By Sue Henninger
Historically, America has been a country made up of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. The City of Ithaca and surrounding areas are reflective of this. Join Tompkins Weekly and “One of Us” each month as we learn more about who we are as a community.
“I’m an ‘accidental immigrant,’” said Elspeth Peterson, who was born and raised in County Down, Northern Ireland, with a smile. “Visiting was fine but I never pictured myself staying here [in the United States] permanently. But then I fell in love!”
After receiving her degree in social services from a Belfast college in1984, Peterson was having trouble finding a job, primarily due to Ireland’s high unemployment rate. When a friend approached her about applying to work at a summer camp in America, she jumped at the chance. She was sent to the Poconos in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, on a J-1 Visa where she met young people from all over the world – and her future husband!
Peterson returned to Ireland, where she obtained a position in a school for children with special needs. This allowed her to reapply to the American summer camp and resume both her friendships and her budding romance with Russell Peterson. After multiple flights back and forth between the two countries, the couple decided to get married. Because Russ had joined the military, moving out of the country was no longer an option and they began planning an Ithaca wedding.
This is where Peterson’s thus far positive experience with the immigration system began to change. A few weeks before the wedding, with all the plans in place, her immigration application “went missing.” She had to cancel the wedding, fly home, and restart the process. This took a significant amount of time.
“Russ had no more leave left, so we had to get married in California where he was stationed,” Peterson said.
This setback was only the beginning of the long, arduous process she had to go through to become a permanent resident of the United States. There were various requirements that had to be fulfilled, including an expensive private medical exam (a free exam from Ireland’s National Health Service wasn’t acceptable) to ensure that she didn’t have tuberculosis or any communicable diseases.
She also needed to find an American sponsor who could prove they had enough money to support her if she couldn’t find employment. The final step was an interview with Immigration. Though this was years ago, Peterson hasn’t forgotten a single detail or, perhaps more importantly, how the interview process made her feel.
“We had to go to the Los Angeles courtroom at 4 a.m. and there was already a line that wound all the way around the building, which was huge,” she recalled. “They gave us a number once we got to the door and we finally got called at 4 p.m.
“There was a hall with lines of windows and, just as we stepped up to one, the window slammed shut and a voice said ‘Sorry we’re closed. Come back tomorrow,’” Peterson added. “So, at 4 a.m. the next day we were back in line. This time we made it, just in the nick of time.”
For Peterson, it wasn’t just her personal experience that affected her, it was seeing all the families, often accompanied by young children or a lawyer, coming out of the courtroom, devastated because they had missed some detail, were denied, and would now have to start over again.
“It was a brutal process,” she declared. “I walked out of there telling Russ ‘After this, you’re not ever getting a divorce!’”
Peterson was granted Permanent Resident Alien status, a title that still amuses her three adult children. People often ask her why she hasn’t obtained her U.S. citizenship yet.
“My mother always said ‘Never forget where you came from’, she explained, adding that becoming a U.S. citizen would be like giving up a part of herself. However she has now lived in the U.S. for more years than in her homeland, and is starting to reconsider her position.
“Ireland is more of a distant memory,” she said. “I have my own family here now.”
Family isn’t the only thing that connects Peterson to Tompkins County. She works with adults with developmental disabilities, is involved in her church, and is a Red Cross instructor, certifying people for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid. She also believes that she has now gained enough understanding of how American democracy works to make an informed decision when she casts her vote.
Ireland is a country with a long history of large groups of people immigrating during certain time periods, particularly to America, Canada and Australia.
“Nearly every Irish family has someone in one of those countries,” said Peterson.
It’s important to recognize that most immigrants are complex people from different backgrounds, not simple stereotypes she said, and provided a recent example of an encounter she had in a local store.
Standing in line, she overheard a man talking about immigrants, asserting they were all collecting welfare and food stamps. The hard-working Peterson considered biting her tongue and letting it go but found she had to speak up.
“I said to him ‘I’m one of them. And I’m not eligible for food stamps and welfare,’” she said. “‘I could lose my immigrant status if I couldn’t support myself.’”
Taken aback, he responded that he didn’t mean “people like…” Peterson already knew that.
“I spoke up because I knew he said those things because he had no idea I was an immigrant,” she said. “And he had no concept of what people have to go through to live in America.”
She believes she made an impression on him because he approached her again in the parking lot, trying to explain his comments. But Peterson was having none of it.
She told him, “That’s right. You don’t know. Educate yourself. Inform yourself before you speak. Don’t make assumptions.”
She looked thoughtful recounting the experience.
“I think that, because the U.S. is so large, many people tend to stay within its boundaries rather than travel to other countries,” Peterson said. “By not having that experience or taking that opportunity they miss out.”