A life in limbo: How $3,500 and the FSU administration’s policy on work visas ruined Vanessa Desani’s life

Pick a card.

You are an immigrant named Manuel, who entered the U.S. illegally to flee gang violence in Honduras.

You are a cook from Poland named Jan who came here to work in a kitchen, getting paid in cash, when you couldn’t find a job back home.

Or you’re Lupe, a migrant farm laborer from Mexico who came here in search of work after being crushed financially when corn prices plummeted. You are undocumented.

Place your playing piece, you are instructed, on the “Undocumented Limbo Loop Start” space. Roll the dice.

Or maybe you are a Somali with refugee status named Adama, or a Korean named Sue who married someone from the U.S. Place your playing piece on the “Path to Citizenship.” Roll the dice.

This is the Immigration Board Game, the brainchild of the non-profit equal rights advocacy group Alliance for a Just Society. Two paths of Monopoly-esque game spaces are laid out on a multicolored playing board encircled by the flags of three dozen countries. End up on one and you move slowly toward the finish line, where, if you are one of the luckier players, you win citizenship: the right to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. The right to vote.

But end up on the other, and you are in limbo. As you roll the dice, your journey takes you through victories and enormous hardships – good jobs, bad ones, illnesses, financial burdens. If you are in limbo, you soon realize there is no finish line. You move your playing piece around the board in an endless loop, trying to earn a living for yourself and pay your bills while carefully avoiding being detained by immigration officials and running the risk of being deported, of having to start the loop all over again. You will never become a citizen, and there is almost nothing you can do to change that. Those are the rules.

For you, this is just a game. But for tens of thousands living in Massachusetts, this is life – dreams of becoming legal, honest-to-goodness U.S. citizens, but years spent in a ceaseless, futile journey toward a finish line it is unlikely they will ever reach. That is, unless some kind of miracle, a lucky break or a clever scheme helps them onto the inside track.

“Some of my students got frustrated as they started to realize it was really kind of a flip of a coin,” says FSU Sociology Professor Vincent Ferraro, who used the game as a teaching tool in a sociology course on immigration last semester. “And that’s actually more true to life than many of us would like to think. … You can do everything right, you can do everything that’s asked of you, and never quite get there, which is so antithetical to the American idea that working hard will eventually get you there.”

For Vanessa Desani, a Brazilian native and a former instructor in Framingham State’s ESL program, the board game is all too real. To be clear, Desani has never been in this country illegally, not even for a day. For the six years she has been in the U.S., she has maintained a chain of legal, government-issued immigration paperwork – the “documents” undocumented immigrants lack. And until last summer, she thought her job at FSU meant she was on the inside track, the path to becoming a citizen and obtaining the right to do the work she loves. She didn’t know it then, but from the moment she arrived in New York State all those years ago, citizenship has been outside her grasp. To her horror, she has realized she has been in limbo from the very beginning.

Sitting in a Brazilian bakery called the Magic Oven on Waverly Street in downtown Framingham in mid-January, Vanessa Desani is visibly distraught. Through red wire glasses tucked under bleached blonde hair, her eyes look searchingly over her right shoulder to where, outside, the clouds are heavy with impending rain and the commuter rail rolls east toward Boston. In red and yellow booths behind her, people are squirting ketchup on fried, meat-filled balls and eating with gusto, but she isn’t hungry. Next week, she will start the second semester of a graduate interdisciplinary program at Cambridge College for another master’s degree, one she doesn’t need – her twentieth year of being a student, her sixth in a country not her own.

She couldn’t find any online courses this time, so she will have to commute to Boston twice a week. Her courses have been interesting so far, and she hopes some of her work toward an interdisciplinary studies major will be of use to her when she can finally get another shot at being an educator and community advocate, when she is finally legally allowed to have a job again. But this latest stint in college is not about gaining more knowledge or experience – she believes she has plenty of both already. It is about keeping herself from becoming undocumented. As long as she is a student, she can have a student visa. She will not be forced out of the country by immigration officials, or have to live under the radar in fear of being caught without paperwork. She can stay in the country. And at least for now, that is the best she can hope for.

Last summer, when Desani’s temporary work authorization was up for renewal, Framingham State administrators decided not to fill out the necessary paperwork and pay the $3,500 in fees for her visa. When she pleaded with administrators to sponsor her, when she explained the disastrous impact she knew this decision would have on her life, she was told that, per school policy, Framingham State does not sponsor work visas for part-time contractors such as ESL instructors. According to Rita Colucci, the school’s chief of staff and general counsel, FSU only provides work visas for high-level administrators and tenure-track professors.

“Vanessa requested that we make an exception to our policy and we said ‘no,’” Colucci says.

Those are the rules.

Although the deadline for Desani’s visa renewal kept getting closer and closer by the day during her stint as a teacher, she said she didn’t worry. After all the years of academic achievements and community outreach she had undertaken to land this job and expand the ELP program, she thought Framingham State couldn’t possibly let her go. Not over a paltry $3,500 – a fee it would be illegal for her to pay herself, and which the school would have to shoulder. Now, she knows how naïve she really was. “I don’t know why, but I was so hopeful. I thought things would work.”

When a petition in support of keeping Desani on FSU’s payroll circulated around the downtown Framingham area garnered over 400 signatures from community members, administrators still wouldn’t budge.

“Framingham and the surrounding communities are writing you this letter to ask that you do everything in your power to help Vanessa Desani to get her work visa status at Framingham State University,” the petition, originally sent to State Rep. Tom Sannicandro, reads. “We admire her tenacity and work ethic and we truly believe that her presence in the community and at FSU is an asset to all of us, not just to her students.”

The way Desani tells it, she met with both Colucci and President Timothy Flanagan and presented them with the signatures, and once even slid a copy under the president’s door. But asked on several occasions, no administrator has said on the record that he or she has seen it.

Not one.

By the end of the fall 2012 semester, at an administrators’ question-and-answer meeting for students in North Hall, Flanagan claimed he still had not seen the petition, and could not even attest to its existence. “I’m aware that it’s said to exist,” he said that Tuesday in November. “I have not physically seen that petition.”

Due to the school’s policy on “personnel matters” such as reasons for employees being laid off, most cannot say much. But here is the school’s version of what happened.

“I don’t doubt that she had a petition,” Colucci says. “I don’t think she would have lied about that. … I also have a terrible memory.” At their meeting together, Colucci says, “She certainly had something that, she was saying, ‘I have a petition here.’ Most certainly. … But at the end of the day,” Colucci says, “petitions are great, but just because you have a petition doesn’t mean that what you’re asking for is going to be granted.”

“We didn’t get the response that we thought we would get,” says Fernanda Alves, who coordinated the effort to collect the signatures, leading a team of 10 who canvassed downtown community centers, churches and hangouts for supporters. Alves works as a mental health counselor at the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, and she and Desani are close.

The way Alves tells it, administrators know about the petition, and have all along. “I myself sent it,” she says. “I know they got it. I don’t know why they don’t acknowledge it. … It feels like we’re being ignored.”

When Desani realized there was nothing she or anyone else could do to keep her on the FSU staff, she says her journey, which began in São Paulo, Brazil and brought her to FSU, felt as if it had come to an abrupt halt.

Desani says she pleaded with Flanagan and Colucci. “How am I going to be away from my students?” she asked them. “I can’t. I just can’t. I love them so much.”

When the reality of her predicament finally set in, she says, “For the first time in five years, I felt like an immigrant.”

Desani first arrived in the U.S in March of 2007 through an au pair exchange program out of her native Brazil. She had just graduated from São Paulo University, one of the most prestigious schools in South America, and took the opportunity to travel to New York to work and study with a government-issued J-1 visa. She worked there as a nanny before deciding to transfer to Greater Boston to become an au pair in Needham. At the time, she thought coming to Massachusetts would give her the opportunity to practice her English without being around other Brazilians. Boston was too cold for Brazilians, she thought.

“And then I started driving the 135 to Framingham, and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she says. Ethnic restaurants. The Magic Oven. Greens and yellows. Portuguese. She had found an unexpected second home in central Massachusetts, and, although she had been thinking of heading back home, decided then that she would stay, that she would explore the possibilities the downtown would hold for her. “That was the happiest day of my life.”

She soon noticed, after making regular trips to the downtown and befriending many of its residents, that Framingham was in desperate need of more English language educators. Many spoke little English, if any at all, and had gotten used to communicating with other Lusophones, or Portuguese-speakers, living in their immediate vicinity. If she worked hard enough, she could change that, she thought. She could help people learn the language so they would be able to further their educations at local universities and community colleges, or communicate with their children’s public school teachers.

When her term of service as an au pair was up, she decided to stay, and to pursue a master’s degree in English as a Second Language at Cambridge College. For her thesis, she spent dozens of hours in Framingham, as well as Marlborough and Somerville, chronicling the language deficiency issues in those communities. Her thesis, it bears repeating, was a study of Framingham State’s backyard and the residents and their children who live here. In other words, Desani is an expert on the lives, struggles and ambitions of the men and women who could very well make up the student body of FSU in the decades to come.

After she graduated, and her 12-month period of legal work authorization, called Optional Practical Training, began in August of 2011, she got a job teaching ESL courses at Framingham State – a job she thought would be hers for as long as she wanted it.

“In my head, I’m like, ‘I have an education. I have my master’s,” Desani says, a fat binder filled with her thesis research on the table in front of her. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m here. I’m fine.’”

But after hearing “no” so many times – “‘No, we can’t do it, no, no, no,’” she says, “I just feel like I have to start over my life.”

It’s a snowy Tuesday night in March, and the streets of downtown are coated with a thin, slick layer of slush. One by one, eight students, ages 25 to 54, are making their way to the third floor of a building (area undisclosed, by request), purple English textbooks and today’s homework in tow. “Foundations,” it is called – the study materials for an introductory-level ESL course. A woman going by the name Lucay, 54, cleaned five houses today, as she does every day. A man named Margins, also 54, logged a full workday on a construction site. Some are a little late – the weather made walking or driving here more difficult – but they’re here. They are learning nationalities today.

“You are from Brazil, so you are?” their teacher asks.

A pause. They squint their eyes, thinking.

“Brazilian,” she tells them. “Brazilian,” they repeat. In a close-knit community where almost everyone with whom they interact speaks Portuguese, they haven’t had to know the word. In Framingham, just like back home, they are Brasileiro, Brasileira. Every member of the class is undocumented.

For many, it’s relatively easy to get by in Framingham without learning to speak English. If new arrivals to the town speak Portuguese, they can go about their day buying groceries, ordering coffee and working jobs that don’t necessarily require communication skills – cleaning or building houses, cooking, mowing lawns.

Tony, 37, a used tire salesman, picked up a few English words over the years downtown, but the language barrier has started getting in the way of his business, and he decided he finally needed to learn to speak English. “It’s not easy for me because I don’t speak it well,” he says. “I need to learn.”

Saaron, a 45-year-old housecleaner, says she wants to build a better relationship with her employers. A few weeks ago, while cleaning a shelf, an ornament fell and smashed into pieces. She left her employer money to replace it, but had to use web service Google Translate to explain what happened in a handwritten note. In the future, she wants to be able to apologize in person.

Nixon and Silana, who, at ages 25 and 30 are the youngest in the group, said they wanted to be able to meet English-speaking people in their new home in Framingham. Both arrived within the last year. Recently, Silana says, an English-speaking man approached her at the gym, trying to flirt with her. She misunderstood, thinking he wanted to use the machine she’d been using. Embarrassed, she ended the conversation, and the encounter felt like a missed opportunity.

“I want to live here,” Silana says, through an interpreter. “How can I not learn to speak English? I love to talk!”

Nixon and Silana are both hopeful they will be able to stay in Massachusetts, assimilate, make friends, and possibly go to college. Nixon is considering studying physical education, but if things don’t work out for him here, if he can’t continue to support himself in a new country, he says, learning English can help him get a job back home. Silana says being able to speak English would give her a huge competitive edge in Brazil, a country where more and more job applicants have college degrees.

Margins, 54, says learning the language means protecting himself in dire situations, such as talking to the police or with angry English-speaking neighbors. “If you don’t speak English, there are a lot of problems,” he says. His classmates nod in agreement.

Darilson has gotten by for the last 10 years knowing basically no English, but when his son started first grade this year, the 32-year-old decided to finally put in the effort and start taking ESL classes.

“I want to learn for my son,” he says.  As one of the two or three most proficient speakers in the class, he’s speaking for himself, slowly and calculatingly. “He says, ‘Dad, read my book,’ but I can’t.” At his house, his son speaks Portuguese. Darilson does not want him to forget the language of his heritage, but also, until now, Portuguese has been the only means of communication between them, and Darilson didn’t want to lose that. He will raise his son to be bilingual, and now he wants to be bilingual, too. If he wants to talk to his son’s friends and teachers, help him with his homework, read his books, he will have to.

For those in Framingham who want to learn English, there are a few options. There is the Framingham Adult ESL Plus program, which runs on a lottery system. Hundreds line up for the free classes, funded through a grant from the Mass. Dept. of Education, but slots are limited. When people don’t get into those classes, they look elsewhere. Some look to other free, or cheap classes through local non-profits, some of which charge as little as $50. Some seek out private tutors, and others come to Framingham State. It was at this point in people’s lives that Desani used to intervene. As a Plus volunteer, and a well-known face downtown, she used to steer students to FSU, promising a top-notch education, even if it did cost some money – $370 per semester, for many, is a sizable financial commitment to make.

But Desani used to sell the FSU program based on its merit, and on the benefits of getting a certificate of completion from an accredited state university. She would hand out informational pamphlets she translated herself from English to Portuguese – before Desani, those pamphlets were written exclusively in English. And Framingham’s residents listened.

“She recruited many students,” says Rebecca Hawk, director of FSU’s ELP and community education programs. “Scores of students.”

 

In a picture from a Boston Globe article about the ELP program, Desani is smiling, helping one of her students work through an assignment. This was the old Vanessa, the one who played music for her students, the one who snapped her fingers and danced around the classroom. The one her students called chuchu, pronounced like “shoo-shoo” – my dear. She called them chuchu, as well. The picture was taken in August, on her very last day as an instructor, before a replacement was brought in to finish teaching the remaining weeks of the class. That, Desani says, hurt more than anything – that she was not allowed to finish teaching the students she had been with since the beginning of the semester. The wounds, she says, may never heal. But in the picture, she is smiling.

“The community wanted me to be there. They wanted me there to help with translations, with offices, with classes, because they felt like they belonged there. They could say, ‘This is somebody who came from the same place and is at the university. If she can be there, I can be there.’”

Twelve months before administrators ran out the clock on Desani, making it illegal for her to hold her job, she was doing what she loved, with students who loved her back. After having spent so much time in their midst conducting her thesis research, Desani understood that many of her night students worked long, long hours, sometimes performing strenuous manual labor, and she needed to do something special to grab their attention, to make them want to learn.

“My students work 10 hours a day, cleaning four or five houses, going to class at 7 o’clock. If I don’t do a very funny class, play music, make them jump, they will fall asleep on their desks. They are painters, they are landscapers, they are house cleaners, so I try to encourage my students. I like to make them rise and make them laugh.”

Although DGCE doesn’t encourage instructors to do so, Desani also gave her students her cell phone number, and told them to call her at any time. Difficulties with their English homework, immigration issues, whatever, they could call. From her time spent as a translator at the Framingham District Court, helping to keep immigrants from signing deportation documents they couldn’t read, she understood the perils of not knowing English, or of having a limited knowledge of it in emergencies.

In particular, Desani remembers the widespread panic among her students after a car accident in Milford in the summer of 2011 that, for many, changed everything. Recent FSU graduate Matt Denice was hit and killed while riding his motorcycle in August of that year, and the driver was an undocumented Ecuadorian immigrant who was heavily intoxicated and driving without a driver’s license. The horrific accident sparked local outcry against illegal immigrants in the town, and Desani’s students, many of whom also did not have driver’s licenses, saw traffic stops skyrocket. Shortly after the accident, half of her students, all of them from Milford, dropped her class, scared to brave the streets to drive to Framingham.

“My students said, ‘Vanessa …  a guy in a raincoat is stopping cars and asking for documents.’ They were afraid,” Desani says. “And I was the first one to say, ‘OK, don’t come to my class. I don’t want to be responsible for any deportations. I understand.’

“If they lived closer,” she adds, “I would have offered them rides.”

One student, Desani says, after being arrested twice for driving without a license, just left for home, ashamed and embarrassed after being labeled a criminal.

“It was terrible,” she says.

These are Desani’s people, “illegal” or not. And she was determined to help them as much as she could – that is, before the rules, the laws and policies, drove her and her students apart.

Desani came to FSU during a period of transition and renewal for the English language and community education programs. When former ESL Coordinator Lavonne Krishnan retired in 2008 after eight years at that post, the school spent four years hiring several other candidates to take her place, but, for one reason or another, each didn’t fit. Eventually, the school brought on Rebecca Hawk, giving her the new title of “director” of the newly merged community ed and ELP programs.

Hawk says she was astonished by the predominance of the Lusophone population in Framingham and surrounding communities when she arrived here, and began overseeing attempts to reinvigorate DGCE’s efforts to recruit non-native English speakers. “‘Community education’ could mean many things,” Hawk says, and for Framingham, that meant teaching the town’s many new immigrants how to speak English,  thereby preparing them for further studies – “funneling” students into night courses in business or other disciplines.

In addition, renovations to the Maynard Building in Framingham Centre were well underway and the school had begun relocating classrooms and administrative offices to the new location across Route 9. DGCE was, and still is, ramping up spending on outreach – Greenberg says last year alone, FSU spent nearly $10,000 on print and radio ads, postcards and handouts.

For three days a week, Desani taught morning and evening classes in the McCarthy Center, putting in extra, unpaid hours working late in her office to put together outreach materials. As a guest on AM 650, a locally operated Portuguese-language radio station, she would field questions from residents. “You have to stop watching soap operas and come to school!” she would say, playfully attempting to tease listeners out of their comfort zones.

“When I met Vanessa,” Hawk says, “I saw that she had this passion to connect with the community.” Desani had been with the program for just a month, but had big ideas, passion and a strong work ethic. The timing, back then, seemed perfect.

“The first task at hand was to make our ELP program more accessible to the community,” Hawk says. The word “accessible” is an important one, she says, because crafting programs and making courses “available” to students is not enough – not for those who speak no English at all, or who simply have not considered studying the language at FSU because no one has made the effort to recruit them. Before Desani and Hawk arrived at Framingham State, Portuguese-speaking residents would call, curious about the program, but no one was on staff who could speak with them in their own language. “Sorry,” ELP personnel would say. “No Portuguese.”

Today, no one on the DGCE staff is fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, and no one is making claims of being “bilingual.” Hawk herself can speak some Portuguese, but not enough that she could conduct phone conversations confidently.

Desani could communicate freely and easily with community members, building a relationship it would be nearly impossible for other ELP staff to replicate. Having Desani on staff meant having an employee who was the triple threat Hawk needed: she was bilingual, she was trained as an educator and she undertook a proactive, community advocacy-oriented approach to her job.

In Framingham, Desani says, “I thought, ‘I need to reach my community. How am I going to do this? I have to communicate in Portuguese so people can know more about the university.’ So that’s what I did.”

To Hawk and Desani, being an ESL teacher is about more than offering instruction on how to speak English. Much more.

Desani first learned to speak the language while studying at São Paulo, but instead of actually learning English, she says, she learned something else entirely – how not to teach a language. Her professor refused to speak Portuguese in the classroom, insisting that she and her classmates learn in total immersion. “I couldn’t help but cry,” she says. “I said to my mom, ‘I’m not coming back. I couldn’t understand a word he said.’” She likens that classroom in southern Brazil to the ones at Framingham State. Here, though, it isn’t that the professors won’t speak their students’ language, be it Portuguese or Spanish, Chinese or German. They just can’t. “That’s a big problem,” Desani says. “Especially if you think about community education.”

After Desani’s termination, Hawk says, many of her students left as well, some of them vowing to follow their teacher to her next job. “It was a severe drop-off when she left. … I’d say we’re in a period of recovery from that.”

“She was dynamic,” she says, “and she filled a niche that is very difficult to fill. … Not having her here is a tremendous loss. It’s a loss for the community and for us, actually.”

To this day, Hawk still hears complaints from the community about the ELP losing Desani – “that still comes out in the dialogues,” she says. “I tell them, ‘It’s a very difficult decision, and I’m sorry it didn’t happen as well as it could have, but we still have a good program, and we can still teach you English, so please come here.” She has been trying to maintain Desani’s connections to the community in her absence. A Portuguese-speaking FSU underclassman from Brazil started working in the office on a volunteer basis this semester – explaining the ELP program to locals in their own language, just as Desani did. Greenberg says DGCE is in the process of hiring a long-term bilingual employee, and will begin interviewing applicants next week.

In the meantime, Hawk has even been making guest appearances on AM 650 and making the case for FSU over the airwaves, just as Desani did. But it isn’t the same, she says. She can only speak with the help of a translator, and can’t connect with listeners based on the shared experience of learning English after arriving here from South America. The distinction is simple: like many downtown residents, Desani came from Brazil to a foreign country, and worked for years to learn the language. Hawk didn’t. Desani can speak from experience about the difference learning English can make as a non-American. Hawk can’t.

“The same place you’re sitting now,” Desani used to tell her students, “I was there, learning English here, like you are doing.”

Of the 300 ELP students enrolled last semester, 51 percent spoke Portuguese as their primary language. This semester, Hawk expects that figure to swell to 60 percent or more. This is the community with which she is working, and she wishes something could be done to bring Desani back to help meet its needs. “It is complicated and I understand the school’s policy, but sometimes a need arises and a policy needs to be assessed. The world that we live in is becoming more and more global,” she says, adding, “sometimes exceptions need to be made in anticipation of what the need could be.”

Less than a mile away from FSU, thousands of Portuguese-speaking residents are listening to their radios, hanging out in bakeries, working long hours babysitting or doing manual labor around town, and Hawk wants to help them learn to speak English, to become part- or even full-time students at Framingham State. But now, she has to do it without Desani. “From the university’s standpoint,” Hawk says, “I think it’s a missed opportunity.”

FSU is not the only employer which has rejected Desani due to her immigration status over the last few months. She says she has probably been to interviews at a dozen colleges and universities – Tufts, Bentley, Northeastern among them – and each has progressed in what is now a predictable pattern: the conversation will go well, the interviewer will seem impressed and will sometimes even ask for her availability, will ask how soon she can start teaching. Then, she breaks it to them. “Well, here it comes,” she has started saying out loud. “Immigrant.” “Visa.” “Thirty-five hundred dollars.” Then, the interview ends, the interviewer apologizes, says there is nothing he or she can do, and Desani goes home.

Often, she prays.

“God helps me, but I have to move, too. Its hard for me because I have been waiting for something, and I don’t know what to do.” She stubbornly refuses to let her spirit be broken, although she isn’t sure how much longer she can do this – how much longer she can live in limbo.

“I feel that something is going to work out, but right now I have no idea,” she says, seemingly a bit surprised by how pessimism has started creeping up on her. “You know when you’re completely lost? I don’t know what to do. ” She pauses. “Something is going to work. I don’t think things happen just because. Something will work.” She pauses again. “But some days I feel like I should just pack up all my stuff and go back. But that’s not typical of me.”

Just after New Year’s Day, Desani felt lumps in her chest, and fearing she might have breast cancer, saw a specialist. Her diagnosis? High levels of stress had caused some severe tightening in her pectoral muscles. “The lady doing the test, she said to me, ‘I know what your problem is. You have immigration pains. You have immigration pains in your chest.’”

To this day, Desani still has trouble sleeping. She wakes up with anxiety about what the future will hold, clinging to the hope that God will intervene and make something happen. Her mother lives in Brazil, along with the rest of her family, and they all seem to think she should just admit defeat and return home. Either that or go back to school and get a degree in science or engineering – the kinds of degrees that lead to visas in a country where employers are falling over themselves to attract the world’s top STEM workers. But Desani wants to teach, and she wants to be an advocate for the disadvantaged, and above all, she wants to do it here. “I don’t know why,” she says. “I wish it was different. I wish I could be a doctor. I decided to come here for one year to learn English. It has been six years. Why? Is it because I like the weather? No. Is it because I like to be alone without my family? No.”

It is because she is passionate about teaching, about providing Framingham’s Portuguese-speaking residents with hope and opportunity to succeed when their futures, like hers, can be uncertain – at the whim of a system that can feel designed to make them fail.

But until she can find some way out of limbo, some lucky break, it seems as if no one on this campus, in this state or in this country will let her do it.

They can’t, they say.

Those are the rules.

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