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Immigration: Terminology of Life-Building in the U.S.

Selene Lacayo details her experience as a Mexican immigrant to the U.S. in the footnotes of immigration terminology definitions.

Photo by Julia Craice

Citizen: a legally recognized national[1] of a state or commonwealth.

Alien: *unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful. Similar: foreign, strange, bizarre, exotic, incompatible with, antagonistic to, unacceptable to[2]


F Student Visa[4]: permit to study at an accredited U.S. college/university.

H-1B Visa[5]: work-authorization limited to employment by the sponsoring employer.

Advance Parole (while your Green Card arrives): paper which allows you to travel back to the United States without applying for a visa.[6]

Permanent Residency Card (Green Card[7]): Allows you to live and work [8]permanently in the U.S.

Naturalization: Five years after you have held an Employment-Based Green Card, you are eligible to apply to become a U.S. citizen[9]. Aside from filling out the application, the legal alien must pass the naturalization test and take the oath of loyalty to the U.S.[10]

[1] I was born in Mexico, always felt belonging. Never self-conscious about my skin or my roots when entering a room. [2] I hated that label—alien— stuck to my forehead upon my landing in the U.S. “Your looks are so exotic.” “Your accent is unusual for a Hispanic,” people would say. I felt belittled. [3] How my classmates saw me freshman year. I was from another world in which being a foreigner is an easy conversation-starter, not a repellant from everyone around you (as being an international student in the U.S. proved to be). [4] Permit obtained for me to get a B.A. in the U.S. My roommates showed me the letter they received letting them know an alien would share housing with them. “Congratulations, you will be rooming with an international student… their English is good… they have been tested and can communicate clearly.” BOOM! In just a summer I went from confident Mexican teen, to nervous international student in the U.S., to alien that needs to show her TOEFL scores to add validity to conversations. [5] There is a limit on how many people can get a work visa every year. An alien has to be lucky to a) have an employer sponsor them, and b) get picked in the lottery. I got VERY lucky. I became less of an alien and more of a foreigner (improvement) who “took” a job from a U.S. born (not an improvement). [6] Use only in case of an emergency. It doesn’t guarantee you will be allowed to reenter the country. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will make the final decision (mainly based on their mood). In 2007 when returning with work visas and advance paroles from our wedding in Mexico, a CBP at Houston’s airport separated my husband and I. No explanations given, no contact between us allowed. I was free to go, he was taken to “the back room.” I waited three hours by baggage claim before I saw my pale husband. After a while someone handed him his paperwork and let him go. [7] Our odds of getting an employer to sponsor us were better for my husband because he worked in the technology sector where it’s easier to justify the sponsorship of someone’s Green Card over hiring a U.S. born person. I came with the package because of our marriage certificate. Though with a stubborn accent, our English transitioned from foreign to our love language, in the same way that the U.S. became less of a place to obtain an education and more of our place in common upon which to build our lives together. [8] With the possibility of travel outside of the U.S. without an immigration officer preventing us from reentering the country in which we lived and worked, and parented, and loved, and adapted, and made community, we finally went to Lebanon so that my husband could reunite with his mother after 11 years, and so that he could fuse both his past and his present into one life. [9] The molding of my current personality that began upon my arrival as an international student, had shaped me into a person who had found belonging in her identity as a Latina in the U.S. I planned, worked, and mothered as a bicultural American. At some point, I felt that I too had a voice in my community, becoming a citizen was the next necessary step to honor the life I had forged here. [10] I took the oath of citizenship with pride. Officially as an immigrant and citizen, and while holding my eldest daughter’s hand, I felt moved to sing as the judge played God Bless America.


Originally from Mexico, Selene Lacayo is a writer and translator living with her husband and three children in The Greater Philadelphia Area. She was the 2018 Judge's Choice Runner-Up for the Write Michigan Short Story Contest. Her essays have been published by InCulture Magazine, Americans Resisting Overseas, and the COVID-19 Community Stories of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Her short story Amalgam forms part of The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia of 2021. She is currently working on a memoir centered around the themes of belonging, identity and motherhood.

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