Issaquah family remains caught in immigration limbo
September 15, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
On the first day of school, Sept. 2, Tessa Gibson walked into her fourth-grade classroom for the first and last time.
She wanted to say goodbye.Her father, Rod Gibson, had been denied a renewal of his work visa. Later, while her classmates at Issaquah Valley Elementary School reunited in the cafeteria and picked up homework assignments, Tessa and her family headed toward Canada to confront a clouded future.
“We’re not being deported,” Rod Gibson said on the eve of the Sept. 2 departure. “We just want to follow the rules.”
He said the problem arose after he applied for a renewal of his work visa. Rod Gibson, a lighting engineer, had worked in the United States for several years. The renewal process for his O-1 visa was usually smooth. Because he had what officials classified as “extraordinary ability” in his field, he had few problems with work visas since the Canadian started working in the United States in the 1990s.
After he applied for the latest renewal, however, the application was denied. Rod Gibson said the denial came because federal immigration officials interpreted rules differently than they had in the past.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Sharon Rummery said she could not comment on details of the Gibson case. But she said a denial from federal immigration officials is accompanied by a justification. Canadian and Mexican citizens are eligible for temporary work visas if they meet certain requirements under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Rummery said.
In the meantime, Rod Gibson is working at offices his company has in Vancouver. He travels about three hours east to Princeton, British Columbia, each weekend to visit with his wife, Leah, and children.
Leah Gibson said the separation has worn on her family, but she remains optimistic
“Every Monday, we go, ‘Oh, maybe something’s going to happen,’” she said.
Just before the family left Issaquah, Connor Gibson, 7, answered the oft-repeated question about when the family would return: three weeks.
Sept. 16 marks three weeks since the Gibsons headed north. On Sept. 2 — after the 30-day deadline issued by federal immigration officials — the family packed up and departed.
Since leaving their rented house on Squak Mountain, Leah and the children have lived with her parents in Princeton, a small town just east of the Cascades. For Leah Gibson, the return to her hometown was bittersweet.
Her children said they wanted to be home-schooled after the move to British Columbia. Since arriving in Princeton, however, Tessa and Connor have grown restless.
For Tessa, “her reality is back at her school with her teacher, her friends,” Leah Gibson said.
Despite the new challenges of everyday life, Leah Gibson said she tries to remain upbeat. She joined Facebook to keep in touch with friends, and she sends regular e-mails to her Issaquah neighbors and other Issaquah Valley parents.
“It was surreal to be leaving but not leaving,” she said, describing the day she and her family left.
After the Gibsons were told to leave the United States in early August, the family, friends and neighbors have contacted elected officials to pressure immigration officials to reconsider the denial.
“We go from moments of utter and sheer panic to calm acceptance,” Rod Gibson said before the family left Issaquah. “It’s been a roller coaster.”
City Council President Maureen McCarry said she and others had contacted U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, the Auburn Republican whose district includes Issaquah.
“Once my office was notified of their situation, my staff worked with federal agencies to seek a solution that would enable the Gibsons to stay in the United States,” Reichert wrote in a letter to constituents. “Most recently, I contacted USCIS to personally voice my support for their appeal. My office will continue to monitor the progress of their appeal and will remain in contact with both the Gibson family and USCIS.”
Supporters of the Gibson family have also turned to Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat. Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Murray, said the senator’s Seattle office includes a caseworker to handle immigration cases. But McAlvanah said he could not speak about the Gibson case, citing privacy concerns.
Leslie MacInnes, a friend of the Gibsons who also has a fourth-grader at Issaquah Valley, said it was important to raise awareness about the problem faced by the Gibsons.
“There isn’t a lot we can do except let Leah and Rod know that we are all behind them,” MacInnes said.
So, Issaquah Valley parents and volunteers, as well as other Squak Mountain residents, have appealed to federal officials on behalf of the Gibsons.
In British Columbia, meanwhile, Leah Gibson and her family hold out hope they will be able to return to Issaquah. Her daughter wants to complete the school year at Issaquah Valley, and the family continues to rent its now-vacant Squak Mountain house. But the uncertainty is wearing on the family.
“You’re not able to take control of your destiny,” Leah Gibson said.
MacInnes, whose daughter is a friend of Tessa Gibson, and McCarry said the separation has been difficult for friends the Gibsons left behind in Issaquah.
“Leah and Rod are just wonderful people,” McCarry said. “They’re just so hopeful this will get resolved.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.