High Point fashion designer and immigrant Florence Wallace shares her long road to citizenship
When Florence Wallace was a little girl growing up across Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana, she thought America looked like paradise, all except for New York.
“When they show us America, we see Hollywood,” said Wallace. “It’s like heaven. There’s money, there’s jobs, there’s education. But then I remember seeing Coming to America and the slums in New York and saying, ‘I don’t want to go to that part!’ Then, when I first got to America, where did I go? New York,” she laughed.
Wallace’s laugh is big, irrepressible, and comes out often in conversation. The skill of finding something to laugh at has stayed with her despite, or maybe because of, the struggles she has endured since she was a kid watching visions of America on a shared TV.
Today, Wallace and her husband raise their three children in a duplex in High Point. Wallace has built her family with the same irrepressible joy that shines through in her work as an emerging fashion designer. She won two out of three awards in Triad Goodwill’s 2017 Rock the Runway contest. In July, models wearing her designs will stalk the runways of Atlanta fashion week.
Wallace wears a lot of hats: wife, mother, artist, and shoestring-budget businesswoman. But this year she’s added a new role that often overshadows the others: the role of an aspiring citizen. As Wallace navigates the pitfalls of US immigration policy, it’s a role that’s never far from her mind, and one her chosen country never lets her forget.
Wallace, 29, has spent more than half her life as a refugee. She was a toddler when the First Liberian Civil War began in 1989. What she remembers most is the fear.
“You’re having a regular day, you’re going about your business, and out of nowhere there’s shooting. You don’t know where to run,” Wallace recalled.
Her family endured the unpredictable violence for years until the war threatened to engulf their village. Wallace and her aunt escaped to the relative safety of a Liberian port. There, they lived for months in dockside shipping containers with other refugees, waiting to board a ship out of the country. The pair finally managed to secure passage to Nigeria, where they enjoyed a short period of peace before another war broke out, this time between the local Christian and Muslim populations. They were smuggled out of the country, first to Ghana, then in 2000 to New York.
Arrival in America didn’t signal the end of Wallace’s troubles. Just a few months after they landed in New York, Wallace’s aunt suffered an organ failure and passed away. Wallace, then 13, was placed in the care of the state. She was moved from New York to Philadelphia, was sexually assaulted in a group home, and spent time in the hospital before she finally lucked into a loving foster family.
Wallace moved with her new family to South Carolina, where she got to feel like a normal teenager for the first time. She excelled in school, especially her elective sewing class. As a child, she had learned hand sewing and weaving from the women of her village; in high school, she learned to use a sewing machine and to tailor thrift store clothing into one-of-a-kind looks. Before long, she was making her own clothes from scratch.
Wallace’s test scores and emerging style got her a scholarship offer from a local university, which she hoped would launch her career in fashion. But during enrollment, the university found problems with her documentation. It seemed the original paperwork with which Wallace came to the United States had gotten lost in the shuffle after her aunt’s death. As a scared adolescent focused on survival, Wallace hadn’t even noticed that she had only copies of her Social Security card and other key documents. The lack of original paperwork had never caused a problem, until it ruined her shot at financial aid.
“I did everything to keep my grades up,” Wallace recalled. “I had the second highest SAT scores in my school that year. But, because I didn’t have the right documents, the scholarship I’d worked so hard for was gone.”
Wallace freely admits that there have been times she thought about giving up and moving back to Liberia. It happened when she was a teenager in the hospital and again when she found herself, at 18, cut off from the education she’d dreamed of. But instead of retreating, Wallace rallied and dove headfirst into adult life. She married her high school sweetheart. Traditional college was out of financial reach, but Wallace went to hairdressing school and improved her sewing through online tutorials and community classes. The couple had their first child, Nadia. All the while, Wallace fought through the red tape of securing her legal status.
After an immigration lawyer quoted her $1500 to help obtain her one-year work permit, Wallace realized she would have to do it herself. She was able to get a Medicaid card with her copied documents, which she then used to obtain a new Social Security card. With those forms of ID, she was able to get her work permit, and then, finally, a Green Card.
Green Cards are valid for ten years; after the fifth year, the holder may apply for citizenship. This is Wallace’s fifth year as a Green Card holder, but she wants to start the citizenship process now. There are many hurdles to clear, and if her Green Card expires while her citizenship is still in process, she will be considered an illegal immigrant, subject to everything that label entails, including detention and deportation.
It’s been a long road, and Wallace is nowhere near being done. The temptation to quit is always there, but the thought of helping both her American and African families keeps her moving forward.
“When you get the opportunity to come to America, it’s not just for you. It’s for everyone you’re leaving behind,” said Wallace.
She works to send money back to her relatives in Liberia. The need has increased lately as she has helped to pay hospital bills for her mother, who has fallen ill.
“They don’t know what’s wrong,” said Wallace. “She’s losing weight rapidly, not talking…she’s just drained. My brother video called me last Sunday after church, and I didn’t recognize her.”
“The last time I was with her in person, I was about 7. I’ll be 30 in September. I haven’t seen her, hugged her, anything like that since,” said Wallace. “I need my citizenship because I want to see my mom. I want to touch her and hug her and let her know I don’t hold anything against her.”
The process of gaining legal citizenship stands between their reunion. It’s a process that could take a year or more, but Wallace doesn’t have a faster alternative. If she returns to Liberia before first getting her American citizenship, she will lose her refugee status. She would have to start from square one of the immigration process, and might never be able to rejoin her husband and kids.
The pair could meet in a neighboring country, but her mother’s poor health would make such a long trip risky, if not impossible. Besides, Wallace is afraid that she might not be able to return to America once she leaves, even if she stays away from her home country. She has seen firsthand how one international trip can ruin everything an immigrant has worked for.
“I’m scared if I leave the country, it will happen like it did with my friend who’s still in Sudan,” she explained.
Wallace’s friend, Fatima, was visiting family in Sudan when the Executive Order 13769 – also known as the travel ban – went into effect. Stuck on another continent with no way to work or pay her bills here, Wallace outlined how Fatima’s American life had quickly unraveled.
“She’s already lost her place and her job. Her schooling is on hold. People are losing everything,” Wallace said.
At first, Wallace said, she and Fatima kept in touch using long distance phone cards. Then, communication suddenly stopped. At the time of this publication, Wallace has been unable to contact her friend for weeks.
“I don’t understand banning people from countries that have never attacked you. Fatima was here legally. She’s been here all her life. She went to see family members and she can’t come back. That’s not fair,” said Wallace, her voice rising for the first time in something other than laughter.
Another reason to file for citizenship now is that the cost of application is rising.
“It’s $189 for them to send you the filing packet,” said Wallace, as she looked up the costs on her phone’s web browser. “Last year you could get the packet for free, but not anymore. It’s $85 for the biometrics. Then there’s the filing fee. That’s…”
Wallace stopped short, her eyes fixed on the phone.
“It’s $640. Oh my God, it went up!”
As it turns out, the filing fee for Applications for Naturalization was increased in December 2016, along with the fees for many other forms immigrants need on the path to citizenship. Staying on top of financial costs is key, but so is every other detail of the paperwork. If a potential citizen’s application is denied for any reason, their money is not refunded. They must pay to fix the problem and start the application process over again. This does not reset the timer on that person’s Green Card or work permit.
According to Wallace, this is how many legal immigrants become illegal; it’s a vicious cycle that she wishes was better understood by the non-immigrant community.
“Even if you’re just applying for a work ID every year, it’s hard. If you’ve got hardships one year, if someone gets sick, you can’t afford to apply. That’s how it happens to most people,” she said. “If you don’t have the money to renew something and it expires, and they catch you, they’ll ship you back. So then you try to work under the radar to get money to reapply. You don’t mean to do anything bad, you’re just trying to get back to being legal.”
Immigrants are far more likely to live in poverty than native-born citizens. In 2015, the median weekly income of an immigrant with a full time job was 29 percent lower than that of a native citizen. This means that short gaps in legal status happen all too often, keeping the number of illegal immigrants high and contributing to the misconceptions that Wallace encounters everywhere; that illegal immigrants are too lazy to go through the proper channels, or that they’re trying to hide a criminal past that would get them deported. Wallace says the prejudice she encounters stems from the belief that immigrants, especially illegal ones, are in some way fundamentally different from other people.
“Yes, I’m African, but I’m American, too,” she said. “We’re all just people. We all need to come together. If we’re divided, it gives people in charge more room to come up with laws and rules that will tear us down.”
The thought that one emergency car repair or doctor’s bill could mean losing their legal status hangs like a cloud over most US immigrants, Wallace included. She sees the need for a simpler path to legal status recovery for those who find themselves in financial trouble.
“If you do something criminal to break the law, you should be deported because you made that choice,” she said. “But if someone’s done nothing wrong but the paperwork, there’s no need to bother them. If they’re working to get the right documents, don’t just give up on them. Help them.”
Wallace is passionate about easing the difficulties of immigrants in America, but she’s just as passionate in her praise of the country.
“America is a great place to be. There are still lots of opportunities here. I just want everyone to get a fair chance,” she said. “In order for that to happen, though, we have to work together. One part of the body can’t function without the others. We have to see ourselves as a whole.”
For more information about Wallace’s clothing design, visit her brand page at www.Facebook.com/Kulturalblend.
Mia Osborn is a Greensboro-based freelance writer who hails from Birmingham, Alabama.