When Tressana Martin first met Lucinda Kay, the two felt an instant bond.
Kay was visiting Tressanna’s native Jamaica on a volunteer trip with Great Shape, Inc., a nonprofit focused on improving education and health care in the Caribbean country. Her family founded the group after Hurricane Gilbert devastated the island in 1988.
Martin was just eight when she met Kay at a school where the nonprofit was working.
“I just felt like she was my mom for some reason,” Tressanna said.
Kay said she was overcome with emotion.
“The moment Tressana and I met was this crazy spark of energy and I knew that this was a child I was supposed to look after and love,” she said.
The two grew closer as Kay returned to Jamaica for volunteer trips in following years. Kay got to know Tressanna’s mom, Jackie Martin, and her siblings.
Saying goodbye became more difficult. Kay hadn’t broached the topic of taking Tressanna to the United States, but she said one day Jackie pulled her aside and told her, “It’s time.”
Jackie said letting her daughter leave was difficult, but she wanted Tressanna to have a better education, and she saw how close Kay and her daughter had become.
“I could see how much she wanted to go,” Jackie said.
The family applied for a student visa, which would allow Tressanna to come to the United States starting in middle school. She was approved, and the wait began.
“You just have to wait. You don’t know when it’s coming,” Kay said.
“We sat in the lobby every day,” Tressanna said. Eventually, the promised delivery came, and Tressanna set off for Spokane.
Public schools in the United States don’t often sponsor student visas for more than a one-year exchange, so they had relied on St. George’s, a college preparatory school, to take her in. But when she arrived and made a trial visit, Tressanna found the classes intimidating. The principal at St. Thomas More welcomed her to visit the school, and she found it was a better fit academically.
Kay and Tressanna recall her first day somewhat differently.
“She walked in like she owned the joint,” Kay remembered, laughing. Tressanna laughed, then said, “I was so nervous for the first day of class.”
She thrived at school, where she earned good grades and found a group of friends she’s still close with.
When Tressanna was 15, her U.S. parents formally adopted her after Jackie signed a petition relinquishing her parental rights. She became Tressanna Martin Adams, sharing the name with Brad, her American father.
Martin wrote she was “very happy” about the adoption, and Tressanna continued visiting Jamaica regularly on school breaks to see her family there.
Because she was adopted before she turned 16, Tressanna is eligible to become a U.S. citizen, a process that is supposed to be relatively straightforward. However, her parents have spent the past two years trying to get her daughter permanent residency.
“Nothing’s simple when you’re dealing with U.S. immigration,” said John Meske, the family’s Tacoma-based immigration attorney and director of Faith International Adoptions.
Tressanna’s application has two parts. First, the U.S. government has to certify that Kay is her family member and thus eligible to petition for Tressanna’s permanent residency. Then, the petition for permanent residency actually has to be approved.
Kay submitted the paperwork in the fall of 2016 and went a year without hearing back from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Meske said. Then, the agency sent a letter back saying they needed proof she was adopted, even though their letter referred to the proof she’d already submitted. They submitted the documentation and waited again.
As USCIS sat on her application, Tressanna graduated high school and enrolled at Spokane Community College, where she’s getting an associate’s degree. Because she’s technically an international student, she pays international tuition, bringing the community college bill to $9,000 a year.
She can’t legally work, which means the 19-year-old won’t be getting an apartment of her own any time soon. As Kay explained the situation, Tressana put her hands together in an exaggerated prayer.
“Please, dear Lord,” she said.
“It’s always right there on the back of my mind,” she said about her visa.
Perhaps most difficult is that she can’t travel to Jamaica while her application is pending. Leaving the U.S. would void her application, Meske said, and Kay said she was concerned immigration authorities might not let her back in the country.
Tressanna hasn’t seen Martin since November of 2016.
“It’s very hard,” Martin wrote. “I would love to see her, I miss her so much.”
In February, Tressanna heard back from USCIS. The family’s first petition was approved, meaning immigration authorities recognized her as adopted. But she’s still waiting to hear back about getting permanent residency. Meske said the agency just asked the family to resubmit her medical evaluation and other paperwork they should already have.
“You have to just kind of jump through the hoops that they keep putting at you,” Meske said.
Meske said the Trump administration has adopted a policy of exclusion more than inclusion when reviewing immigrant petitions, which he said was a change from the Obama administration. But Tressanna’s long wait is more a product of the bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration system in general, not the policies of any president, he said.
Kay said it’s been frustrating for the family to hear nothing for months, then scramble to get character references or new forms in order when they do hear back.
“There ain’t no line to get in,” she said. “All you can do is submit the required paperwork.”
Once she gets her associate’s degree, Tressanna said she’d like to be a surgical nurse.
Blood doesn’t bother her, she said, but she doesn’t think she wants to stay in school long enough to become a doctor. She’s a Grey’s Anatomy fan and likes the idea of helping with an operation, handing tools to a surgeon.
“I like watching surgeons work,” she said.
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