone conversation with the immigration office: “Someone said on the phone that he could be sent back for seven years, but because you’re married and have a child, they could overrule that.”
In October, 2005, Nana Opoku Asare went back to Ghana, as the immigration officers told him to do. In an email message, he tells what happened next: “After the United States immigration center took thousands of dollars of our money for processing fees, they asked me to return to Ghana for my immigrant visa interview. I came to Ghana literally without much money. And to make matter worse i was refused the visa. The judgment letter they gave me said I could file for an appeal which also costed me about $700. Another $545 for waiver fee. I patiently waited for two years for the embassy to tell me that my application is being denied.”
“We thought it would be a few months, we would complete the paperwork, and he would return,” Naomi says. “Now, nearly four years and three filings later, he is still ‘stuck’ in Ghana, and we have not seen him since then.”
From Ghana and from Minnesota, Naomi and Nana have worked at the immigration paperwork, and have tried to deal with their involuntary separation.
“Martin has been separated from his daddy since October 24, 2005 – when he was only five months old,” Naomi explains. “We talk to him almost every day via phone, internet, email, texting, and other media.
“It has been a difficult journey since he’s been gone on so many levels – emotionally, physically, financially … we have had a good friend and family support system, but the government has not supported us. We had Jim Ramstad’s office look into things for us – just to find where in the immigration wasteland our case had gone. They ‘found it on a shelf’ (the exact words of the Immigration advocate) and looked into it. However, they could do nothing to help us and eventually learned that our appeal to have our husband/father returned was once again denied due to ‘lack of hardship’ on my end.”
For Martin and his parents, the hardship is real. “If only Martin could tell you,” Naomi says. “He just knows he hasn’t seen his father since before he can remember. It’s hard – he knows he’s not like other kids.”
In theory, Naomi and Martin could move to Ghana. Naomi and Nana have talked about the possibility, but so far have decided against it. The expense is one concern. When Nana had to leave so soon after Martin was born, the family finances were severely strained. Then came more fees for more immigration filings. And now, in the midst of the recession, Naomi has been laid off.
So the family waits. They visit the Wisconsin grandparents, and Naomi teaches Martin about African culture. For a year and a half, his babysitter was “an African grandma,” she says. “Martin loves African culture, food, clothes – he wants to wear the African clothes to church every Sunday. … He’s both African and farm country.”
Speaking on the cell phone from Ghana, Nana Opoku says, “It’s so, so, so painful — I cry about it every day, being apart from Martin and apart from Naomi as well.
“I love America. I just wish they could bring families back together, especially families like mine, especially we who have clean records and are good guys out there.”
In June, Naomi attended her first immigration rally, bringing Martin with her. She had never been an activist, but now she is committed to working for change.
The rally was “really cool,” according to Naomi, “because it was like a thousand people here who care. They care about me.
“I feel so differently about looking at the immigrants around me now. Like I don’t know your story but I’m sure it’s tough.”
“Immigration reform is much needed,” she wrote in an email. “In our case, it is personally urgent as my little boy grows without his daddy – and a daddy who loves him and wants to be here. My husband is a good and caring man who just wants to experience what every other immigrant dreams of – the American dream. For us, it has become the nightmare of separation, and not knowing who can come beside us to reunite our little family.”
Mary Turck is the editor of the TC Daily Planet.