New Country, New HomeMay 3, 2019
Story by Leann Burke Photos by Daniel Vasta
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Those are the final lines of “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus that appears on the Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island in New York. They are the words that greeted millions of immigrants as they entered the U.S. through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954, when Ellis Island’s immigrant processing center closed.
While immigrants no longer enter the U.S. through Ellis Island, they continue to come to the U.S. by the thousands — more than one million annually, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center — in search of a better life, a new life or both. Some of those immigrants go through the long, arduous process of becoming U.S. citizens.
The Dominguez Family
When Luis Dominguez, 64, of Huntingburg, decided to immigrate to the U.S. from Mexico in 1994, he walked for three days to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. When he reached the U.S., he said, he entered like many do — illegally, on foot through the southern border. Then he made his way to Los Angeles.
A lot has changed for Dominguez in the 25 years since he entered the U.S. For one, he’s become a U.S. citizen. So has his son, Daniel, 34, and last year, Daniel’s wife, Berenice Delgado, 33, and daughter, Darany Dominguez, 8, moved to the U.S. and became permanent residents. This last year was the first time the family was together for every holiday and birthday since Daniel and Berenice married in 2007.
“We’re celebrating everything,” Daniel said.
Having three generations of his family in the U.S. is a big change for Luis. When he first came to the U.S., he was the only one in his family in the whole country. Once he crossed the border, he went to Los Angeles where he heard about the jobs available in the Dubois County area. He immediately moved to Dale and got a job at Farbest Foods. While working at Farbest, Luis met an American woman named Brenda. The two fell in love and married in 1997. The two were married until 2014 when Brenda died from cancer.
After Luis and Brenda married, he began the naturalization process, eventually becoming a citizen.
“I remember, when he came here, he was here for seven or eight years,” Daniel said of Luis. “He didn’t come back to Mexico.”
Once Luis began the naturalization process, he received a work permit while he waited for his green card. The permit allowed him to work anywhere, so he took a job at MasterBrand. In the years since, he’s worked for almost every local factory, finally settling in his current job with Kimball International.
Daniel first came to the U.S. in 2000, also entering the country illegally at age 15. When Daniel arrived, he hadn’t seen Luis since he was 9. He still remembers the first time he saw the U.S. — the tall buildings, the cars, the homes.
“I was excited to see everything we could do,” Daniel said.
In Mexico, most people don’t own their own cars or homes, Daniel said. Most people make about 1,200 pesos — $75 — a week. That’s just enough to cover the necessities, not enough to save for anything.
“I guess you can make your life in any country because you’ve got the basics — food, water, you know,” Daniel said. “But to support your family and get something you want like a car or a house, that’s the difference.”
After living in the U.S. for several years, Daniel returned to Mexico to enter the U.S. legally through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services family program. That required Daniel to leave and Luis, as a U.S. citizen and Daniel’s father, to petition for Daniel to become a permanent resident.
While back in Mexico, Daniel married Berenice in 2007. He got permission to move to the U.S. as a permanent resident in 2008, so he left his new wife and moved to Huntingburg with Luis. He got a job at OFS, and for the next five years, Daniel lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident, traveling back to Mexico every six months to visit Berenice and Darany.
“It’s hard,” Daniel said.
In 2013, Daniel became a U.S. citizen, and in 2015, he petitioned for Berenice and Darany to come to the U.S. They received permission in 2017.
The Dominguezes don’t judge people for coming to the U.S. illegally, Daniel said. They can understand why people choose to come that way.
But they agree that coming legally is a better choice. Legal immigrants also have more freedom within the U.S.
When Luis didn’t have documentation, there were few places that would hire him. But when he got documents, he could work anywhere.
Entering the U.S. legally is also much safer. The walk through Mexico to the U.S. border is dangerous, as it goes through deserts and high-crime areas. And even if you reach the border, there’s no guarantee you’ll get into the country.
Luis said crossing the border today is more difficult than it was when he came because the U.S. has ramped up border security.
Talking about it now, Luis plays down his three day walk to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There are people who walk 10 to 12 days,” he said in Spanish. “Some make it and some don’t.”
But coming the legal way has challenges, too. The process takes many years and thousands of dollars, and it usually requires a fiance or a close family member — a parent, child or sibling — to petition the government for your entry.
“If you want to do it the right way, you have to go through the government,” Daniel said. “Fill out applications and everything. It’s a big process.”
But it’s worth it, Daniel said. Legal immigrants have more opportunities than undocumented immigrants, and legal immigrants have a path to citizenship. Daniel wanted that for his family.
“I’m here, I got this opportunity,” Daniel said. “I want my family to get the same, but the right way.”
The Dominguezes still have a lot of family in Mexico, including Daniel’s mother, and they try to make it back to Mexico at least once a year to see everyone. With most of their family in Mexico, but their lives here in the U.S., Daniel said, it often feels like they’re part of two countries. Emotionally, he said, they’re Mexican. That’s their heritage, and it’s where their family is. Practically, he said, they’re Americans. Their lives and friends are in the U.S., and the U.S. is the country that gave them the opportunity to build a better life.
“It’s like not from here; not from there,” Daniel said. “Somewhere in the middle.”
Although the family still feels ties to Mexico, Daniel doesn’t see any of them moving back. The U.S. is home now.
Jan Ilgen, 28, is looking forward to becoming a U.S. citizen.
He can apply for citizenship this summer, and he’s pretty sure it will be a smooth process. He’s taken the practice citizenship test online several times and passed every time. And even if the process takes longer than expected, for the first time since he immigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands, he doesn’t have to worry. His permanent residency doesn’t expire until 2028.
Ilgen immigrated on a fiance visa in 2014. He and his now wife, Melissa (Pleiss), who owns Serendipity Fibers in Huntingburg, met a few years earlier when they both were working on a cruise ship — Jan as a photographer and Melissa as a costume designer. The two got engaged in December 2013 during one of Jan’s visits to the U.S.
“We got engaged during Christmas because who doesn’t?” Jan joked.
The two decided to live in the U.S. simply because Jan already knew English, but Melissa would have to learn Dutch.
As soon as they got engaged, they looked up the process for Jan to immigrate. It took six months for him to get a fiance visa. During the application process, they had to prove their relationship with photos and interviews about each other. Jan’s interview took place at the U.S. Embassy in Amsterdam. The interview took 15 minutes and included questions about Melissa and their relationship.
In July 2014, Jan arrived in the U.S., and the couple had three months to get married. It worked out well, Jan said. They were already planning an October wedding.
The first major challenge came after their wedding. As part of the fiance visa, Jan also got to apply for a work permit, which he did immediately. The permit should have taken three months to arrive, so he came to the U.S. with enough money saved up to live for three months. The work permit arrived four months late.
“All this time, I really wanted to work, but I couldn’t,” he said.
Since he couldn’t work, he helped out Melissa at Serendipity Fibers, knitting consignment orders.
When his work permit finally arrived, he looked for a job. Although he had a degree in journalism, it proved useless in the U.S. He lacked the network that would have helped him get a job. Instead, he took a job at Rent-A-Center in Jasper, and eventually found his way to Jasper Engines and Transmissions, where he currently works as a production support group leader.
There was also a bit of culture shock. In the Netherlands, people walk or ride their bikes everywhere. Here, though, you can’t get anywhere without a car. That was a challenge, because he was stuck at home without a vehicle.
“Now I have a truck, though, so I fit in,” he said.
He also learned quickly that Dutch humor and American humor are not the same. In the Netherlands, he said, no subject matter is off limits for a joke, and people tend to be very direct. Here, he learned that directness doesn’t go over well.
“I’ve had to simmer that down quite a bit here,” he said. “I’ve noticed that Americans don’t do forward and direct very well.”
He also had to learn to miss out on special moments with his family, and have them miss special moments with him. When he and Melissa got married, for example, only his father, stepmother and best friend from the Netherlands made it to the wedding. When his daughter, Annabelle, was born, only his dad made it.
“You lose a lot on that side,” he said. “You don’t get to share important, key moments with most of your family.”
But he’s also gained a lot. Dubois County is much safer than the neighborhood he grew up in between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and his career at Jasper Engines is more promising that anything he figures he would have found working in journalism in the Netherlands. And he gained a whole new group of family members when he and Melissa married.
As soon as he and Melissa married, Jan had to apply for permanent residency. That process took a year and a half. During that time, he couldn’t leave the U.S., so he and Melissa postponed their honeymoon.
Jan’s first green card was only good for a couple of years, providing what’s called conditional permanent residency. When it expired, Jan applied for permanent residency, and he and Melissa had to prove their relationship all over again. This time, it was a little easier. They had a lot of shared bills they could provide, as well as an ultrasound of the daughter they were expecting.
Then came the next most stressful part of the process. As the expiration of his conditional permanent residency crept closer, Jan began to worry that something went wrong with his application for permanent residency. He’d sent in all the paperwork, but the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn’t send out any confirmations that the paperwork was received. Nor does the agency send updates on the process. It got nerve-wracking, he said. He worried what would happen if something went wrong.
“Then suddenly, I’m there [in the Netherlands], and my wife and kid are on the other side of the ocean,” he said. “What do we do then?”
Fortunately, everything turned out OK.
Now that he has a green card, Jan has to wait until he’s been a permanent resident for five years to apply for citizenship. Fortunately, the years he spent with conditional permanent residency count toward the five, so he will apply for citizenship this summer.
“I’m just looking forward to a year from now being able to finish up the process,” he said, “when I can be done with that.”
Nancy (Meranius) Owens, 44, voted for the first time in the 2018 election.
“It wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought it would be,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that didn’t take as long as I expected it to.’ It was cool that I got to do it, [but] it just wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought it would be.”
The “big deal” came about a year before she went to the ballot box. In December 2017, Nancy became a U.S. citizen after living in the country as a permanent resident for almost 20 years.
She made her first trip to the U.S. from Germany in 1995, a year after graduating from high school. When she graduated, Nancy recalled, she didn’t know what she wanted to do, so her grandmother suggested visiting her great-aunt in Franklin, Indiana. The aunt married an American after World War II and immigrated to the U.S. The visit, Nancy’s grandmother said, would help Nancy learn English, “which is good for everything.”
Although English is taught in German schools, Nancy didn’t remember much of the language, so she walked around the U.S. with a German-English dictionary, looking up words as she talked to people.
For the first two weeks, she visited with her great-aunt, playing Skip-Bo every night. Then, a cousin invited Nancy to a party. There, she met Trent Owens, the man who would become her husband.
“He was really patient, waiting for me to translate everything,” Nancy said.
The two kept in touch after Nancy returned to Germany, and the next summer, Trent came to visit her. For the next few years, the two traveled back and forth to visit each other, eventually deciding that that wasn’t working. They married in 1999, and Nancy immediately applied for a green card. She received a work permit right away, but it took two years to get the green card.
“The process is kind of weird,” she recalled. “You have to go to a medical doctor, and they look at you. You feel like a cow or something. They count your toes. It was really weird.”
For the next 17 years, Nancy lived as a permanent resident in the U.S. — with the exception of two years when she and Trent tried to live in Germany before deciding that wouldn’t work out.
The couple lived in Leesville, Indiana, when they were first married. In 2007, they moved to Germany for two years. When that didn’t work out, they moved to Florida while Nancy attended Palmer School of Chiropractic. After she graduated, they lived briefly in North Carolina until 2015 when they moved to Dubois County with their five children — Connie, Noah, Jeffry, Jaden and Anna — so Nancy could work with Trent’s uncle, local chiropractor Phil Gilbert at The Wellness Center in Huntingburg.
Moving to rural Indiana was a culture shock for Nancy. She grew up in the German city of Frankfurt where she rarely saw wild animals. Here, however, wild animals are part of daily life. When she first moved here, she recalled, she’d cry every time she saw a dead animal on the side of the road.
“I got over that pretty quickly, though, because Trent is a hunter,” she said.
Nancy also noticed how nice people seemed to be here. In the city where she grew up, people went about their business, and there wasn’t the sense of community there is in Dubois County, although she expects that’s a difference between city and rural life, rather than a difference between German and American culture.
Nancy discovered she likes rural life better than city life, and she never really misses Germany. She doesn’t have a large family, and her family isn’t particularly close, so having Skype and WhatsApp is enough to keep connected. She doesn’t expect she’ll want to move back to Germany. That realization is part of what led her to seek citizenship a few years ago.
“Now I know for sure this is where I want to be,” she said. “Not to downplay where I came from. I wouldn’t mind going back for a vacation.”