What practical things do I need to be concerned about?
November 10, 2016 5:30 AM   Subscribe

South Asian female permanent resident with African American citizen partner - we have a child together. How concerned should I be about our future prospects in this country?

I am a very gainfully employed female South Asian permanent resident, not yet married to my African American boyfriend with whom I have an infant son. My passport shows my citizenship in my Asian home country, although I was born in Dubai. I have an Arabic name because my family is Muslim. I am not religious and far from being identifiably Muslim.

We live in Southern California and plan to move to greater NY, NJ or PA to be closer to (gay) family that lives in Manhattan. As much as I would love to live in NYC, the cost is prohibitive, and anyway jobs for me (pharmaceutical/ biotech) are more plentiful outside of NYC.

Right now my primary concerns are:

1) Getting citizenship. Am I better off applying on my own (green card expires in 2023), or getting married and doing it that way? I used to be married, and received my green card a few months after my ex-husband received his through his work (he was not a citizen when I married him, he had an H1-B); I also have a misdemeanor from college almost a decade ago that's been expunged, although I know this would show up in my records for immigration purposes. We plan to get married, but a wedding's on the back burner due to the expense of a baby, so it's not like it would be a marriage of convenience. If it matters, I have a doctorate, travel extensively, and sometimes get detained for a couple hours coming back into the country while they run a background check on me. Immigration officers sometimes joke with me that I should hurry up and get my citizenship so this won't keep happening.

2) My partner being able to find a job. We're on a two-year plan to move after we've saved enough for a six month cushion of living expenses. What are the likely prospects for my African-American boyfriend finding a job - he's in hospitality management - in NJ or PA? Are we better off staying in Southern California? He has a bachelors degree.

3) What areas of NJ are considered... um... safe for people like us? We are open to migrating to another country, as I MAY be able to request transfers to perhaps the UK or Australia through my work, but that would be a last resort. If I was single and childless I'd be outta here on the next plane.

I know YANAImmigrationL, Human Resources specialist, psychic, etc. Just... today is excruciating and I am scared. These are very real fears. Thank you for your insight as always.

throwaway: shellshockedandscared@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For places to live: Montclair is sort of the stereotypical place for interracial couples in Northern NJ. It's not cheap, but its cheaper than Manhattan, and has a good school system. It's also the stereotypical place for people who were priced out/sized out of Brooklyn--it has a very walkable main downtown area in the center of town, plus a few other little urban cores with shops/restaurants on both the southern and northern ends of town. It's very easy to get in to the city from there as well, as there's a direct train to Midtown (as well as to Hoboken).

For hospitality management, Montclair has a huge restaurant scene; the one nearby Bloomfield is also growing at the moment, so there's likely something your partner would be able to tap into.
posted by damayanti at 6:00 AM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Memail me if you want the number of our immigration attorney, who is fantastic and I can't tell you the amount of respect for him I perceived from every immigration official we encountered on our journey. It was humbling to behold.


My husband is like you and we got married during the last year of Bush. We had a son two years later. I get where you are standing, your concerns. Do not not not put off citizenship. Get married. Make the appointment, go to the meetings get approved and take the oath so that your precious family will never be separated from each other. Do not wait.

Make sure all 3 of you have the same last name. Do this right after you get married. Do not wait.

Likely everything will be fine, but your reasoning about that very important marriage certificate is not safe for your baby. Just do it. And the citizenship part, too!

My husband actually did the citizenship paperwork on his own with only an attorney consult, but you have not been married for a bunch of years like us so YMMV.

Otherwise, life will be normal until it isn't. Someone in another thread advised me to "pack my parachute," a/k/a have an exit plan and money available. So you'll want passports once all of your paperwork is done.
posted by jbenben at 6:08 AM on November 10, 2016 [23 favorites]

Also, you can have a wedding down the road! I'm just assuming that you are a committed family unit, and I don't see the point of having different legal status than the other parent of you child.

Everything is fine. We're all going to be OK. The "get married immediately" would be my advice no matter an election or not because having different legal status than your child or partner is unsafe ground no matter what. Citizenship is easier. You do it for your child, so you factually and practically present as a unit.

Everything is fine. I didn't want to panic you. Don't panic. Just be thorough and get organized, on the same page legally. This will all be OK.

If you are near LA you should go to the Griffith Observatory some evening this week because it is free and will give your perspective and calm you down. It's lovely up there.)
posted by jbenben at 6:22 AM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Most of NJ, especially the central and northern half you'd be more likely to be in, is safe. Lots of gay, trans, interracial couples/people. NJ is solidly blue with the exception of a few counties, which I wouldn't suggest living in anyway. Your best bets are probably Hoboken/Jersey City, Montclair, Morristown, Princeton (though it's further south than the others).
posted by rachaelfaith at 6:40 AM on November 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Montclair is all that damayanti says, and it's great, but it is really expensive -- a lot of (cool, lefty) celebrities live there now, as a kind of UWS outpost. Other very liberal, gay friendly, mixed-race-family-popular towns also on the direct Manhattan train line (about 20 miles west of the city -- about 30 minutes on the commuter train) are still more affordable: Maplewood, for the win, and a bit more expensive but similar its next door neighbor South Orange.
posted by flourpot at 6:41 AM on November 10, 2016

Consider Philadelphia as well. The city is solidly blue, it's a quick trip to NYC, and you get the benefits of living in a real city (depending on your neighborhood you can be very happy without a car) without the cost of living of NYC.
posted by telegraph at 6:52 AM on November 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

Regarding 1), it sounds like your permanent resident status is not conditional as your green card expires in 2023, so you can apply for citizenship through naturalization as soon as you have been a permanent resident for 5 years. See here for the USCIS page on naturalization and eligibility requirements. To apply for citizenship through marriage, you need to wait 3 years after you get married. So it depends on how long you've had residency for as to which route is quickest for you.

If you got married this year, the earliest you would be eligible to apply for naturalization through a spouse is 2019, so if you've had permanent residency for at least 2 years, applying yourself after the 5-year wait will be quicker. If you are eligible to apply now, I would do so (in fact I just did).
posted by sizeable beetle at 7:08 AM on November 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

Montclair/Maplewood/South Orange are pretty solid options in new jersey but I can tell you from recent familial experience you wont get much of a cost of living savings out there. If home ownership is something you are interested in you should know that I know people who are paying over 2k/month in real estate taxes for their (too large for their needs, now regrettably sized) home in South Orange. That said the local politics and racial mix are great, and the schools are fine but not necessarily 25k/year better than places with less painful real estate taxes.

Similarly you will pay nearly NYC prices to live in closer-in spots that are effectively neighborhoods of NYC but across the Hudson. Jersey City is really lovely but its already gentrified pretty hard and home prices reflect both the proximity to the city and the abundant amenities.

Some other family recently moved a bit further out in Somerset county and its . . . less accepting even if its becoming more diverse. Lots of trump signs and, it would seem, genuine feelings from the long term locals that the brown in-movers (their town has a large south Asian immigrant population) are "taking away their opportunities". This was stated explicitly to them by some new neighbors - the local high school had never sent any/many kids to ivy league schools and now the only ones who have a shot have conspicuously "foreign" names.

I'd be happy to memail about this . . . im married to a South Asian immigrant who is still trying to figure out where she stands on saying here (after becoming a citizen in April and voting for the first time this week). I spent a lot of yesterday genuinely looking into how we could relocate to Canada where she has family. If it were just me I would probably be inclined to stay and fight it (and NYC will not go down without a fight) but I can respect her fears and feelings of being unwelcomed and prioritize our family/relationship over the abstract ideals which would have me stay here. I'm conflicted because "im moving to Canada" seems like the utmost expression of white privilege - while "I'm moving to Canada for the safety and well being of my person-of-color immigrant spouse" may actually bump that up to 11.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:11 AM on November 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

As Telegraph said, I'd consider Philadelphia. The city is really on the upswing, and is full of people in their 20s and 30s, often with young children. Cost of living is probably half that of NYC - you can rent a two-bedroom for $1500-2000 in or near downtown, and you can find a small house to buy within a mile's walk of the downtown for $350-500k (I know because I've been in the market for the same so have been following real estate in the city for a number of months). Property prices are currently exploding though. The downtown is one of the most walkable in America, and in my opinion is very charming - quite reminiscent of Brooklyn to me. Lots of beautiful colonial architecture as well (think Beacon Hill in Boston). Currently Philadelphia's doing a huge expansion of public parks, which are some of the best in the nation for a city. A bike share program was recently introduced (Indego) and is very successful: Philly is one of the top biking cities in the US now (separate bike lanes, a huge proportion of people who commute to work by bike, etc.). It also has a huge foodie scene right now, and has some of the best chefs in the country. I've lived and spent time in various major US cities, and to me Philly offers many of the perks of Boston, NYC, SF, etc. in a package that is affordable enough for a family to live in, buy a house, etc.

The city and its suburbs are solidly Democrat (I think it went something like 85% for Clinton in the last election), and I really really don't think you'd have any problems with being an interracial couple, Muslim, etc. Philadelphia actually has a very large African-American population. I can't give specific advice on jobs in your fields, but you might want to check out Penn/Drexel in West Philadelphia (aka University City). Also there's currently a luxury hotel boom in the city, along with the Convention Center, so your partner could look into opportunities associated with that for hospitality. Also, just so you're aware, if you're comparing NJ and PA: NJ typically has significantly higher property taxes than PA (like, double or triple the cost), and often significantly higher income taxes. If you're thinking of purchasing in NJ, make sure you check out the property taxes to see whether they're affordable with a mortgage.

Philadelphia's been featured in a number of big publications recently, and it feels to me like it might be on the cusp of being big. Look here for a NYT travel piece on Philly. Here in the Washington Post as one of America's best foodie cities. Again in the NYT as a top travel destination. I've been really quite pleasantly surprised by how nice the city is now. If you want to chat further about it, or if you want advice on specific neighborhoods that might be good to look at, feel free to MeMail me!
posted by ClaireBear at 7:14 AM on November 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Sizable beetle's point about the timeline is correct - you would have to wait 3 years from your marriage or 5 years from the issuance of your greencard to apply for citizenship . . . under the current rules. Nothing is off the table and there are no guarantees that anything we know about how immigration rules will work will remain that way. I would suggest it is worth your time and money if you can possibly afford it to discuss potential changes or scenarios with a qualified immigration attorney (they are all thinking about this anyway and many probably have calendar openings if my immigration attorney friends are indicative - most of them seem to have stopped encouraging their clients to file DACA and DAPA petitions as soon as results were clear Tuesday nigh).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:15 AM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a corollary to Execeptional_Hubris's point about NJ property taxes: most of the houses I've been looking at near the center of Philadelphia have property taxes of about $250-400 per month ($3000-5000/year). I have heard horror stories of people in NJ paying $15,000-$25,000/year in property taxes. NJ is also having major budgetary problems, with an exodus of people leaving the state, so they're trying to raise taxes on everything, so there's no guarantee that your taxes won't go up further. Definitely look into the situation if you're thinking of buying a house in NJ.

Also, forgot to add in my previous post: Philly's something like 90 minutes from midtown Manhattan by train, and there are plenty of buses that go there too. Probably to NJ too. Nice thing about living on the East Coast is the abundant transport between places.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:29 AM on November 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm a big Philly booster like telegraph and ClaireBear. I love living here, and by and large, I generally feel safe as an East Asian woman. There are a lot of South Asians in Philly, and there are also a lot of Muslims in Philly, to the point where the Philly schools now have two Muslim holidays. It's common to see women in niqabs downtown or on the subway, although less common to see even a hijab in white collar settings.

The main downsides to Philly for you, from what I can tell, are:

1. The possibility of a reverse commute to the suburbs for you since if you're more in the lab side of biotech and pharma, many of the research campuses are now outside the city. It's no joke, and I know people who spend 45 minutes to go 8 miles.

2. Philadelphia public schools are not the greatest. Like, we're planning to send Baby Machine to our local elementary school, because it's safe, and because we're comfortable with heavily supplementing a Common Core/standardized-testing based curriculum. But if you are focused on sending your kid to a fancier school or a school with good test scores, you're either going private, or paying a $100,000+ premium to be in one of two catchment areas for public elementary school. And even those are subject to the grim budgeting cycle and shitshow that SRC. And high school is Complicated.

Side note: Montclair is frighteningly expensive. I have a friend who is moving there from Philly. Granted, she and her husband are fancy, but they're paying $250,000 more to pay roughly 30x more in real estate taxes on the same number of bedrooms/bathrooms. When they asked their broker whether their all-cash offer would give them an edge, the broker said, "Honey, everyone is all cash out here."
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:35 AM on November 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Get legally married now. Worry about the ceremony later. It may not be the fastest path to citizenship under the current immigration rules, but you may not want to bet on those remaining the same, while I can't imagine a situation where spousal citizenship is removed.
posted by corb at 9:19 AM on November 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I grew up in the NJ suburbs of Phila and now live in the city. The city is plenty diverse and tolerant. I work for one of the big hospital systems and have coworkers who wear hijab an noone thinks twice about it. I prefer the suburbs in NJ mostly because I'm a country mouse, not a city mouse, but they can be bit less diverse (like depending on town your kid might be in a 10-20% minority to whites in their class), but still tolerant.

North Jersey and South Jersey are 2 different animals affordability wise. North Jersey is only slightly more affordable than NYC in some areas and more expensive in others. South Jersey is way more affordable. For a "middle class" lifestyle, I find the pricing between phila and south jersey to be a wash. In Phila the property is more expensive, taxes are cheaper, but you may need to save some for private schooling, and there's a 3.8% city wage tax. In South Jersey, the properties are cheaper, with higher taxes, but the schools are ok to good for the most part. There's a bunch of pharmaceutical companies in central jersey.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:36 AM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

For more on the NJ debt situation, look at this or this, or this, for instance. NJ's finances seem from my research to have gotten pretty bad in the last decade. I considered buying in the NJ suburbs of Philadelphia, but I chose to live in PA because I guess I'm pretty financially risk averse, and NJ's long-term financial situation doesn't look good to me. Christie also recently ended the NJ-PA tax agreement, which may lead to NJ's high-earners and/or affluent companies relocating out of the state, which may well make the problem worse.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:45 AM on November 10, 2016

Joyceanmachine and WeekendJen are right on the schooling front re. Philly. I don't have kids yet, but my understanding is that there are a few good public elementary school catchments, for which you will pay a premium in home prices. Meredith catchment (much of the Italian Market/Queen Village area) is one that I've heard some of the best things about. It's a very cute neighborhood just south of Center City East, and many of the houses are pretty pricey, but you can still find some bargains (e.g. this tiny house for $325k, which I *think* is in the Meredith catchment). Penn started something called the Penn Alexander School which I think is supposed to be excellent. I think the catchment centers on Spruce Hill, in West Philly, but you'd have to look into the specifics. I believe Center City West (Rittenhouse Square/Logan Square) have a public school with pretty good ratings, as does Center City East (Washington Square West/Society Hill)? There are possibly others, but I don't know about them. But as more young families move into the city, hopefully the schools will improve further. There is always private school too, obviously. Like the NJ suburbs of Philly, the PA suburbs of Philly have great schools but high property taxes ($6000-10,000+). A lot of it I guess would depend on where you work, and whether you prefer urban or suburban life. As joyceanmachine said, a lot of companies are located in the Philly suburbs for tax reasons (Philadelphia hasn't been very business friendly over the last fifty years or so), so some people do reverse-commute. The city is trying to change that, and there are proposals to lower wage tax significantly (ideally to 2-3%), as well as lowering business tax (and making up for it by raising the tax rate on commercial real estate). It has to pass with Harrisburg, so we'll see how it pans out. If you did want to live and work in the city, you might want to check out whether Penn/Drexel or their associated start-ups are offering anything in your field. The Navy Yard, in the very south part of the city, has turned into a business campus over the last decade, and I believe they also have some pharmaceutical/biotech jobs (e.g. this company). Might be worth looking into.
posted by ClaireBear at 10:06 AM on November 10, 2016

It would be a wild, reckless overreaction to get married prematurely.

Doing so would require trading off certain current costs (getting married before you are ready) to reap uncertain and unlikely future benefits (that immigration laws will change in such a way that qualifying for citizenship via marriage will be easier than qualifying via longevity for you).
posted by deadweightloss at 10:23 AM on November 10, 2016

A friend of mine was dating a woman with a background very similar to yours. They were planning to get married and were saving money toward that event, which was to take place a year later. She was also well employed, however she was working on an expired visa. When she reported to work one morning a friend tipped her off that HR was looking for her. She walked out the backdoor, called her bf, and he met her at the county courthouse. They were married an hour later. Went back to work and presented a copy of the marriage license to HR. She kept.the job and got her citizenship. They went on to have a formal wedding and reception here, and then another one in her home country.

If you are already planning for a wedding, go get married today. You don't have to tell anyone about it, at least in a social context.
posted by vignettist at 10:55 AM on November 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

deadweightloss, did you miss the part about their infant child? im not sure what the downsides of "getting married before you are ready" could possibly be (higher likelihood of divorce and related messiness?) that are not already going to be netted out of the calculus by the existence of a child.

like others I agree that you should get legal married sooner than later. I say that as someone who married my non-citizen spouse because we loved each other and wanted to be together forever, but who married her when I did because of exigent legal situations which non-immigrants will not really ever understand. She was here legally on a work visa, but if we had followed the letter of the law the most appropriate course of action would have been for her to return to India (a country which she had/has never lived) for AT LEAST EIGHTEEN MONTHS while we got everything sorted out. That entire period of waiting and uncertainty disappeared instantly when got a marriage certificate. And we do not have children/I would have been willing and able to visit during that period. but if you are not into the idea of an extended period of time away from your child or partner, and are not opposed to marriage for reasons not covered here, it certainly seems to make sense for you (as it did for us).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:08 AM on November 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Immigration lawyer here. As I am not your attorney, I can't provide you with legal advice, but I can tell you what I've learned through my practice.

In my experience, applying for any immigration benefit works best when you have multiple avenues for obtaining that benefit. So, for example, someone who has LPR status AND who has a U.S. citizen spouse and child is buffered from some concerns (such as a misdemeanor in the past) which may cause bumps in the road.

In my experience, most expunged misdemeanors count as convictions. The relevant question is not whether it was expunged or whether it was a misdemeanor, but what it was for and what the maximum sentence which could have been applied was. An attorney will know the relevance of this.

In my experience, having a PhD or a rich cultural heritage is not relevant. Nor is being Asian or Muslim or having been born in Dubai. Nor does having taken a husband's surname. However, having paid taxes, owning property, and being engaged in one's community however that is defined matters. Volunteering for Planned Parenthood or the local mosque is more valuable than never volunteering. In my experience, CIS is NOT looking to see how closely an applicant matches the Republican ideal; it is looking for applicants who meet all of the legal qualifications for naturalization and who have integrated into their local community.

In my experience, failing the U.S. history test can add a year to the process. One of my clients is facing deportation because he failed that test, the law changed while he was wasting time waiting to re-apply, and a crime he committed in 1980 became a deportable offense retroactive to forever. He has paid me enough to buy an Escalade trying to stay in the country with his U.S. citizen wife, children, and multi-million dollar businesses. (I have not bought an Escalade, however.)

In my experience, the best outcomes happen when the application contains complete documentation (including official translations where appropriate) for every single thing: All entry and exit documentation for someone who enters and leaves the country regularly; all birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce papers; all criminal records; records of presence in the U.S. such as leases, bank statements, phone bills; all tax records since entering the United States. In my experience, it is the lack of evidence that slows the approval of immigration benefits, sometimes to the point where it can take years. The most successful applications are accompanied by a brief which ties it all together into a compelling story demonstrating the merits of the application.

Perhaps most importantly, in my experience, hiring an excellent immigration lawyer is well worth the money. Most of my money is made fixing errors made by lesser lawyers. Most of my cases are appeals of denials, and most of these denials were the consequence of poor preparation of applications by lawyers hoping to do the least necessary. Most of my cases cost the clients many times over what it would have cost them had they hired a strong attorney in the first place, because once a denial happens, the burden of proof and the burden of explaining why there are inconsistencies, or why information was not presented earlier, escalates incredibly. In my experience, almost any application for an immigration benefit should be 40-100 pages long when all the supporting documents are included, so that the agent reviewing the application has no questions left unanswered.

In my experience, when I provide legal advice to clients, I say apply early and do it right the first time.
posted by Capri at 11:22 AM on November 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

Is just going down to the courthouse and getting married (assuming it's advisable by an immigration lawyer; I know this shit is complicated) not an option?

I get the desire to save for a big festive wedding, but in your situation I'd want that piece of paper, stat, more than bridesmaid dresses and cellists and chicken, steak, or fish. You can always make it legal now and have a wedding later when you can afford it.
posted by Sara C. at 1:15 PM on November 10, 2016

On the off chance that your misdemeanor conviction was in California for drug-related charges, speak with a knowledgeable immigration attorney about getting it erased for immigration purposes. We passed a bill last year to help protect people in that situation who are going through the immigration process.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:21 PM on November 10, 2016

I know I have probably participated in this thread more than my share but I just reread your post and wanted to specifically address the at-customs-flagged-for-further-background-check:

my spouse had this happen repeatedly when her grad school effed up some paperwork. multiple international trips ended with us coming back and having to spend several hours waiting while USCIS officers looked up the clerical error, and the school in question was zero help in getting it resolved.

when she finally became a citizen this april, and we took our first international trip over the summer, we left with the pleasant thought of "at least that is behind us." GUESS WHAT? even having a damn US passport did not preclude a somewhat longer-than necessary stop at immigration while the guy made now-familiar-to-us face at his database and asked a couple extra questions about her tenure here as a student (which ended over 6 years ago). Having that passport is no guarantee of anything.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:55 PM on November 10, 2016

Relax...no one's getting dragged away today or anytime soon. I grew up in NJ. U really gotta do your own research and explore different areas. The closer you get to NYC the more open minded the area. Stay away from South Jersey...it gets more "red" down there. If u could somehow afford NYC or a borrow that'd be great. I'm not a fan of marriage just for citizenship. If u truly wanna get married that's great but do it for the right reasons. And try not to panic...I know you're scared...but you're not alone. There is good in this country. And while it may seem like evil just beat good, i believe good always triumphs in the end. Trump is not a dictator...remember that.
posted by ljs30 at 2:31 PM on November 10, 2016

I sponsored my husband through an adjustment of status. He came here on a student visa and overstayed around 9 years.

We didn't have any issues and he had a green card in hand on the 100th day of submitting the application. But we submitted a ton of stuff like Capri says. Our application was easily 80 pages with everything we submitted. At the same time, I did everything myself and did hours and hours of research.

I live in Jersey City. The downtown areas are rather mixed with a lot of construction going on. People are realizing they don't have to pay the city taxes and have the same commuting time.

You seem like an American at heart. I would encourage you to stay here in the states and help us build a country we can all be proud of.
posted by Monday at 5:18 PM on November 10, 2016

My parents live in the Sleepy Hollow district of Plainfield, NJ. Sleepy Hollow is a racially mixed historic enclave with a lot of very beautiful houses; my folks are a white minority within Plainfield, which is itself very economically diverse in addition to offering racial diversity. They pay $13,000 a year in property tax though, and you have to go next door to Westfield for Starbucks and Trader Joe's if those are the kinds of things that are important to you.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:42 PM on November 10, 2016

I live in Bloomfield - just a few minutes away from Montclair. We moved here from Queens. I'm puerto rican and my husband is white. We don't have any kids and don't plan to but the schools are apparently really good. Taxes on our small 3 bdrm, 1 bathroom home are just over $10K a year. I would say it is very diverse but I've still been the only or 1 of a very few POC in certain places. My husband works in Soho and his commute is around 90 minutes. NJ Transit is expensive and needs serious work but it mostly works. There is also lots of good food around here. Not NYC good but much better than I expected. I would recommend it but it is pricy.

Feel free to send me a message if you have any questions.
posted by mokeydraws at 9:05 AM on November 11, 2016

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