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They sat, side by side, outside the immigration courtroom on a row of red vinyl chairs, waiting. Fernando leaned forward in his seat, tapping his right foot quietly. He turned to look at his wife. Marie stared ahead, her arms folded across her chest, her legs bent slightly under the chair, her whole body tucked close to her. She had not eaten lunch that day. Playfully, Fernando chucked her chin. She smiled weakly.
Their attorney, Nicole Morrison, stood across from them, leaning against the wall in an electric-blue suit. Her long brown hair, which fell more than halfway down her back, clung to the wall's static pull. Fernando and Marie (not their real names) had arrived half an hour before their 1 p.m. court appointment, but now an hour later, no one else had shown, neither judge nor opposing counsel. The judge was still at lunch, the clerks said.
This January afternoon would determine Fernando's fate, whether he would remain in the United States or be forced to return to the Philippines. Although Fernando has a valid work visa and no criminal record, the Immigration and Naturalization Service intended to deport him.
Fernando first came to the United States in 1991, fresh out of college, to work as a physical therapist for a health care company in Tennessee. Eventually he found work in Houston, where he met Marie. Soon after, Fernando's employer sponsored his application for a green card, the first step to citizenship. A green card bestows permanent residency, which gives the holder the same rights as citizens, except for the right to vote. A green card is acceptance, a welcome invitation to stay in this country. Permanent residents then can apply to become naturalized citizens. As part of standard procedure, the INS interviewed Fernando in 1998.
When Fernando received mail from the INS more than a year later, he joyfully anticipated a green card. But instead, he found a denial. The INS claimed he had lied at his interview. Fernando, offended, insisted he had not. He said, rather, that he had misunderstood INS regulations and made a mistake years before, when he first arrived in America. But he corrected it then. The dispute has cost him time and money, and threatens to separate him from his wife and children. Fernando appealed the agency's decision, and now, four and a half years after he submitted his green card application, it was up to an immigration judge.
Curiously, they were the only people waiting in the hallway outside the courtroom doors. Marie's face, with its plentiful cheeks, remained frozen in quietness. And in spite of Fernando's claim that he had slept all right the night before, his round and usually buoyant face betrayed worry. He had been through a lot already with the INS and seemed resigned to the agency's hold over his life. "Either way, I won't be surprised," he said.
When another half hour passed, Morrison approached the clerks again, who were chatting to each other at the end of the hall behind a glass window. Fernando paced the hallway, watching her. "What?" he heard her say, panic filling her voice. It turns out the judge had expected them at nine that morning. When Fernando had not shown up, the judge had ordered him deported. Yet Morrison's copy of the order listed 1 p.m.
Fernando turned to face the wall and let his head fall against it. "Oh, my God," he groaned.
Growing up in the small town of Cavite, an hour south of Manila, Fernando dreamed of becoming a doctor, playing surgeon with his sisters' dolls and pretending that his fingers were all at once scalpel, scissors and forceps. The youngest of five children, Fernando was the only one who didn't attend college in Manila. Instead, he lived at home and studied physical therapy at the local university.
By 20, Fernando had earned his degree and recruiters beckoned him to work in America. Like nurses, physical therapists are in high demand in American hospitals and clinics. Although Fernando didn't know anyone in the States and had never left his parents' home before, he welcomed the adventure. Everyone, it seemed, was accepting jobs in the United States, and he signed up with a health care company in Tennessee. The company, Tri-County Home Health Service, sponsored Fernando's H1-B visa, a work permit for engineers, nurses and other educated professionals. In August 1991 Fernando arrived in McKenzie, Tennessee, with two other Filipino nationals. McKenzie was a quiet retirement community where no structure stood taller than three stories. "This was not the America I saw on television, not all the big buildings," Fernando recalls.
To Fernando's shock, Tri-County told the three Filipino physical therapists that it did not have work available right away. Fernando felt scared. He didn't know anyone except for the two other therapists, and even they were mere acquaintances that he had never met before the plane ride to the States. He wanted to go home, but Tri-County promised work soon. For three weeks the trio waited, living in an apartment provided by the company. They were bored and wanted desperately to work. So one of the physical therapists called around and found jobs available with a Houston firm. The Filipino workers used their savings to buy plane tickets and went to work for Phil-Am Inc. In accordance with medical regulations, they applied for temporary certification from the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners.