Immigration, hives, and life under NAFTA

I came to Canada on a weird little carve out of NAFTA — a small provision for Management Consultants. This allowed me to work cross-border so long as I had a valid work permit.

This is not the same as being a permanent resident. According to the Canadian Government, while I worked and lived in Canada under NAFTA, I was a settler.

I both loved and hated this. Loved it because I enjoyed the thought of me having arrived via covered wagon with a big prairie hat. And hated it because I was in the immigration equivalent of purgatory.

I was a resident but not a Resident. I was a landed immigrant but not a Landed Immigrant. I was a temporary foreign worker but I was not a Temporary Foreign Worker.

Between two worlds

My specific flavour of immigration was entirely on the up and up, but it meant I spent a bunch of time between formal government designations. While working on my NAFTA work permit several things happened:

  1. I bought a house in Canada.
  2. I got married to a Canadian.
  3. I became a bonus mama to a Canadian.
  4. I gave birth to a Canadian.
  5. The anti-immigration rhetoric in the US began to get incredibly heated.
  6. The anti-immigration rhetoric worldwide reached scary levels that I had not seen in my lifetime.
  7. Much of the US electorate decided it was beyond done with NAFTA.

At various points since 2013, large portions of my life (my family, my job, my house) depended upon a piece of legislation that I knew little about.

I’ll meet you on the other side

I used to get nervous at border crossings. Really, really nervous.

When Johnathan and I were dating, I was still living in San Francisco and he was in Toronto. I would get so nervous that I would break out in hives while preparing for customs.

Not because I was doing anything wrong; to be clear, the US and Canada have a friendly border and most visas are well understood by border agents. But the idea that someone could turn me back — that my relationship was overseen by two distinct governments — was pretty intimidating.

While traveling together, we’d have to split up at the customs line:

“I go through the Resident Line. You go through the Visitor Line. I’ll meet you on the other side.”

“But what if I get pulled for secondary? What if the agent is having a bad day? What if they don’t let me in the country? What if they turn me back?”

“I’ll meet you on the other side.”

My fears weren’t unfounded. I got sent to secondary about 60 percent of the time at Pearson (YYZ) and about 80 percent of the time for land crossings.

Even once I was living and working in Canada full time, that anxiety never really lifted. The idea that a stroke of somebody’s pen could force me to leave everything behind. And yes, it was unlikely, but it was not unfathomable to imagine a scenario where I would have to leave and my family would have to stay.

canada flag

Making it official

On the morning of my permanent residency interview, I was joined by my husband, my littlest kid, and about 70 other families.

As we waited in the Canadian immigration office, I nursed my baby alongside mamas from all over the world. I watched a dad of 4 year old jet-lagged twin boys. He walked through the room with one slung over his shoulder and pushed the other in an umbrella stroller.

We sat in black chairs, set up in rows with their backs aligned. The long rows had occasional breaks in the chairs so people could get out when their number was finally called.

In the early morning and the late evening, when the room is empty, the chairs are all that remain. Uniform. Identical. Unassuming. Carrying the weight of every man, woman, and child who has ever sat upon them. Waiting, hoping, praying to come home to a place that is different than where they are from.

When it was finally our turn, we got called up to the little window. [Immigration is actually a lot like the DMV but about a zillion times more emotionally intense.]

After some questions and clarifications and some official statements, I finally had my permanent residency. This was a HUGE moment for our family and the impact of it hit me all at once. The stress, the anxiety, the rational or irrational worry that our family might be split up. All of it lifted and I started to tear up from some combination of joy and relief.

A grandpa sitting on one of the black chairs looked up at me, nodded, and smiled, his eyes full of emotion, too. This was the rare nod of empathy, not from some far away place, but from the spot where I had been sitting just moments before.

Every other family in the waiting room that morning was going through some version of the same thing. And arguably, my version was the least interesting. Except for me. And for my family.

Home is where the heart is

For the entire US election season, I’ve lived with a recurring sense of what if.

What if I hadn’t already gotten my PR card (like a US green card)? What if I’d lost my job and struggled to find a new one? What if the US repealed or replaced NAFTA before my Canadian permanent residency came through?

Without permanent residency, without a job, without NAFTA, I wouldn’t be able to stay in Canada. With my husband. With my daughters. In my home.

Just typing those words is enough to make my chest tighten.

Millions of families are living with this uncertainty right now.

I have no idea what I would have done. I want to say that I would have followed the rules. That I would have dutifully gone back and waited until the US and Canada reconfigured their work visas. But I can’t imagine being away from my family, my friends, my home, my life.

My life is here. My home is here.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale

Melissa Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. She is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Melissa’s been a startup warrior since the first dotcom boom and has the branded t-shirt collection to prove it. She has held senior leadership roles in marketing, pr, and strategy at several fast paced startups, including Wattpad, Edmodo, and Mozilla. Melissa moved to Toronto after more than a decade of working in senior tech roles in Silicon Valley. She is gradually adjusting to seasons.