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Oscar Castaneda’s story is an American story, that of a bright immigrant seeking better opportunities for himself and his family. He found it in the United States, and in East Lansing, but the narrative of success and opportunity has taken an unexpected and negative turn that threatens to undo all that he and his family have achieved.
It all started 21 years ago when Oscar Castaneda was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to attend SUNY Buffalo from his native country of Guatemala. The timeline was remarkably short – a matter of days – to get his visa and passports and airline tickets for himself, his wife, and two young daughters. He received what is known as a J-1 visa, which stipulates two years of service in a recipient’s home country following his or her education in the United States. In an age before email, texting, and the internet, Castaneda navigated the U.S. immigration system to the best of his ability.
Castaneda completed his studies in New York and returned to Guatemala to renew his visa - the new one absolving him of his two-year obligation. He received and accepted job offers first in California, and later at Michigan State University, each time submitting the necessary documentation to be able to work.
In 2010, after more than a decade as a Geographic Information Systems (“GIS”) specialist at MSU and resident of East Lansing, the foundation upon which Castaneda’s life and career had been built began to crumble. The visa he used to work at MSU had expired. He applied for a green card and was approved, pending documentation supporting fulfillment of his two-year J-1 visa obligation in Guatemala. Unable to provide documentation, Castaneda’s green card approval was rescinded, to his surprise and dismay.
“The second visa does not supersede the first”, he explains, in reference to the visa he received upon returning to Guatemala.
Castaneda applied for a waiver, citing a letter he received from the Guatemalan government indicating they do not insist on his return. The idea behind the two-year obligation, he explains, is that newly educated Fulbright scholars return to their home country to work to that country’s benefit. Castaneda believes that the Guatemalan government feels that he can better serve their people from afar; in 2010 he had all but finalized a $500,000 grant that would have directly benefited Guatemalans. He didn’t complete the process, fearing he would not be able to return to the United States if he left for Guatemala to finalize the paperwork. Nevertheless, his waiver was denied.
With green card approval revoked and waiver appeal in progress, Castaneda pursued other avenues to maintain his legal working status. He found he could apply for an O-1 Visa, reserved for individuals with extraordinary abilities, such as his specialty in GIS, but which required frequent renewals. Renewing each visa caused gaps in coverage from one period of coverage to the next and strained his relationship with MSU. Eventually his O-1 visa was denied, and he lost his position at MSU.
Castaneda and his family currently occupy a “no man’s land” in the immigration world. His green card appeal is pending, so he remains, as before, a legal resident of the United States, but unable to work. He faces no immediate threat of deportation, except, as he calls it, “deportation by attrition.” He has lost his home in the Bailey Neighborhood, and is living off of savings. Until his case is settled, or until his financial and emotional resources are exhausted, he remains in a vacuum.
At stake is not just Castaneda’s future, but the futures of his wife and young daughters, whose U.S. statuses are tied to his. He explains that it is not as simple as returning to Guatemala for two years, as doing so would almost guarantee a difficult reentry into the United States. Castaneda and his lawyer believe his record would be stained by his current predicament, and both of his daughters are over 21 and thus ineligible to travel and work on any new visa their father might receive.
Castaneda’s appeal process has taken nearly two years. Immigration information is more accessible today than it was when his immigration story began in the mid-1990s, but numerous challenges remain. “It is a headless entity”, he says of the immigration authorities. “You cannot talk to anyone.” He can check his status online, but can find little information beyond that. No reasons have been given or can be found that give insight into how his case has unfolded.
On the advice of his attorney, Castaneda has attempted to put pressure on his elected representatives This effort has been aided, in large part, by a Change.org petition created to galvanize the community around his cause.
He reports that, with over 5,000 signatures, and over 5,000 emails to Senators Carl Levin, Debbie Stabenow, and Mike Rogers, the petition is working. It has also garnered the attention of the Lansing State Journal, mlive, and other media outlets, and Senator Rogers’ office has voiced support. Castaneda has been in touch with a lawyer in the Office of New Americans, a body created earlier this year by Governor Rick Snyder with the goal of attracting and keeping immigrants like Castaneda who have specialized skills, and whose talents have attracted the likes of Google and other high-tech organizations.
Castaneda has never had any desire to leave, saying simply but emphatically, “Because I like East Lansing.”
UPDATE: On January 11, Castaneda's specialty was corrected in the fourth paragraph.
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