Long road to legal status for Peruvian immigrant
Lizbeth Polo-Smith has been waiting 15 years to receive an I-797 from the American government.
It arrived in the mail this week.
"Welcome to America," the Department of Homeland Security said in a letter. "This is to notify you that your application for permanent residence has been approved. It is with great pleasure that we welcome you to permanent resident status in the United States."
Her green card, which allows her to live and work permanently in the country, arrived days later.
A native of Chimbote, Peru, Polo-Smith emigrated in 2002 because she was unable to afford food or diapers for her children and saw no opportunity to help herself, or them, in her homeland.
She left her infant daughter, Angeelina, her toddler son, Franco, and her then 8-year-old, Manlio Miguel, with family members. She flew to Mexico and entered the U.S. through Laredo, Texas. She said she could hear immigration officers with dogs as she swam across the Rio Grande.
She applied for legal status unsuccessfully over the years, but kept hoping she would find a way. She told her children, "This is a country of laws, and laws must be followed."
Working with attorney Michael Doyle at the Immigration Advocacy & Support Center in New London, she learned a provision called Parole in Place enabled her to apply for legal permanent residency because her husband, Herman "Butch" Smith, had served in the U.S. Army. The application process cost her $7,000.
"She was able to get a green card because her husband is a veteran," Doyle said. "As a veteran, he has special character. He served his country. Basically what it does is it allows somebody who is married to a vet and is deriving the residency through a vet to apply. It's sort of like a pardon where she doesn't have to leave the country in order to complete the process."
Separated for years from the father of her children, she met Smith three years ago through one of his coworkers, who told her, "I know somebody who is looking for a good woman." She responded, "I'm looking for a good man." She agreed to go to dinner with Smith, and soon was meeting his family. They married in 2015.
This week, Polo-Smith posted on Facebook a photograph of the couple celebrating their second anniversary, and the arrival of her immigration acceptance letter, by clinking together two bottles of Budweiser's "America" beer.
Upon arriving in New London 15 years ago, she immediately found work cleaning houses and baking cookies and cakes for other members of the Peruvian community. She had finished high school but did not speak English. Six months after she arrived, she enrolled in adult education classes after attempting to use the internet at the public library to communicate with family in Peru and realizing she was unable to navigate the system in English.
"I got my diploma," she said. "I got many diplomas."
Learning the language is the first thing that people should do upon their arrival, she said, because otherwise they become isolated and possibly depressed. Talking with her employers while she cleaned their houses helped, and she made some longtime friends that way.
"Many people miss things because they don't learn English," she said.
Her two youngest children came to the United States with their father, who had legal status, six years after she arrived. They didn't remember her, but they went to counseling and restored their relationship. A year after that, the children came to live with Polo-Smith.
"I love America because my children grew up here and they love it," she said. "But what I love more is that when I got married, I said, 'Lizbeth, it's time to make your roots here. You're going to marry the whole community, the whole country.'"
Her older son stayed in Peru, and she did not see him again until September 2016, when he visited Miami on a Peruvian military vessel. Polo-Smith hasn't seen her mother, who is 80, in 15 years, though she was able to send her money to move from a shack into a decent apartment. Three years ago, one of her sisters died in Peru, and she was unable to travel to Peru to be with her family.
"Everything I went through made me strong," Polo-Smith said. "I'm not scared to be poor. In Peru, we got to share one apple in seven pieces. But now my children can have the whole apple."
Advocating for others
Polo-Smith has become an advocate for others in her situation, and in 2014 she lobbied for passage of a bill enabling undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses.
"I said, 'Please give us a chance to get our license. We're afraid to drive. We work in your houses. We mow your lawns. We drive our children to school. We cannot stay home and do nothing.'"
She had driven without a license for years out of necessity, she said, and was terrified when police pulled her over one day as she went to pick up her children at school. The officer allowed her to call somebody to pick up the car, and she and the children walked home.
Once the law passed, she held meetings to educate the community on the process of obtaining a license, along with insurance and registration. During an interview this week, she flipped through pictures on her iPad to find one that shows 500 people attending one of the informational sessions at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in New London.
Polo-Smith has been involved for years with Centro de la Communidad, a New London agency that provides education and employment services for members of the Latino community and others. In March, she worked with others at the agency to collect truckloads of food, water, clothing and supplies for Peruvians suffering in the aftermath of floods and mudslides. She is working on another humanitarian package for orphans in the country's mountains.
She volunteers at Hearing Youth Voices, a New London organization for young people. She works with Doyle to educate other undocumented immigrants on their rights and said she wants to raise money to help more of them apply for legal status.
"I need to learn a lot of things to become a better advocate," she said.
Though she is aware that the Trump administration is not seen as friendly to immigrants, Polo-Smith said she doesn't speak ill of him, since he is the president.
In December, she will travel back to Peru for the first time since 2002 to witness her oldest son's graduation from that country's naval academy, called the Marina Guerra del Peru. She said she would at long last visit with her mother, and that the family is organizing a church ceremony to mark the loss of her sister.
Polo-Smith plans to keep busy in her new homeland before and after the trip.
"The most important thing is, me and my husband want to give back all we've received," she said.
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