It felt like a dirty trick was being played on them. Natalia Robledo-Contreras still cannot believe what happened the day she and her younger sister first applied for a Dutch residence permit. An immigration official refused to accept the girls’ applications until their parents came into the office, claiming that their custody documents were not sufficient. Natalia, then 17 years old, and her lawyer were suspicious. What if this was a ruse to detain her parents, who like the sisters were undocumented? This was why the girls had gone alone.
But with the official refusing point blank to take their forms, Natalia’s mother decided to come to the office. She was detained immediately upon arrival. “I cried non-stop, even after my Mum was released later that day,” Natalia says. “She was ordered to leave the country immediately.”
That day in 2012 marked the beginning of Natalia’s long quest for legal status in the Netherlands, a country where she had already lived for nine years. At every stage she would try to do the right thing and in each instance these efforts would be used against her case. The process would ultimately cost Natalia her family.
Natalia’s father left behind poverty and unemployment in Chile in 2001 after a relative helped him find a job in the Netherlands. But the job was off the books so when a year later when he brought his wife and two children to join him they were also without documents. As an eight year old, Natalia was initially reluctant to leave her home in Santiago. But she was a good girl, a trier who took responsibility. She excelled at school in the Netherlands.
The family had tried to get legal residency in the Netherlands via several different routes, but did not qualify. A lawyer advised Natalia’s family to wait at least four years for the children to develop roots in the country, through school and Dutch language classes, before applying for the sisters’ residence permits. “Getting good grades would be good for my case, we thought, as a family,” Natalia says. “I often went from school, to home, to school again.”
Natalia, now a 25-year-old law student, walks through the train station in Amsterdam. A wa…