Midnight. 80 degrees. Palm trees, illuminated by the airport lights, lining the street. My dream was now a reality. Germany to Miami. I did it. I moved to America!
When I was 12, my family vacationed in upstate New York. From then on, I knew I wanted to live in America. When other children dreamed of becoming policemen, rock singers, and cowboys, my perpetual childhood dream was to become an American. I devoured books by German author Karl May, about an Apache warrior named Winnetou. His pride and honor started my fascination with this country.
I was 16 when I finished school in Germany, 17 when I finished school as an exchange student, and was 20 when I moved to Miami. I fell madly in love and we moved to Los Angeles. After some time, we moved to Detroit and got married. Then we broke up.
The breakup forced a brief pause as I unwillingly moved back to Germany to reset my visa. Before I left Detroit, I had set up an interview with another freight forwarder in Hamburg, under the condition that they would send me back to the U.S. I never, ever gave up on America — it was never, ever a consideration. Within ten days of arriving in Hamburg, I was at my new job at the German Freight Forwarder. Ten months later, I was back to my America — assigned to Houston.
When they moved me to Atlanta, I remarried. He was a contractor, and I quit my freight job so we could renovate houses together. Unfortunately, the relationship didn't work out. I thought I didn't need to worry about the visa situation because I was married to a U.S. citizen. Had our relationship worked out, I would have been on track for a temporary green card. I was single again, so I was in violation of my H1B visa — and of the five companies in Atlanta that I could have worked at, none of them had job openings.
I found a glimmer of hope — maybe I could switch to an entrepreneur visa. I quickly found an attorney to take my case, but later found out that he never filed anything.
I had become a victim of notario fraud. By the time I realized it, my old visa had expired and I was undocumented. The lawyer I thought was helping me knowingly and purposely did not file my paperwork. I had done everything in my power to fix my status, and because of this lying “immigration lawyer,” I had no way of fixing my situation.
I lost my status without the ability to fix it. There's nothing in current American immigration law that allows a person to file a case against an entity in this country if they don’t have legal status. I was even advised by one lawyer, "You have a business and a social security number; keep doing what you're doing, pay your taxes, and maybe someday there will be amnesty." That was the hope that kept me going.
So I started my own business. I followed my passion of renovating old houses and also became an heir hunter — finding missing heirs to properties.
When I moved to the Bay Area in 2007, I discovered the San Francisco Underground Market, which was an incubator for new food talent. I was so inspired by attending their events that I decided to start the Atlanta Underground Market when I moved back there in 2011. Bon Appetit counted it among the top emerging food markets. Atlanta Magazine featured it in their Best of Atlanta 2011 issue.
Living in Georgia came with new challenges. Due to the state's strict laws against undocumented immigrants, I was unable to renew my business and drivers licenses. While these may be small issues for the average American citizen, this was a huge issue for me as driving is a life-line in an area with limited public transportation options. I had to leave Atlanta.
I've finally settled in to San Pedro, Calif., one block from the ocean. As a spiritual person, living near the ocean helps me listen to that “still small voice” within and serves as a constant reminder of that old saying about “teaching a man to fish.” Though I don't windsurf anymore, I spend lots of time on the beach with my dog. I manage my rental properties, hunt heirs, and have started the L.A. Underground Market. I guess you can call me a serial entrepreneur.
Speaking of which: California would lose $301.6 billion in economic activity and about 3.6 million jobs if all undocumented immigrants were removed.
I am one of the 11 million undocumented Americans in this country. I ask the country's leaders: am I not the type of immigrant you want to keep here?
Michaela Graham is the founder of Atlanta Underground Market and prides herself on supporting budding entrepreneurs. She is affirmatively filing for deferred action as part of this campaign and this is the first time she’s revealed in such a public manner that she is an undocumented American.