By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
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By Craig Hlavaty
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Houston, with its sprawling concrete landscape, required a lot of adjustment. The pace of life was faster here and Fernando worked hard to keep up. The outgoing manner and openness of his American colleagues also seemed foreign to him. "We are taught to hold our feelings in and not say much," he says of Filipino culture.
Because the visas had not expired, Phil-Am told the therapists that their permits were valid. But the company made a big mistake. H1-B visas are employer-specific. If a company cannot employ an H1-B worker, it is supposed to pay for the worker's way back home. Technically, by moving to Houston, Fernando and his co-workers had received unauthorized work, an offense that rendered them deportable.
When the INS learned of the employer switch, it sent each of the three an order to appear in court. Fernando remembers that the Phil-Am attorney took them to INS offices several times to straighten out their visas and sign documents. But he didn't know what he was signing and didn't understand that he had been ordered to appear in court, and that the order constituted the beginning of deportation proceedings. "I was afraid, and I didn't know what to do. They said, 'Sign here,' and I just followed."
Fernando didn't even comprehend that he had a court date until the other two therapists told him that they were supposed to go before a judge. The immigration judge gave them voluntary departure in lieu of deportation. Those who are granted voluntary departure are allowed to re-enter the country, whereas deportees are barred from returning for five to 20 years.
They had four months to leave the country. Instead of going back to the Philippines, which was costly, Fernando and his colleagues went to Mexico. They received new visas at the U.S. consulate in Matamoros and re-entered the country on the same day. They now had valid visas that allowed them to work for Phil-Am.
Everything seemed to go well after that. Fernando met other Filipino nationals at his job. He wrote letters home to his mother, enclosing money. "Now I know what they mean by 'Thank Goodness It's Friday,' " he wrote in one. He had never worked so hard in his life.
But suddenly Phil-Am shut down at the end of 1992, leaving Fernando unemployed for several months. When he found a new employer in the medical center, he knew better than to start work immediately, which would get him into the same work-permit trouble with the INS. His new employer petitioned for a visa before Fernando started the job.
Fernando found this job more rewarding because he worked with seriously ill patients, patients who had faced life-and-death issues. Those kinds of patients appreciate the simple things in life, he says, like being able to take a bath by themselves.
"It has more meaning than helping someone who was well and got injured," he says, "and probably was not thankful for what you did."
Living halfway across the world from his family, Fernando felt like a tiny speck on an expansive planet. But sometimes the world can seem small too. At Phil-Am, Fernando met a woman who had attended the same university in Cavite. They also happened to live in the same apartment complex. And when Phil-Am shut its doors in 1992 and both of them were out of work, this woman's husband began pestering Fernando to attend Bible study with them. No thanks, Fernando would say. He was Catholic, his neighbors were Protestant, and it probably wouldn't work out. But one day his neighbor invited both Fernando and his pastor over. There in the neighbor's apartment, besieged by kind words, Fernando was cornered. He conceded.
To his surprise, Fernando found comfort and encouragement at the Saturday-morning Bible study classes, located in an Alief-area strip mall. "I was jobless and kind of confused, and I think every time we would share something from the Bible, it seemed like God was talking to me." He sat in one corner, and a young woman named Marie sat in another. Marie lived with a group of Filipino nurses, and one of her roommates had invited her to the classes. Fernando and Marie were both so shy that it would be months before they started talking to each other. Eventually they dated for three years. When asked what she saw in Fernando, Marie just giggles.
Marie grew up in Manila, the oldest of four children. Her father's chronic illness prevented him from working, and relatives had helped support the family. In college, she studied nursing because she knew it would earn her a good job in the United States -- while a nurse in the Philippines could make enough to support herself, Marie needed to support her whole family. In 1990, a year after she graduated, her visa was granted and she came over to work at Ben Taub. She worked there until recently, when she quit her job to stay home with her two young children. Her earnings helped put her younger siblings through school. By the time Marie met Fernando, she had applied for a green card. She is now applying for citizenship.
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