Ram Ling* is the first client I met when I came to JFON. He was a Burmese refugee who had fled from Burma to Malaysia in 2006, and was allowed to come to the United States as a refugee in 2007. When he left Burma, he had left behind a young wife, Ma Hup, with whom he was very much in love. But Ram did not understand the immigration laws of the United States. He did not realize that he could have applied to have his wife join him here immediately after his arrival. Instead, he thought that he needed to become a U.S. citizen before he could bring her to join him. So he dutifully waited five years, and then applied for his U.S. citizenship.
He then came to JFON to file a petition for his wife. Only then did he learn that he could have filed for her years ago! Discouraged, but determined, he filed a family-based petition for Ma. By then it was already 2013, and Ma had been forced to flee Burma as well. She was living a precarious and dangerous existence in Malaysia. Malaysia does not recognize the refugee status of Burmese, and she was, therefore, an undocumented immigrant in Malaysia, in constant danger of being arrested, beaten, abused, robbed, and deported. Ma was terrified of leaving her small apartment that she shared with several other Burmese families to go to the U.S. consulate for an interview for her visa through Ram.
But she did go – only to have the consulate refuse her the visa because she and Ram could not prove that they had a “bona fide” marriage. The Consulate wanted evidence that Ram and Ma shared a bank account, owned a home together, and had kept in regular touch with each other all these years. As Ram tried to explain to me, filled with frustration: “We lived in a tiny village in Burma. There was no bank, no mail service, and Ma had to walk for 24 hours to get to the nearest public telephone. She did that once a year, and we spoke once a year. We have no records of those phone calls because she was speaking from a public phone, and I was using a phone card. Life in Burma is nothing like life here!” Once Ma was in Malaysia, she and Ram did speak on the phone more frequently, but always using phone cards, so there was no record of their calls to show the consulate. Ram could not send money directly to Ma because she was undocumented in Malaysia and had no way of claiming any money transfers.
Never giving up, Ram and Ma managed to get 20 acquaintances to write letters attesting to their marriage and their ongoing relationship, and Ram scratched up whatever other evidence he could of money he had sent to Ma through friends, and phone calls he had made to her. After two tries, the consulate finally approved Ma’s visa to come to the United States.
But the problems weren’t over. Ma now had to obtain an exit visa from Malaysia. In order to do so, she had to work with the International Office of Migration in Kuala Lumpur, who gave her a temporary travel document, and even arranged for her to fly on a special flight filled with other Burmese refugees. After 9 years of separation, Ma arrived in Columbus Junction, Iowa, and was reunited with Ram.
They continue to grapple with the U.S. immigration bureaucracy. Although Ma is finally here, she is still struggling to get a document that shows that she is legally present in the United States. This is because she doesn’t have a passport (the Burmese government’s passports are not recognized by the U.S.), and yet she is not technically a refugee (because she came as Ram’s wife, rather than as under refugee status). I continue to help Ma and Ram, and hope to have the documents she needs soon. At the end of our most recent meeting, I expressed my regret that the U.S. government was not organized enough to get her the document she needs yet. She smiled a huge smile, put her hand in Ram’s hand and said, “Don’t worry. Everything is fine! I am just happy to be with him,” leaning her head on Ram’s shoulder.
*All names have been changed to protect confidentiality.