My Immigration Story

by Carolyn Szaiff Alvarez


My parents in Europe on their honeymoon.

My parents in Europe on their honeymoon.

As a first-generation Hungarian-American who grew up in a bilingual household, my developing personality was influenced by a hybrid of cultures. I witnessed firsthand the struggles that every immigrant family typically faces in this country. In light of those struggles, my parents instilled in me the values of hard work, compassion, and enthusiasm. From these lessons came a spark that lit a passion within for assisting others, which is how I ended up at the Daryanani Law Group following my graduation from Wesleyan University in 2011.

Seeking a better life and the opportunity that America represented, my father moved to the United States in 1984. My understanding is that he came to the US from Hungary through Germany. My mother believes that he came as a refugee, but the details are unclear. The timing, however, makes sense. The Refugee Act of 1980 amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to provide updated procedures to assist refugees coming to the US. Among other accomplishments, the Act established a new definition of the word “refugee,” raised the maximum number of refugees admissible to the US from 17,400 to 50,000 annually (except in emergency situations, when the President can authorize additional refugees), and created a uniform, effective resettlement policy. Refugees may be able to immigrate to the US if they meet all requirements, which include being located outside the US, not being firmly resettled in another country, and demonstrating persecution or fear of persecution “due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” While I’m not sure I’ll ever know his particular claim to refugee status since he passed away in 2006,  I believe it was either religious persecution (my mother said a religious organization helped him with the process) or political opinion (due to communism in Hungary around the time he immigrated).

My parents at their wedding.

My parents at their wedding.

My mother visited my father in the US in the late 1980s, along with my older brother, who was thirteen at the time. They tried to apply for asylum due to my mother’s fear of persecution on account of her political opinion, but unfortunately, it was denied. Following some bad advice, she overstayed her visa (don’t do this!) and was set to be deported back to Hungary in mid-1990. My mother, however, was incredibly lucky—because her immigration court hearings were rescheduled several times, the Immigration Act of 1990 came to her rescue in November 1990.

The Act increased the maximum annual number of legal immigrants from 500,000 to 700,000, and there was a special section on “family unity” that my mother was able to take advantage of. Under this section, eligible immigrants who entered the US before May 5, 1988 (and resided in the US on that date, as my mother had) were granted a temporary stay of deportation and work authorization (as long as the grounds for deportation were based upon certain specified immigration violations, such as overstaying a visa). Under this section, “eligible immigrant” meant a qualified immigrant who was the “spouse or unmarried child of a legalized alien.” As my father had just been granted his US citizenship in August of 1990, and my mother was his spouse, she fell squarely into this special category! My brother was also able to obtain legal status through this statute, which gave each of them protection from deportation for a period of two years. During this time, my father was able to file Green Card petitions for both of them based on their relationship to him as an “immediate relative.” They have both become proud, naturalized US citizens since that time.

I was born in the United States right before my mother was set to be deported from this country. I am incredibly thankful that the immigration laws changed in time for her to be able to remain in the United States, and for us to be able to keep our family together. I cannot imagine how difficult it would have been for her to either leave me behind with my father in this country, or to take me back to Hungary by herself to raise me. The immigration laws were kind to my family, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case for everyone.

Given my family history, I am very familiar with the immigrant experience in the United States. I know how hard it was for my parents and brother to move to an unknown country across the ocean and learn the complicated language of English. Growing up, I was taught to seize every opportunity presented to me, to reach for the stars, and to appreciate the chances I was given to reach my goals. And that is precisely the reason I work in the immigration field—to assist people in achieving their dreams in the United States. Without a great immigration attorney to help my parents thirty years ago, my life would be very different today. I want to be that immigration attorney.