JFON New York reunites sisters after a 22-year separation
He was a hard-working man in a country where hard work is not always rewarded. He was a devout man among the Christian minority in Hyderabad, India; a lay minister in the Methodist Church, who loved to preach and loved to sing. He was a man who always wanted to do the right thing.
But ask anyone who knew this man to identify the defining purpose of his life and the answer would always be the same: love for his daughters. He had five of them; they were the joy of his life, but also his worry. How would he adequately provide for them? What kind of future would they have? Where was the opportunity for them?
So when Mark had a chance to immigrate to the United States, and to bring his family with him, he took it. This had been his dream for a very long time. He was determined that his daughters would start new and better lives in America.
All except one. Tiara, the eldest, was 21 years of age and recently married. No longer a dependent, she was not allowed to accompany her father. She and her husband would need to stay in India until Mark could find a way to bring them over.
It was a heart-wrenching decision. They were a close and loving family. They knew it would take more than a decade to bring Tiara to them. The sisters had never been separated. How would they bear so many years apart?
“It was difficult to be left behind,” admits Tiara quietly. “But I understood why.”
It was for the good of the family, and the family is everything.
In 2001, after some years living in the United States, Mark—a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR or Green Card holder) who was on his way to citizenship—petitioned the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to bring Tiara and her husband over to join the family. He assumed he was doing the right thing, that as a Green Card holder he had a right to petition for Tiara.
He was wrong.
“My father didn’t do his homework,” admits Josephine, the second eldest daughter. “He should have asked somebody, but he didn’t have anyone to advise him. He didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that.”
USCIS never informed Mark of his mistake. He became a citizen in 2002, still waiting to hear when his eldest daughter would be joining them. In 2006, they were finally informed that Mark’s original petition as an LPR was invalid. Now they would have to start all over again.
For a U.S. citizen parent to bring over a married child from India the waiting time is 12 years. If Mark had waited and submitted the petition when he became a U.S. citizen, the family would have been together by 2014. Now the earliest they would see her would be 2018.
By his mistake, Mark had cost his daughter Tiara and their entire family four years. Four years when they could have been together.
“He carried this guilt until his deathbed,” remembers Josephine. “For 22 years, he lived with regret for leaving her behind. He wasn’t able to give her the advantages the rest of his daughters had. And then, to know we had lost all those precious years…” She shakes her head. “It was a terrible blow.”
Their father died in 2015. It was a shock to everyone. He had been ill, yes, but it hadn’t seemed that serious. Always protecting the ones he loved, Mark had hid his illness well from his daughters.
“The last time I saw him,” recalls Josephine, her voice quavering, “he made me promise: ‘If anything happens to me,’ he told me, ‘you have to continue. You have to bring your sister here.’”
“I honestly feel like I reassured him,” she adds. “He trusted me. He had faith that I would get this job done. I was not going to fail him.”
Although Josephine willingly shouldered this burden from her beloved father, the obstacles preventing her from carrying out his last wishes remained immense. A family petition dies with the petitioner. Josephine would have to submit her own petition and as she was only a sibling, the wait would be another 14 years. The year would be 2029. The sisters would be middle-aged women, their own children grown, before they would be finally reunited.
Josephine was at a loss as to where to turn and what to do. A friend from church told her about JFON New York and site attorney TJ Mills.
TJ advised Josephine to apply for a humanitarian exemption, so that Tiara, her husband and child, would be moved to the front of the line. “It was going to be difficult,” TJ acknowledges. “Tiara’s life was not in any danger and she was not suffering undue hardship—unless we could convince the USCIS that a family’s separation of 22 years is an undue hardship.”
“What we had on our side,” TJ adds, “is that family unity is fundamental to U.S. immigration policy.” He began gathering affidavits; a local congressman became involved; and TJ carefully laid out the case for a timely family reunification.
They won, and Tiara, her husband, and child will shortly be moving to the United States.
“Honestly, I feel like USCIS probably felt remorse,” says Josephine. “My guess is that they felt somewhat responsible for the delay. If they had only informed us of my father’s mistake…” She stops, her voice quavering again with unshed tears. “And perhaps,” she finishes quietly, “they also recognized that we all had been apart long enough.”
It was a miracle late in coming, but it was still a miracle. “I give the glory to God,” Josephine says gratefully, “but also to TJ.”
Josephine and her sisters are busily making preparations for the day when they are finally reunited. There will be a joyous celebration, of course, with many thankful prayers. “And then,” says Josephine, “we will all go to visit our father’s grave and spend some time with him.”
Together the five daughters will remember the father who loved them and wanted to give them the world. A father who nurtured trees under whose shade he will never sit and who planted seeds for a garden he will never see bloom.
“He is,” says Tiara simply, “still in the midst of us.”