Alien: The unbearable paperwork of being

Arun James admits he made a mistake, but he never realized that failure to fill out a simple form could cost him his job, family, and home.

So taut is the post-9/11 tightrope immigrants in this country walk that one stumble can send families crashing apart– even when a legal alien is married to a U.S. citizen.

James, a Canadian, is a respiratory therapist who has been in Virginia on a work visa since 1997. He's employed at UVA Medical Center– or at least he was until July 15.

Two years ago, James married Carol Bognar, an American citizen, and last year he applied for a green card for permanent residency. When his wife took a business trip to Montreal in May, he tagged along to see friends and help take care of their eight-month-old daughter.

Trouble came on the return. James hadn't completed an "advanced parole" before leaving the country. Big mistake.

"I was more concerned that we didn't have all the paperwork for my daughter," he says.

"Had we known the implications, he never would have traveled," says Bognar.

James was allowed back in the United States, but ordered to show up in Washington. In D.C. he discovered "removal proceedings" had begun.

When he left the country without the form, the U.S. government considered James to have abandoned his green card application. That put him in the immigration limbo land of "no status," which means, among other things, he can't work.

"That's when I got a lawyer," James says.

But that may not be enough. James and Bognar were advised there is only a two percent chance James will not have to return to Canada after he appears in court August 5– and then it could take a couple of months for him to get a visa to return to the U.S.

"A lot of people assume once you marry a U.S. citizen, you get a green card," says Bognar, "but it only allows you to begin the process of application.

Bognar is stunned that a paperwork glitch is going to turn her family's world upside down. She travels in her work, and James takes care of the baby when she's gone. Now she faces covering the mortgage and child care costs alone.

"My husband took it for granted that there was no way he'd be deported because that would detrimentally affect his wife and daughter," she says.

She's also irked that a Canadian citizen is being treated so shabbily. "This is Canada," she says, "a supposedly friendly country."

Marcia Taylor in UVA's international studies office is used to dealing with people from other countries who need visas to work here, and she's sympathetic to James's plight.

"I wish he'd talked to me before he took off," she says. "People traveling may think it's just Canada and not that different from the U.S." Au contraire.

In general, Taylor finds legal aliens "very savvy" in handling the myriad requirements for remaining in the U.S. But James is not the only one to have a paperwork maintenance snafu catch up with him.

Tracey and David Armstrong are also from Canada. They had to get their daughters out of the U.S.– quickly– when David Armstrong took the 15-year-old to get her learner's permit and discovered that her visa was set to expire the next day.

"It was really my fault," he says. "We'd neglected the dates on their visas."

He called his employer's human relations department, which he assumed would take care of his daughters' visas. The HR person said Armstrong had to get the girls out of the country by midnight. "I said, 'You're kidding'," Armstrong says a month later. "He said, 'I'm dead serious. You've got to leave now.' "

The girls were on a plane to Ottawa that evening.

Arun James will ask the court to allow him to stay to take care of his daughter, who is an American citizen. UVA has written a letter on his behalf, noting the extreme shortage of nurses and its desperate need for health care workers.

James is resigned, though, that he'll probably have to leave his wife and daughter in Charlottesville for a few months.

But he's philosophical about it. "It's inconvenient to my family, but because of where I work, I see worse– sick children, car wrecks, terminal cases...."

James used to be amazed at fellow foreign-born nurses who spent thousands on lawyers to handle their immigration paperwork. He says this incident taught him a lot.

"I'd feel comfortable doing it myself now," he says, "but my wife won't let me."

Arun James, Carol Bognar, and daughter Nina. This happy family picture soon could be missing the daddy because Arun James' paperwork snafu may send him out of the country.