If you go
What: Karen Byrne will host an immigration roundtable that focuses on enhancing and streamlining U.S. immigration policy. A representative from OneAmerica, an immigration reform group, will make brief remarks. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, will send a staff member to hear the discussion.
When: 7 p.m. Monday.
Where: Brickhouse Bar & Grill, 109 W. 15th St.
Confused, Karen Byrne rattled off her life story to a U.S. customs official as the two sat in an interview room at the Dublin airport.
It was 2006. Byrne, an Ireland native who spent most of her childhood in Vancouver, was 5 months pregnant, had a 2-year-old daughter and was working as a teacher. Her life was hectic, and she'd unknowingly let her U.S. re-entry visa expire more than a year earlier. Now she was being stopped for questioning during a trip to visit family in the United States.
"So, do you think you can have your cake and eat it too?" the officer asked Byrne. He said she needed to decide, right there on the spot, whether she wanted to live in Ireland or the United States, Byrne recalled. Byrne asked if she could consult her Irish husband, who was waiting outside the room. But the officer was stern: "Is your husband the one with the alien card?"
Tears falling now, she said she would live in Ireland, at least for the time being. The officer cut up her visa and made her sign a declaration, but he still allowed her to board a plane to the U.S. using her passport.
After Byrne's visit with her family, she longed to live in the U.S. If she moved to Clark County, her daughters could get to know her sister, extended family and her mother, who was the girls' only surviving grandparent. So in 2007, Byrne's mother filed an I-130 form — a "Petition for Alien Relative" — to bring Byrne and her family to America.
Today, Byrne's daughters are 7 and 9. Byrne still lives in Ireland, caught in the minutiae of the United State's broken immigration system, she says. It's a system many members of Congress hope to reform in the coming months, and Byrne is adding her voice to the political conversation.
"It's hard to believe it has taken this long," said Byrne, who's insistent on immigrating the legal way. "My mother has had two heart attacks and has seven (artery) stents. I sincerely hope that we can return and spend some quality time with her. This is why I am fighting so hard to return and to have my story heard."
Byrne, who can still visit the United States as a tourist, is flying to the Northwest this weekend to host an immigration reform roundtable Monday evening at Vancouver's Brickhouse Bar & Grill, owned by her uncle. The roundtable will focus on reforms that would keep families together, change how noncitizens are treated by customs officials, and improve visa wait times.
Byrne's family moved to Vancouver when she was 7. Her dad, described as an outgoing man, got a job as a tool and die maker, and he coached youth soccer. Byrne attended Walnut Grove Elementary School, and her mother cared for the family's three children. Her parents bought a house and were living the American Dream, Byrne said.
But just 13 months after moving to the United States, Byrne's father, Anthony Deans, and her 10-year-old brother, Wayne Deans, drowned in Oregon's Sandy River after their 15-foot boat capsized during a fishing trip. After the tragedy, Byrne's mother, Helen Deans, decided to stay in Vancouver, honoring her husband's vision of providing opportunities to their children.
The Deans family was proud, and Helen Deans refused to rely on government assistance. She got a job and received an outpouring of community support in the aftermath of her husband's death. It was that support from friends and neighbors that solidified Byrne's love for Vancouver.
"We would get free cheese, free milk, all that kind of stuff, and I was encouraged to get involved in sports," Byrne recalled. "No matter how bad things were at home, school was where I could excel."
She got her first job at age 15, graduated from Fort Vancouver High School, earned a degree from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, and returned to Clark County to work as a special education teacher and a soccer coach for Vancouver Public Schools.
"I began citizenship classes twice, in 1992 and 1994; however, I did not complete the course," Byrne said in an interview from Ireland. "I was told I would have to give up my Irish citizenship," something she now realizes isn't true.
In 1999, after two decades of living here, she traveled to Ireland to explore her roots. She ended up staying longer than she intended.
She met and married a man, Dave Byrne, and earned her master's degree while the two started their family. Now 43, she works as a vice principal and teacher at a school for children with learning disabilities.
"Regardless of where you're born, it's where you grew up -- the values that you have as a person come out of the culture that you live in," Byrne said, adding that her ultimate goal is dual U.S.-Irish citizenship. "I feel more American than I did when I first came back here (to Ireland)."
The U.S. immigration system leaves no room for error, Byrne has learned. In 2009, she experienced a major setback when her mother moved from Vancouver to Battle Ground. Her mom forgot to inform immigration officials of the move. A letter from officials requesting more documentation for Byrne's I-130 application never made it to her mother, and that stalled her case.
Byrne was discouraged and heard it would take about 10 years to process an alien relative petition. Byrne said she enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and immigration lawyers. This year, her mother submitted a new petition, and Byrne pondered the possibility of waiting until 2023 to live near her Clark County family.
"Immigration is a huge entity with massive red tape and loopholes," Byrne said. "Surely there has to be a way to have one's case heard instead of sitting back and waiting for 10 years before you are granted a visa."
Byrne has spent countless hours trying to find a faster way. She's emailed Vice President Joe Biden and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
She also applied for a special education position with the Camas School District. If she got the job, it would come with a work visa. The district told her that although she was the most qualified applicant, the district was obligated under labor rules to hire another qualified applicant, who was a U.S. citizen.
Byrne is a college graduate and a skilled educator who has strong ties to a U.S. community, and has the help of immigration lawyers. Still, her experience has been an ordeal, and she realizes that others navigating the complex immigration system aren't so lucky, said her sister, Natasha Derthick of Camas.
"This can happen, not only with the Latino community, but it can happen all across the board," Derthick said. "Karen's platform is that if she can not only help herself but help someone else going through the difficulties with the immigration process, then it's worth it."
Byrne has since learned that she might be able to use a different visa process for people with a relative in the U.S. facing hardship. She must be in the U.S. to fill out the paperwork, and it costs $585, but the wait time on that petition is just four months.
"Fingers crossed I can specifically speak to my mother's medical history and how my dad and brother's death has taken its toll on her," Byrne said.
On Sept. 24, she received another encouraging sign: a letter from the White House, with President Barack Obama's name at the bottom. In the letter, Obama wrote, "I am working every day to address the hardships people across our country are facing, including family separation ... It took many years to create our nation's current challenges, and it will take time to bring about the changes our families need."
Byrne said she feels like her father and brother are watching over her during her immigration struggles. She's also learned a valuable lesson in all of this.
"Never give up on what you believe is the right thing to do for you, your children or your family," she said. "Just because one door closes, continue to knock on another until you know in your heart and soul that you have done all you can."
Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform bill that would fix some problems with the U.S. system, including tightening up the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and creating a pathway to citizenship for people who immigrated to the U.S. illegally. It's unknown whether the House will act on those reforms.