Monday, May 17, 2010

One story at a time . . .

Alexandra de Havilland

I met Alexandra de Havilland, Medical Case Manager and Housing Program Administrator for the Valley AIDS Network, back in March when I joined a bunch of Harrisonburg Dream Act Activists for tea at a downtown cafe. I was invited to meet the group by Sandy Mercer, who'd just written a fine Civic Soapbox in support of the Dream Act. I blogged about my evening with the group in a post I called "The Inadvertent Activist."

Alexandra will be one of Tom Graham's guests today at 3 p.m. on WMRA's Virginia Insight, the subject of which is to be the Dream Act. Alexandra, herself, will not benefit directly from the passage of the Dream Act, but her story mirrors the stories of young people who will benefit.

Here is Alexandra de Havilland's story, told in her own words.
My dad took a job in Northern VA when I was eight years old.  I remember when he sat my brother and I down to tell us about moving, and how terrified I was about living in a different country.  

My family came to the states in early spring 19 years ago. My brother and I had no problem adjusting to life in Virginia.  In the space of a couple months, we lost our accents, met new friends, learned to play American football and fell in love with suburban American life.  I remember how everything seemed so much bigger, and better, and we had so much more freedom to run around outside all over the neighborhood. 
My father never talked to us about immigration issues.  I never  knew I was any different from my American friends, until I turned 16 and tried to get a job.  My dad then had to explain to me that because of the type of visa he was on, I was not allowed to work in the USA.  That was really difficult for me to accept, especially as all my friends were working their first jobs and experiencing that rite of passage.
I managed to get around that barrier by becoming the neighborhood’s most sought-after babysitter, but it never felt the same as having a “real” job.  I did really well in high school, worked hard, played sports all year round and became a volunteer EMT with the fire department during my senior year. 
When it was time to apply to college I choose JMU and got accepted.  Filling out JMU’s paperwork was another wake-up call to the fact that I was not even close to being American --  even though American life, history, and culture was all I really knew at that point.  At JMU, I was  considered an International Student and so had to be monitored by the International Student Office. 
I chose to live in the international student dorm during my Freshman year. Looking back on it, that was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  The friends I met in that dorm are still my best friends today -- some are American and some are from other countries.  All of them have played a role in helping me keep my sanity when faced with the immigration problems I have had to work through. 
Then, when I was a Sophomore at JMU, my parents suddenly had to move back to the UK after 13 years of living in Virginia, because my dad’s job fell apart and their visas were also up for renewal.  My parents, my brother, and my dog all had to go back to the UK.  This was especially hard for my brother, as he was 23 at the time and had not taken the steps necessary to secure his stay in the USA. 
I had always been really close to my family and often went home on weekends, so when they went back to the UK my whole life changed.  I could have gone with them, but that would have meant leaving college and moving back to a country I knew nothing about. 
Without the support of some truly amazing friends I would never have made it by myself in Harrisonburg.  I graduated in 2005 with a degree in Health Sciences and had three months to find a job that would sponsor me for a work visa.  Three months is simply not enough time to accomplish that task when you’re still a kid without any connections and with so many other thoughts about traveling the world in your head. 
As the summer of 2005 went on, I began to realize that although I really wanted to travel and do all the crazy and exciting things my friends were doing, if I left the USA now and got off the immigration treadmill (as I like to refer to it) I was never going to have another opportunity to get back in.  I had to find a way to secure my right to remain in the country I considered home. 
Once my student visa ran out I had to go back and forth to the UK every three months and re-enter on a tourist visa.  Each time I came back to Virginia, I stayed with a really good friend who has since become my American mom. 
Once again, it was the love and support of friends that got me through the hard times.  In the Fall of 2005 I sat down with an old JMU professor who recommended applying to grad school at JMU.  I knew I didn’t have the money, but then she mentioned they also needed a graduate assistant (a position that would pay tuition and provide a stipend).  I applied to grad school and took the GREs just before my allotted time in the US ran out! Amazingly…I got into grad school and I got the job as a graduate assistant and so was able to return to the US in the summer of 2006 to begin grad school. 
I will always look back on that as one of the biggest accomplishments of my life…free grad school and the chance to remain in my home country.  I went back to school and moved in with my American mom and her family.  During my time in grad school I started to build valuable connections within the Harrisonburg community and began to prepare and position myself for the next round of immigration hurdles.  I graduated in May of 2008 and spent the next eight months beating the street to find the right job.  I was working part time for an agency at JMU when I found the ad for my current position at the Valley AIDS Network.  I knew it was the perfect job for me, and the fact that it was a JMU/state job was not lost on me either.  I was looking almost exclusively for JMU jobs as I wanted to remain in the area and I knew JMU could handle my immigration paperwork. 
Some things are meant to be and I think my job at Valley AIDS Network (VAN) was one of those things. That's not to say that I didn’t work my rear end off to get it, though.  It’s now been just over a year since I started with VAN, and last month I went back to the UK to have the much coveted work visa officially placed in my passport, which means that I can now travel freely back and forth to the UK and the US or any other country for that matter. 
It had been four years since I had been back to the UK and it turned out to be an emotional trip.  While I was back, I discovered that my mum was once again having heart problems, and leaving her knowing that was incredibly difficult for me.  For all of her previous health issues I'd always been by her side, but now I am locked into a life that is 3,000 miles away from her. 
Everyone says that you have to live your own life and I know that’s true, but as my mum’s only daughter I definitely feel a certain amount of guilt for not being there for her and also guilt because my brother is there helping and I’m not.  It’s complicated, it’s difficult and I suspect that it is a problem that is only going to become harder to cope with.  
As of right now my immigration situation is legal and stable. My work visa comes up for renewal in 2012, and hopefully I will be able to renew it and possibly begin working toward Green Card status. A Green Card would give me the ability finally get off that immigration treadmill.

Alexandra's story is only one of millions. There is probably no more combustible and complicated issue in our society right now than the presence of  "illegal immigrants." Yet, it's not an issue, in the same sense that banking reform is one. Instead it's a constellation of individuals, each with his or her own story.

I do hope you'll tune into WMRA's Virginia Insight today at three. Perhaps listening to more of  these stories is a first step for each of us toward helping our country with the situation in as constructive a way as possible.


  1. Really great post..

    Thanks for sharing..

  2. very intriguing...i just came to this post and i found it a good post to read......

  3. Thanks for the story. When we here about immagration we tend to narrowly focus on stories from our southwest and the problems posed by illegal immagration. There is a whole lot more to the story. Thanks for widening the view.