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For One Undocumented German, San Francisco No Longer Home

Posted: Feb 27, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- Liska Koenig is so San Francisco, she's got a tattoo of the Golden Gate Bridge on her left forearm, and one with the zip code of the outer Richmond District on her wrist. She has worked as a bike messenger, and knows where all the local punk bands play.

She’s also an undocumented immigrant, and notwithstanding a forced trip back to her hometown of Hannover, Germany in 1997, has lived consistently in the Bay Area since 1989.

Having exhausted all options for extending her current student visa, Koenig, 46, is now facing the very real possibility that she will have to leave. And while remaining an undocumented immigrant is a troubling prospect, talk of moving back to her native Germany forces a cringe.

“If I go back there, I'm an older, fat, weird frumpy chick,” she says, her sharp features and piercing blue eyes accentuating a direct, if blunt personality. “Here I'm not. I don't fit into the German set of rules.”

The Marriage Trap

Koenig walks with a limp, a bad hip she’s had since birth. Her arms are chiseled, though, from years of Taiko drumming, a Japanese group performance art. She also loves Vietnamese food, one of many reasons why she chose to call this city home since first arriving on a tourist visa at 22.

Today she is one of nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, 2.5 million of them in California. But according to Department of Homeland Security, nearly 80 percent hail from countries in Latin America, the top four being Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The number of undocumented European immigrants is much smaller. In 2010, the DHS estimated that about 300,000 resided in the country. Undocumented Hondurans alone outnumber the entire population of undocumented Europeans.

Koenig has been married twice, both to friends in ill-fated attempts to get a green card. Her first marriage collapsed before she was even interviewed by immigration officials in 1995. Her husband had become addicted to crack cocaine and was stealing from her and her roommates.

“If we would have gone to the interview, it would have all gone down the drain,” she said. She later married an ex-boyfriend and re-filed for a green card. “I was desperate enough to ask him,” she recalls, despite their rocky past, “and he married me out of guilt.”

Marriage to a U.S. citizen is the most common pathway to citizenship for foreign nationals, according to a study published in 2008 by the Center for Immigration Studies, accounting for more than 2.3 million green card issuances between 1998 and 2008.

Koenig and her new husband made it through an initial interview, though her recent divorce drew heightened scrutiny from immigration officials. They told her she would have to attend a follow-up interview. Two years later, she found herself lying under oath about her marriage.

“That's when we got busted,” she said, adding she was given a choice, more an ultimatum. “We know you're lying,” the officers told her. “Either you admit this or your husband is going to jail.”

Koenig’s lawyer managed to convince the authorities not to detain her on the spot. “But I saw them,” she says of others who were not so lucky, “in rows of 10, being dragged around.”

A Free Spirit

INS confiscated Koenig's passport and told her she couldn't leave the country until her court date. On the advice of another attorney, however, she managed to get her hands on a new passport and returned to Germany, avoiding prosecution.

“When I was in Germany, all I wanted to do was come back here,” she recalls. Learning that her case had been closed by the INS, that’s exactly what she did, returning on four separate trips to the Bay Area between 2000 and 2005.

“I got progressively more upset on every trip,” she says in regards to her revulsion at the thought of having to return to Germany each time. It was a period she describes as “emotional breakdown central.”

Koenig’s disaffection from the country of her birth is something deeply rooted.

“My mom would say, 'Liska, here in Germany there are rules, and people stick to those rules.'” It was that pressure to conform, she says, that helped drive her away. “Automatically, people judge things that are different, and when you pack up and leave, you get to reinvent yourself,” Koenig said.

“You can be a free spirit here [in the Bay Area]. You can be yourself no matter what that is.”

Unless that means you’re undocumented. Koenig recalls the time when a former roommate threatened to call INS and report her in the late 90s because she wanted Koenig to move out.

Not German Enough

In 2005 Koenig applied for a student visa after enrolling in City College of San Francisco. It was her door back home. While there she studied journalism and, in an op-ed for the school newspaper, once described her view of the American Dream as the foreclosure crisis killed it for millions across the country.

“Looking into the future with hope should not be the privilege of a select few,” Koenig wrote. “It should be an opportunity available to all.”

After graduating with an associate’s degree in journalism in 2010, she applied for an Optional Practical Training visa, which allows recent immigrant graduates to work in their field of study for up to one year. Koenig's OPT took five months to be approved, during which time she sought out an employer that might sponsor her for an H-1B visa application and the road to legal permanent residency.

Nearing the expiration date on her OPT visa, Koenig finally found work with a San Mateo-based company that offers online international price comparisons. Writing, editing, and recording video voiceovers for the company's German-language Web site, Koenig tried to convince her German boss to sponsor her permanent residency.

“She wouldn't because I wasn't German enough,” Koenig said with more than a hint of irony.

Today, after nearly four months of being undocumented, Koenig says she is planning to return to Europe, anywhere but Germany. But with the European economy ravaged by recession, she says she worries about being able to find work.

As for San Francisco, Koenig says she’s given up all hope of staying in the only place she has ever felt at home.

Alex Emslie studies journalism at San Francisco State University. His piece is part of a special ‘Stories From the Diaspora’ series profiling the lives of immigrants across California.

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