Corina Turcinovic was deported back to France in 2008 after 18 years of residence in the U.S. When she came to the country, she had no intention of staying for longer than her 90-day visa waiver stipulated. Her Croatian fiancÃ©, a musician who had come to the United States to play a concert, had gotten hit by a car and become paralyzed. Turcinovic made the trip to care for him, and ended up staying because he could not make the journey back to Europe.
Years later, he was finally authorized to stay as a legal resident and apply for citizenship. â€œThe problem was that he could not go to the immigration office to give his fingerprints because he could not move,â€ said Turcinovic, â€œThe process was never ending.â€
In the meantime, Turcinovic built a new life for herself in the States. Temporarily possessing legal status for her role as caregiver, she came to make friends and get work. Fourteen years after the accident, her husband died. Because her husband had never received citizenship, Turcinovic was now living in the country illegally. When she was discovered four years later, immigration officials deported her, barring her from returning to the country for at least ten years.
â€œI donâ€™t feel like I have done anything to deserve being punished so harshly,â€ said Turcinovic.
While the label of an illegal immigrant commonly conjures a picture of someone climbing a border fence or getting smuggled in the back of a truck, about 45 percent of the 12 million people in the country illegally, entered on a visa of some sort and overstayed its time limit according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research organization out of Washington DC. Most of these people come from countries that do not share a border with the US, and come on a B-2 visitor visa, which allows entry for people coming for tourism, business conferences, or medical treatment. These visas are generally issued for a default period of 30 days and rarely extended for more than six months. â€œOverstays,â€ as they are called, might also have come on student or work visas, or have applied for a 90-day visa waiver for people from a select group of countries who can bypass the normal non-immigrant visa process.
â€œI see these cases all the time. Maybe like two, three four times in a given day,â€ said Lakshmi Lakshmanan, an immigration attorney who works for the Indo-American Center in Chicago. â€œThey are continuing to keep up with their lives here, but itâ€™s something that theyâ€™re always thinking about. It affects their ability to get certain jobs or to be reunited with their families, so itâ€™s a very prevalent type of case.â€
While they may feel restricted in certain aspects of their daily lives, in general, people who have overstayed a visa do not identify as much with the feeling of being illegal. Corrine, a 23 year-old French woman, came to Chicago as an au-pair, planning to apply for a student visa, but she let her original visa expire, and stayed in the country for four months illegally.
â€œI never thought of myself as illegal, because I knew my situation was temporary, and my life was no different when I had a visa from when I didnâ€™t,â€ said Corrine. â€œWhen youâ€™re French, thereâ€™s less suspicion that youâ€™re here illegally. I just didnâ€™t travel anywhere, and I was fine.â€
Many visa holders, particularly students who have had more time in the US, fall into the trap of feeling no less secure after their visaâ€™s expiration because they do not feel afraid that immigration officials are out to get them. The inability to travel is the most restrictive aspect of the experience. Corrine said that she would have liked to go back home for the holidays, but knew that as long as she stayed in Chicago, she would not get found out. Unfortunately, this sense of security can ultimately impede their ability to stay in the country or return to it once they have been deported.
â€œOnce your legal visa has expired, itâ€™s very difficult to regain legal status,â€ said Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. â€œGenerally you have to leave the country and reapply. But the problem is that once you have overstayed, the immigration service will look pretty askance at a new application, even if you have a job offer or admission into a school.â€
ChloÃ© a university student in the Chicago area is graduating this year after being in the country for four years. She says that she would rather not go home to France after graduation, but she is aware of the consequences for overstaying, and is having a hard time finding a job for which she might be able to apply for a work visa.
â€œI always joke with my friends that I need to find some random American guy to marry so that I can become a citizen,â€ said ChloÃ©, â€œI feel that I am more motivated than millions of Americans to stay here. I love this country and am perfectly bilingual. I donâ€™t understand why it is so difficult.â€
Using marriage to get a green card is a common tactic that can be a risky and disastrous route to take. But there are some who have found in this method a happy ending and a solution to their visa problem. Tsao told the story of a young Latina who had come to Chicago with her family as a child. The entire family overstayed their visas, the parents finding jobs and putting their children through school. The girl was able to excel in high school and college, even getting recognized by the Archdiocese of Chicago. In college she met an American student whom she eventually married, and through him was able to get her green card.
Some immigrants are able to find a legal channel to remaining in the country after their visa has expired. A city of vast resources, Chicago has a number of immigration law firms that are constantly handling various versions of the visa overstay case. Still, the American system has become increasingly rigid.
â€œThere are a couple of processes that the law offers, but you have to be eligible. If you donâ€™t fit into one of these set categories, youâ€™re stuck,â€ said Lakshmanan.
While a person who has overstayed a visa may have an easier experience living in the United States illegally than someone who entered the country illegally, it is still very difficult for them to navigate through a legal process to remain in the communities that they have come to call home.
All too often, immigrants who have established their lives in the US find themselves like Turcinivic: without a legal way of remaining in the country. â€œI spent 14 years hoping that my husband would become a citizen, and then I could too,â€ she said. â€œI just wish there could have been a way. My whole life was there.â€