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Renner's odyssey shows glacial pace of legal immigration

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Lena Renner (left) and her husband, Keith, are shown at the Albemarle Family YMCA where they both work. Lena, a native of Ukraine, officially became a U.S. citizen in July.

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By Doug Gardner
Columnist

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Olena Tretyachenko Renner's odyssey to American citizenship is finally complete.

Renner and her husband, Keith, celebrated " 'Lena's" new status in July at an "impressive" ceremony in a Durham federal courtroom with about 50 other excited new Americans.

Their seven-year struggle through federal bureaucracies in six states and thousands of dollars spent is a testament to doing immigration the legal way. It is also a cautionary tale of why so many immigrants longing for citizenship don't bother to try the legal route.

You might know the Renners if you hang out at the Albemarle Family YMCA.

Keith, 64, is the affable membership associate who greets you at the front desk. He's a retired state rehabilitation counselor and social worker from Chowan County. Lena, 38, is the Y's Pilates instructor, personal trainer and wellness coach. Back in Ternopil, Ukraine she was a newspaper writer with a master's degree in journalism. She learned English in school, as did most of her peers.

The couple met in 2009 and conducted an intercontinental romance for two years before marrying in July 2011.

Obtaining the K-1 visa as an engaged couple to gain Lena temporary residence in the U.S. took 11 months. That was a foreshadowing of the long slog to get a provisional "green card" and then full citizenship. Obtaining the temporary green card usually takes six months, but dragged on for two years as correspondence flew back and forth between North Carolina and Vermont, where Carolina applications are processed, Renner said. Both submitted five years of tax records to the government. Lena had to undergo a comprehensive physical exam, and they endured separate interviews by authorities to prove voluntary intent.

"You can't fix anything over the phone," Renner said, or on line, either. A government mispelling of her name gummed up the process at one point and would have cost them $560 to get corrected. They decided to wait to fix it until she applied for the permanent card.

"There's a fee for everything," Lena said. All told, they spent about $5,000, Keith estimated. They were determined to navigate the process without an attorney.

Lena was fingerprinted four or five times at immigration offices in Norfolk, Renner said. But like most of the other documents in her four-inch thick file, the prints got lost or had to be originals for Immigration personnel in Kansas, California, New Jersey and Arizona. With her file zipping across time zones and state lines, Renner and her husband rarely spoke to the same official twice about hiccups in the process.

"You never know where your case is handled," Lena said.

As the couple went through the process, Lena worked as a translator for a Ukrainian company and got her certification in Pilates and group exercise. She began her career at the Y in July 2014.

Both families told the Renners they were "crazy" to marry. Lena is glad to be in the U.S. where she can start a family. She’ll make much more than the $110 per month she earned as a newspaper reporter, too. Public officials offered to augment her spartan salary with bribes if she would slant a story their way.

Lena is not judgmental about immigrants on the southern border. She believes they should enter the country legally, as she did. Keith believes there should be a pathway for non-criminal immigrants, but not one that takes seven years.

The Renners are not the only ones locally struggling with a sclerotic immigration system. I know a family that has engaged their congressman to help the glacial progress of getting their daughter-in-law legal entrée to the U.S. A Mexican painter I met after a hurricane damaged our home was already nine years into what he estimated would be a 15-year marathon to citizenship.

All these folks speak English, are highly educated and have no criminal background. But they cannot get a decision out of our government in a timely fashion. Is it any wonder that those who cannot yet speak English and have modest education would try to slip across our borders?

Doug Gardner crossed the border into Elizabeth City, N.C. more than 40 years ago.

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