'Green Card Stories' of struggle, success

Cesar Domico, a magician from Colombia, is one of 50 immigrants profiled in “Green Card Stories.”

Editor's note: See more images from "Green Card Stories" and an interview with photographer Ariana Lindquist at CNN Photos.

By Stephanie Siek, CNN
(CNN) – It fits in the palm of one’s hand, but the possibilities ahead of it and the stories behind it are innumerable and diverse. It is a U.S. permanent residence card, more popularly known as a Green Card, and it confers upon the holder the right to live and work in the United States for as long as they wish, usually renewable every ten years.
"Green Card Stories," with writing by Saundra Amrhein and photography by Ariana Lindquist, delves into the life stories behind those cards. The individuals profiled reflect the incredible diversity of the United States. They come from Japan, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Great Britain, Vietnam, Egypt, Russia and a host of other nations. They come as students, laborers, entrepreneurs, refugees, doctors and artists. Some entered the country legally, others illegally; some through an employer, others through a spouse or relative; some in a drawn-out process studded with hardships, others relatively quickly. Many have gone on to become citizens, and for each, gaining the green card marked a monumental change in their life.
    The idea for the book was conceived by two immigration lawyers, Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, as a way to share the incredible stories of faith, hope and struggle that they witnessed in their clients. It was also to serve as a counterpoint to an increasingly acrimonious debate about immigration in the United States, "showing how richly nuanced a society we have become through immigration," Danielson and Yale-Loehr write in the book’s introduction.
    Those nuances are especially close to the heart of Amrhein, who covered immigration as a journalist for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.  She became involved with the project in October 2010, and spent months traveling around the country with Lindquist and collecting the stories of dozens of immigrants, 50 of which made it into the final book.
    One of them is that of her husband, Cesar Domico, a magician whose fundraising work for victims of the insurgency in Colombia earned him death threats, and eventually status as a political asylee in the United States. He gained his Green Card in 2006 and became a citizen in 2009.
    "Short of going through this oneself, I think the closest you can come to experiencing this journey is by being a loved one, family member or spouse of someone in the middle of this process," Amrhein said. "You see on a very intimate level the impact of the complex legal process, the emotional highs and lows – the strain of the holidays and aching for one’s family when you can’t go back to your birth country – and then the disoriented feeling when you actually can, and discover during that long-awaited visit that you don’t belong there anymore. I saw that all play out for Cesar."
    CNN: How did you select the people you profiled?
    Saundra Amrhein: Laura (Danielson) and Stephen (Yale-Loehr) found a lot of people through their immigration colleagues. Ariana and I reached out to journalist colleagues. I found a lot of people in Florida. We also found people from newspaper articles and magazine articles and places like that. It was a matter of creating a huge spreadsheet of people willing to talk about their life stories. Ariana and I traveled around the country, and I wrote their stories and Ariana photographed them.
    We wanted to focus on a couple things: one was how moving and powerful a lot of immigration stories are. The whole thing they go through with leaving their countries, starting over here, and of course the ways they reinvent themselves and what they do with their lives.  But we also wanted to have their stories reflect a lot of the trends, a lot of the things going on in immigration today. So we included a lot of people from Latin America, some people from Asia, some people from Africa, and then a lesser number of people from Europe.
    You also see the impact of separation of parents from their children in deportation, the type of people who could potentially benefit from the DREAM Act, for example; people who have been in detention – there has been a greater trend of people who ask for asylum being put in detention. And then you see a lot of highly skilled people, and their struggle in getting their visa or converting their schooling visa to a work visa.
    CNN: Were most of the people you profiled willing to talk about their stories, or did it take some coaxing?
    Amrhein: Most of them were pretty willing.  I think they were eager to give an experience of what this was like, and share it with the public. The sense I got from all of them is that there’s distortion about them out there – that they're a drain on society. There's so much negativity around the subject of immigration. They feel caught up in this, and feel very personally about this negative narrative in the larger public about immigrants. A lot of them are very eager to show what goes into coming to this country and how they give back to this country. And all of these people, from doctors to machinists to business people, all are contributing in their way. They didn't want to get pulled into something political, but they did want to have a more authentic or more representative part of the immigration experience portrayed.
    There was one person who backed out right as we were about to do the interview, because the immigration experience she had been through years ago was too hard for her to relive. Now she's a citizen, she has a family, she has a great job, but to have to relive the separation from her family, the emotion, the pain, just made her too upset and she had to withdraw.
    Several other people - there were emotional moments for other people in reliving this. Other people told us that this was a life-changing experience for them, because they were moving and moving on in their lives, but this gave them the opportunity to reflect on the experience. It was a pretty emotional experience for a few of them to relive all they’ve been through and reflect on it all.
    CNN: So many of the people you interviewed went through immense sacrifices to get to the United States – some were fleeing war and persecution, others left behind successful businesses, they left behind loved ones; many worked multiple jobs and lived a barebones existence until they got on their feet. What does that say about America, that people are still willing to give up so much to come here? What does that say about the immigrants?
    Amrhein: I think it says two things. About the immigrants themselves, it requires a phenomenal amount of resilience to come here and go through what they go through. Whether they’re coming from poverty, or come from their countries as professionals and had to start cleaning floors when they got here. They have such a tenacity and strength, you find that not only has that strength enabled them to become really productive people, but that has also led them to pursue what they love in life. I came from these interviews feeling such inspiration. For the most part, they are not just making it here but doing what they love in life. I think what got them here and got them through the initial hardships was to know that eventually they could do what they love.
    I think it says something that they have found what they want to do in life in this system, and they come with such a deep belief in and loyalty to this country. You hear about it and it becomes sort of a cliché, but it was really real for them. Particularly people who went through difficulty with the immigration service and their case went on for years.  I would ask them how they could not be bitter about that. And they said, "You don’t understand – even when the system breaks down or doesn’t work, it’s still an amazing system."  Some of them who had to leave their country through civil strife or conflict or war found that despite those initial troubles here, they found it easier to make it here than they did in their home countries.  I’m thinking of Yi Kai, the painter from China, and the man from Kenya [Charles Nyaga] who is getting his masters in divinity, who went $40,000 in debt [as he tried to fight a deportation order stemming from officials' failure to process his diversity lottery green card application in time].
    They're in a unique position to sort of analyze the changes in this country and see how it might impact these immigrants coming behind them and how that impacts them.  And for native-born Americans, for that matter.
    CNN: The people in your book got their green cards in so many different ways – by marriage, by adoption, through entrepreneurship, through sponsorship by an employer or through the sponsorship of a relative. I was struck, though, by how many people who came through family reunification ended up starting businesses or pursuing higher education. But there’s been some immigration policy critics who have suggested that family reunification should be restricted in favor of providing more visas for highly skilled immigrants.
    Amrhein: I think there are many people in this book who came over, and they may not have had high school or college-level education, but once they got here, they also contributed in many useful ways. Like Hugo Ortega from Mexico, who now runs one of the best restaurants in Houston which is a favorite of former President George W. Bush's father. And people like Maria Parga, who came to  the Midwest and started up a family business, and went from a small shop to a mini-market, and she employs several people. Not only are they starting up businesses and employing people, but they are sending their children to college.  Part of the immigrant story for so long has been that your children will grow up and go to college.  I think that all immigrants at all levels are contributing something.  Putting their own kids through college as well as employing other people.
    CNN: Was it difficult to sum up these complex, full lives into the space that would fit on the page?
    Amrhein: That was my greatest challenge – getting all these stories into 1,000 words each. My favorite part was meeting all these people and hearing their stories, but most difficult was squeezing it into 1,000 words.
    Entire lives hang on some of these legal decisions. And it’s important to remember in this national debate about policy and legal questions that there are real people who these things impact.
    CNN: What do you hope people learn from "Green Card Stories?"
      Amrhein: I hope they come away leaving behind any stereotypes or any sort of entrenched opinions that they thought they had about immigrants. I hope they come away feeling more empathetic and more admiration not only from what they go through, but what they contribute to this country. These are not cherry-picked stories, but they reflect the lives of many immigrants.  The introduction shows the statistics – number of patent holders that are immigrants , startup creators that are immigrant. You see the success played out across the country.  Their stories breathe life into those statistics.
      There was a member of the team whose cousin is very anti-immigrant, and when she told him about one of the stories in the book, I think about Hayder [Abdulwahab, an Iraqi immigrant who had worked as a bodyguard for an American official and was then injured in a car bomb and partially blinded] – when she got done telling him that story, there were tears in his eyes. It's not that I want people to cry, but I hope people come away with a greater understanding of the immigration experience, and the immense talent and resourcefulness that immigrants bring.