'Green Card Stories' offers compelling interviews of 50 immigrants

Published Feb. 18, 2012


"There are no neat bows on these stories," Saundra Amrhein says.

Amrhein relates the journeys of 50 immigrants who came to the United States from all over the world in her new book, Green Card Stories.

With portraits of the subjects by photographer Ariana Lindquist and an introduction by immigration lawyers Laura Danielson and Stephen Yale-Loehr, who spearheaded the project, Green Card Stories looks not at the politics of immigration but at the people, at individuals — all of whom now have permanent U.S. residence or citizenship — whose experiences are both personal and part of the much larger history of an immigrant nation.

The people whose lives are described in the book have come here from five continents. They are business owners and artists, doctors and carpenters, an Army nurse, a law school librarian, a backup dancer for Gwen Stefani and Janet Jackson, a Buddhist monk. Some are millionaires, and one is a billionaire, Yahoo! co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang.

Amrhein wrote their stories after extensive interviews with each of them. For a decade, she was a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, covering various beats but always "carving out time" for immigration stories. In 2009 she left the Times to pursue a master's degree in Latin American studies at the University of South Florida; she is now working on her thesis.

At a cafe north of downtown Tampa last week, Amrhein talked about working on Green Card Stories and about her personal connection to the book.

The 50 immigrants in Green Card Stories are a very diverse group in every way. How did you and your partners in creating the book choose them?

Stephen and Laura, because they're immigration lawyers, wanted to focus on showing the different paths to getting that green card. Ariana and I were both interested in mirroring the larger immigration trends today. More immigrants are coming from Latin America and Asia, some from Africa, less from Europe than in the last great wave of immigration in the last century. There are more immigrants of color, and more women. There is more migration to the Midwest and the Deep South.

And of course we were looking for compelling human stories, the ones that were powerful on an individual level as well as reflecting those trends.

Were there any surprising themes that ran through the stories?

Two things surprised me. One was how huge a theme education became, the enormous role it played. Some of them came from poor or working-class families but did well in school. Some of them were concerned about the rising cost of education and how that would make it difficult for the immigrants coming along behind them, like Francis Price, a self-made millionaire who has personally put several other immigrants through school.

In other cases, it was the gap between the quality of education here between primary/secondary school and higher education. Those who came here as young kids were shocked to find they were one or two years ahead of American kids in school. But those who came for college say the reputation this country has for university education and research is the best, bar none.

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It taught me something about this country. If we cannot produce our children ready for college, we'll need to fill those research positions somehow.

The other surprise was that despite what everyone had gone through, they all had such a deep appreciation for this country. It was very moving. I did six, seven, eight hours of interviews with them and saw no bitterness or anger. Not that they had an uncritical eye. But they would say, "You don't understand the systems we come from. Even when it breaks down, this is an amazing system."

One of the stories you tell in the book is that of your husband, Cesar Domico, a professional magician who left Colombia after death threats and a kidnapping. What was it like to write about his story?

After living with him all these years, it was certainly the most intimate look at the process, short of going through it yourself. I watched him go through the emotional transformations as well as the legal process, saw him missing Colombia so much and missing his family so much.

When he finally got to go back for a two-week visit, for the first time in seven years, he had this lost look on his face. He said, "I don't belong here anymore. I want to go back to Brandon." Having your feet in two worlds is part of the process.

But he's been able to reinvent himself here. He's a real entrepreneur. People ask, "Did your wife get you your green card?" No, he got his green card himself.

I had covered naturalization ceremonies before as a reporter, but with him, it was so moving. He was so proud.

I rarely see him cry. He's a comedian. But there was this moment when he was holding the flag, and he clutched it to his chest. Sometimes the American dream can seem like just a cliche, but when someone who is such a big part of your life finds it, it adds some depth.