Edhilvia Campos Velasquez’s hand gestures moved to the pacing of her sentences, matching up with each syllable as if they were taking part in a dance. “The analogy I can give you is that I felt that they literally took a tree with its roots, its very deep roots…” her hand began to curl inward like a claw, trying to mimic the form of a tree’s roots. “And then just took it away like nothing,” she said, swiftly pulling her hand up from the table.
In a space filled with the churning sound of coffee machines and the murmurs of nearby conversations, her voice was the loudest.
Velasquez, 38, left the U.S. after her last visa expired and was forced to go back to Venezuela, her country of birth. Now, she is living in Canada with her mother — but her future in Canada is far from certain.
Velasquez slightly narrowed her gaze, making the dusting of glittery eye shadow on the inner part of her eyes more pronounced.“I’m not the smartest person in the room, but I work really hard,” she said. “It’s very unjust, because I have the same education that maybe another American has and I don’t feel like I’m taking advantage of anything.”
During her time in the U.S., Velasquez was on a work visa that was valid for three years and then could be renewed for another three years after that. However, she was unable to find an employer to sponsor her green card, and couldn’t obtain permanent residency status.
The waiting process to receive a green card is long and the overall number of employment-based green cards issued in the United States is limited to 140,000 per year. This work visa scheme has been heavily criticized for being inefficient towards both foreign workers and American citizens.
In Velasquez’s case, she struggled to find a job to sponsor her green card and was left with no other options but to leave the U.S. At an early age, Velasquez came face to face with the reality of visa restrictions and immigration laws. She thinks the immigration system viewed her as more of an object or a number rather than as an actual person. The immigration systems of developed nations and their unjust nature has led Velasquez to believe she doesn’t belong anywhere — like she has no roots, no real home.
In 1996, 16-year-old Velasquez entered the U.S. on a tourist visa from Venezuela. She wanted a life in a country with more opportunities for herself. On her own, she established a life in Champaign, Ill. for 19 years. From 1996 to 2001, she had three student visas. She received the first visa when she was studying English, and the other two when she started studying microbiology at Parkland College and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She worked for a DNA sequencing lab within the university called the Keck Centre for Comparative Genomics, but this employer couldn’t sponsor her green card. Finding another job was an even greater challenge, since employers are required to prove to the Department of Labor that no U.S. citizens are available to do the same work as their green card candidate.
Velasquez had been on the work visa for five and a half years; if she failed to gain permanent residency by the end of six years, she would have to leave the U.S. for one year in order to re-apply for the work visa and have another shot at acquiring permanent residency.
Desperate to stay in the U.S., Velasquez gave up her work visa and applied for another student visa, only this time for a master’s degree in molecular biology and biotechnology. She admits this was a step backwards, since a student visa can’t provide green card status. However, this was Velasquez’s last resort — the student visa was the only option that allowed her stay in the U.S.
This grueling process has left Velasquez questioning her self-worth; she says she feels as if her years of working, studying and being away from her family have been wasted. “I’m 38. I don’t have a family, I don’t have kids, I’m not even married — I’m married to my career. I have spent 19 years studying, working, and for what?” she said, her eyes glossy with tears. “It made me feel that way — like I’m not good enough. That’s something I still struggle with. I’m pissed at the whole system.”
In February 2015, Velasquez had no other option but to return to Venezuela.
Venezuela was not the same place she had left when she was a teenager. Former left-wing presidential candidate Leopoldo Lopez had been incarcerated the previous year, and violent street protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s government have resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.
In addition, Velasquez’s transition from the privileges to which she had grown accustomed to in the United States made her return to Venezuela even more challenging. Venezuela sits on the largest oil reserve in the world, but oil prices have plummeted globally and have therefore left the government with less money to purchase foreign goods. Food shortages have led to what Venezuelans call the “Maduro diet” — for the year and a half she was back in Venezuela, Velasquez primarily lived off of dry cereal and sandwiches. She lost 30 pounds.
“One day I was in line for seven hours, under the sun with no bathroom, and people are fighting one another too,” she said. “People around kept saying they hoped [the food they were waiting for] was a ‘combo.’ That was a big word around there. A combo, like chicken and pasta, but no, the only thing they brought that day was shampoo and razors.”
And that’s if they even brought anything, she explained. Sometimes she would wait in line only to have nothing come. The Venezuelan government also started rationing electricity, and occasionally Velasquez was forced to go full days without it. Despite living in a rather safe neighborhood, the street violence in the country made her feel afraid if she was walking alone.
“Some people even get killed in line waiting for food. People steal cars,” she said. “I never witnessed that, but a friend of mine did.”
Velasquez described her time in Venezuela as the darkest time of her life. “I tried living there, I really did. I can’t. There is no quality of life. It doesn’t exist.”
On Dec. 11, 2016, Velasquez left Venezuela. Her mother is a Canadian citizen, and after a months-long application process she was able to apply and bring her daughter to Canada. Velasquez is currently residing in Toronto on a student visa that expires in July.
Arne Kislenko, a history professor at Ryerson University and former senior officer with Canadian Immigration at Pearson International Airport, agreed the immigration system is not always fair in cases like Velasquez’s. However, he argued visa restrictions are necessary for countries to protect themselves, maintain credible systems of security and exercise some control over the processes in place.
“One needs to be realistic about how enormous, complex systems work,” Kislenko said. “They are designed to try and make sure there is not an open flow of persons from everywhere all the time. They are of course discriminatory, but all immigration anywhere is,” he added.
In hindsight, Velasquez admits she made mistakes. She was young, uninformed and alone without her parents. Her mother, Xiomara Velasquez, now lives in North York, Ont. and is thankful to have her daughter back with her after so many years living apart. Xiomara Velasquez and her daughter share the same expressive dark eyes, and both communicate with their hands as they speak.
“She did make mistakes. Edhilvia could have applied to Canada. We told her so many times to do it,” Xiomara Velasquez said. She thought her daughter should have applied for a work visa after completing her master’s degree, rather than switching back to a student visa.
She is currently doing a fast-track program at Centennial College, hoping to gain Canadian work experience. However, she still worries about the possibility of having to return to Venezuela.
Velasquez graduates this April and plans to find a job in Canada by July. She said she will need as much time as possible to find one, in order to gain permanent residency and secure a future for herself in Canada.
“I actually really like Toronto. I would even say more than the U.S.” Velasquez’s lips folded into a tight line and her voice sounded shaky. “I feel like a woman in no-man’s land, like I don’t have a place. I need to land somewhere and have roots somewhere and I don’t have that. I’m still not even stable here.”