In 2001 I moved to the US on a F1 student visa before 9/11 changed the outlook towards immigration. F1 visas back then were granted on a lottery basis. Depending on the University admission, visas were granted to a lucky few without interview. I happened to be one of those. Eventually I realized how convoluted US immigration policies were.
The start of my immigration journey was seamless and it set the tone for the rest of my story. My F1 visa was granted for 4 years with a provision to apply for temporary work permit upon graduation. With great stroke of luck, courage and perseverance I landed a job at Caterpillar Inc. Caterpillar was now burdened with applying for my long term work visa knows as an H1B.
H1B visas are granted on the basis of an annual quota that is pre-determined by the US Government. Each year some 65,000 visas are allowed and applications are taken on 1 April. After successfully receiving the H1B, the immigrant can start working from 1 October of the same year. Why doesn’t the government allow people to start working as soon as their visa is granted, say in April or May itself? I don’t know.
Historically H1B’s run out by June each year, hence there’s always a mad dash to get applications in as early as possible. Sadly, if an immigrant receives a job say in May or June, upon graduation, H1B’s have likely run out by then. As a consequence, the earliest this person can start working in the US is October of the following year. Most companies would not wait a year and half for visa formalities to get through.
Timing is everything.
Another caveat, an H1B application can only be submitted outside the US. Applicants are required to travel either back to their home country or anywhere outside the US get their visa stamped. A bizarre concept I’d say considering most H1B holders are foreigners on student visas who graduate from US universities. Applicants have to leave the country for a week or two with the hopes of their paperwork getting processed in time. Unlucky friends of mine have been held back for weeks at a time while US Immigrations run background checks. A necessary evil post 9/11 yet something that traps the innocent, educated, law abiding citizens. Background checks could possibly be conducted prior to the H1B application I reckon.
H1B’s are only valid for 6 years with no capacity to renew. Immigrants at the end of their work visa need to return home unless their company sponsors their green card aka permanent residency.
Permanent residency in the US, the coveted Green Card is even harder to attain with long wait times determined on visa status and country of origin. H1B holders of Indian, Chinese, Mexican and Philippine nationality notoriously wait anywhere from 4 to 8 years for a green card. During that time the immigrant is on a ‘parole’ status which stipulates that his job description cannot change. Promotions are put on hold so that the job description doesn’t change from say a ‘team leader’ to ‘division manager’. Long wait times, travel restrictions and lack of promotions is the story of their life.
Why a sudden rant on US Immigration laws you’d wonder. It is relevant to the latest bipartisan ruling on legalizing 11 million illegal immigrants in the US. The illegal immigrants will be granted permanent residency and eventually citizenship. There are several benefits of this legalization to the economy and society- no more hiding from the laws, receive social security benefits and the requirement to pay taxes like rest of the citizens. It is a good move really. However, I feel for H1B holders and others on legal visas that will be affected by this.
It is fair to assume that majority of the 11 million illegal immigrants came to the US to escape seemingly excruciating circumstances. Most have crossed hundreds of miles on water or walked through unforgiving desert to get to the US. It is also fair to assume that majority of H1B holders are academically qualified (part of the requirement of the visa) and likely come from relatively well-off backgrounds, compared to their illegal counterparts. However, this doesn’t mean H1B immigrants haven’t seen their fair share of hardship. Loans from back home, unfounded discrimination after 9/11, high interest private loans for their education, tough economy with fewer job prospects and dependents that have no right to work in the US. H1B holders do all this while mainting a steady job and dutifully paying taxes. If an H1B holder loses their job, his or her visa is immediately revoked with no recourse to public funds and tight schedule to leave the country.
I am grateful for having a seamless immigration experience in the US, complicated rules but somehow everything worked out in a timely manner for me. Immigration officers have been friendly and kind towards me. My F1, work permit, H1B, H1B renewal and B1/B2 visas have come through with no hassle. But I am acutely aware of how lucky I’ve been and how much my fellow legal immigrants have endured.
I support amnesty international and refugees getting asylum. I acknowledge the appalling circumstances people have lived through to get to the Land of Opportunity. Yet somehow, somewhere, I feel thing’s haven’t been fair. Legal immigrants get no priority in their Green Card processing, their honesty is not rewarded. Numerous friends have gotten to the end of their 6 year H1B, then asked to return home for 1 year just to re-enter the States on another visa. It is disruptive, stressful and companies can’t offer a guaranteed return. Shrouded with anxiety and uncertainty, they hang on to their jobs without protest. Sure the 11 million illegal immigrants have come from harsher and legalizing them is the next logical step in the long road to tightening borders, but what about those waiting endlessly in uncertainty for residency? Who speaks on their behalf?
There are no rewards for doing the right thing, no kudos for following immigration rules and no acknowledgement for paying taxes and contributing to society. In a small and seemingly insignificant tribute, this is my shout out to those waiting patiently in queue. In the home of the brave and the land of the free, may your hopes and dreams come true.