Let's call her Veronica. I met with her at an Alameda coffeehouse near the Island apartment she has rented with her girlfriend for the last two years.
Her orange hoodie highlighted her dark skin. She spoke softly — her voice wary, calm and resigned. Around her arms were beaded bracelets.
Under a brown fedora, Veronica’s hair is cut close to her scalp; she recently donated her hair in honor of a friend with cancer. At 5-foot-7 and with an athletic build, it's not surprising that Veronica played soccer and volleyball in college.
But unlike most of her friends who graduated and went on to work at “regular jobs," Veronica has worked under the table as a nanny for the last five years, ever since she left college in 2005, two courses shy of a degree.
When Veronica's student visa lapsed six years ago, she got a job babysitting. Since then, she has built up a loyal clientele. Now she works regularly for four families.
“I’ve always been a natural with kids,” Veronica said. “They’re drawn to me and I’m drawn to them.”
“I can, as normally as possible, support myself."
Veronica measures her words when she speaks. She aims, she says, to always “mean what I say and say what I mean.”
Straight talk can be a challenge, though: there are many aspects of her life she has a difficult time explaining. The details of her legal situation are complicated and painful to talk about.
“I don’t have a way of starting or growing a career. I don’t pay taxes. I don’t pay into retirement funds. I’m not moving forward in terms of what socially you’re expected to do,” Veronica said.
And coming out to her traditional Panamanian family — it took several years for her mother to accept that girlfriends were not simply a phase — has held its heartache.
After she first came out to her parents, her mother often wondered out loud if Veronica could be happy with only a woman for the rest of her life.
Veronica met "Danielle" in college, but they didn't become romantically involved until years later. Now that the two have been together as a couple for nearly two years, Danielle wishes she could sponsor Veronica for legal residency. But that’s not an option. Even if California were to recognize same-sex marriage, immigration law does not.
Caught without options for staying legally, Veronica doesn’t know when an immigration official might knock on her door. And while she has considered returning to live in Panama, she feels the United States is her true home.
The granddaughter of a Panamanian politician, Veronica was born in Panama, the middle of three siblings. She lived a comfortable upper-middle class life in Panama City. But when the U.S.-backed Manuel Noriega came to power, he suspended constitutional rights, closed down newspapers and clamped down hard on dissenters, including Veronica’s father. Her family was among the many that received death threats.
“I remember coming home from school one day, the streets were empty and nobody was at my house,” Veronica said.
Soliders had barricaded her block. She watched as one lit a tire and rolled it down the street, a show of government power. Afraid and confused, Veronica ran the other way to her aunt’s house. No one was home there either.
“I crawled underneath my aunt’s bed and saw the shoes of a soldier walking away,” Veronica said.
With the threat-of violence ever-growing, her family decided it was time for them to flee the country.
“My mom gave us each a bag and said, 'You can pick your favorite things to bring,'” Veronica said.
She chose a doll, a hair brush, a necklace and a plant called a mimosa.
“There are these plants that when you touch them, they fold closed and they grow anywhere, but my mom said we couldn’t bring plants,” Veronica said.
Veronica, her mother, her father and her two siblings flew from Panama to Miami, from Miami to San Francisco. They went to live with an aunt in a Bay Area suburb. That was 1987.
Her parents, with help from a lawyer, applied for asylum.
The family's immigration status uncertain, they did their best to adapt to California life. Placed in first grade, Veronica's first challenge was to learn English.The teacher paired her with another girl who drilled her with flash cards while the other children did their lessons. Veronica was eager.
“I wasn’t a kid who stole, but I stole those flash cards,” said Veronica, laughing.
In bed at night, she sounded out every syllable of every word on the flash cards. She wanted to be able to communicate. She wanted to fit in.
She was acutely aware of how she was different. She envied her friends' big houses and yards, and she was embarrassed by her family's small apartment and the bedroom she shared with her two siblings.
But her father, who had worked for an American company in Panama, was able to as secure a good job. Her mother volunteered at a community group, working with immigrant children and their families.
In 1989, the United States invaded Panama and removed Noriega from power. Soon after, the family’s request for asylum was denied on the grounds that the danger they feared no longer existed.
Veronica’s parents appealed, citing a continued threat. Their case stood pending for nine years. Immigration lawyers say it was not entirely unusual in the 1990s for asylum cases to sit idle for that long.
At home, Veronica's parents didn't talk to the children about the family’s tenuous legal status. The children and family continued to acclimate to life in the States.
But the precariousness of the situation resurfaced when Veronica was a junior in high school. One fall day, Veronica’s parents received a letter from the Board of Immigration Appeals saying the family had 60 days to leave the country.
Her parents appealed, aware that now they were simply buying time. Indeed, with their second appeal, they bought two more years. Veronica excelled at sports, got into Cal State and planned to major in childhood education.
During her freshman year in college, a second letter was delivered to the family. Veronica and her family were asked to appear before a judge in the winter of 2001.
“We stood there for five minutes and the judge said, ‘Denied.’”
For Veronica, the morning’s final verdict marked the beginning of a decade of uncertainty.
This is Part I of Veronica's story. is about her teen years and early 20s and how she lost her legal status; is about her legal options. Part IV is here.