By Mallery Rockwell
News outlets have covered the topic of illegal immigration time and time again. Political debates often cover the issues regarding illegal immigration in the United States. The topic of legal immigration is often ignored, yet is a significant issue for thousands of people trying to immigrate to the U.S. Legal immigrants face many issues, from the time it takes to obtain certain visas to the uncertainty of getting approval from the government. Legal immigrants face issues that need to be addressed and discussed in order for change to occur.
Ying was born and raised in China. She came to the United States through a high school exchange program at the age of 15. She was accepted into a business program at the University of Texas where she continued her studies for four and a half years. She achieved a bachelor and masters degree in accounting. After graduation, she joined Microsoft, currently doing full-time work as a financial analyst.
One of the issues she faced as a legal immigrant is with education. The cost of being an international student means paying international tuition. She said tuition for public schools is 3-4 times the amount that U.S. citizens pay. Luckily, she had help from her parents to handle the cost. Ying said she wasn’t qualified for scholarships or financial aid, and wasn’t allowed to work off campus, limiting her job options. She said there were opportunities for internships, but that requires an additional cost to what the high tuition already demands.
Under an F1 visa, students can complete their entire degree, and have certain rights to work while they are on a valid F1 status. OPT is Optional Practical Training. The main use for OPT is the right to work for 12 months after completion of a degree. The work performed must directly relate to the person’s major or course of study. Ying took advantage of OPT. She said that finding jobs is a lot harder for international students because the company they apply to work for must sponsor students for worker visas. She said this a difficulty legal immigrants often face, whereas U.S. citizens can essentially work anywhere.
Temporary worker visas are for people who want to enter the U.S. for employment lasting a fixed period of time, and are not considered permanent or indefinite. Each of these visas requires the prospective employer to first file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). An approved petition is required to apply for a worker visa.
“In terms of finding jobs it’s a lot harder for international students to do that because the company has to sponsor for visa,” Ying said. She said this leaves immigrants with very limited choices: mainly big tech companies, investment banks and consulting firms, rather than local businesses. She said these big companies are highly competitive in comparison. Since worker visas rely on work, getting fired requires immigrants to leave the U.S. within two weeks. “These are the hardships I face,” Ying said.
As an international student/legal immigrant, after graduation she is required to be on a visa. She said having to get a worker visa has been a big topic of conversation among international students. Ying said the visa is on a lottery system, so although a company may offer to support an immigrant’s visa, it doesn’t guarantee them one. She said that last year 200,000 people applied for worker visas and only 55,000 people were given them. She also said there is an average of 65,000 people who get them per year.
Ying said the system is really based on chance, so each person applying has an equal chance as another. STEM students (students studying science, technology, engineering, and math) have three chances of applying for the visa. They have the option to apply each year for three years, but after the third year of not getting one then they must go back home.
In addition to getting the worker visa, getting a Green Card is another step in the process. A Green Card holder (permanent resident) is someone who has been granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. As proof of that status, a person is granted a permanent resident card, commonly called a “Green Card.” Ying said that this process is dependent on where a person is born. For example, a country has a certain amount of Green Cards they will give, like the worker visas, so the size of the population determines the chances and time for applicants to get that card.
Having a worker visa through a company limits immigrants from changing jobs easily because the company also applies for a Green Card for them. Ying said she has had to wait several years for a Green Card. She said the reason she wants the Green Card is because it offers her another option, whether she wants to go back to China or stay in the U.S., versus a working visa where she feels constrained in choosing what she can do. “I work hard, I do my job, I pay my taxes so I’m just working towards there, hoping one day I will get a Green Card eventually.”
“In terms of policies and politics during the presidential election I feel like most of the candidates they emphasize a lot more on illegal immigrants but they barely spend any time talking about legal immigrants, which are the people that America wants and needs, because those are highly specialized and skilled workers to help America innovate and create more value,” Ying said.
“I feel like these parties are very much neglected during the policy debates,” Ying said. “We are the community who cannot vote and we don’t really impact anyone so they don’t really care about us as much.”
Rui came to the U.S. in 2007 with a student visa, studying at Michigan State University. In 2010 he started his PhD program at the University at Buffalo. He graduated in 2014, afterwards working OPT as a faculty member at Texas Tech University for a year. Rui said the most anxious part of his life was at this point with OPT, because he would have to leave the U.S. without a permanent job and if a company didn’t sponsor him for a worker visa. In 2015, just a few days before his OPT expired, he was lucky enough to get a job at Lamar University and receive his Green Card. “I am settled down,” he said. “I’m safe now.” He said that getting the OPT wasn’t hard but that sometimes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services messes up the applications. Rui said that one of his friends applied and never got her OPT, to which the department said in return, “Oh that’s a very common mistake. We’ll send it to you but you have to pay again.”
Rui’s academic goal was to find a permanent job. He had always wanted to work in academia and needed to find a tenure job, which is why he chose the assistant professor position. The job guaranteed he would have a worker visa, but the problem was waiting for one. He said there are other ways of staying in the U.S., like applying for a Green Card. A legal immigrant could hypothetically say, “My Green Card is pending, you can’t deport me right now” until the Green Card comes in.
Rui said it’s easier for people working in academia because they don’t have to face competition with other immigrants, since there aren’t a limited number of positions each year. However, he said these people have to make sure they’re strong enough to impress a university and say, “I want to sponsor a person for this worker visa.” He said universities have to pay extra money to hire legal immigrants, so they need to be, “not only good but excellent.”
“If you’re just as good as an American why would they pay extra money to hire someone?” he asked. “You have to be really, really good.”
Rui said that in the beginning of the process he was very optimistic about finding a job. He said he had many interviews that he thought he aced, but unfortunately received rejections from these schools by the end of March. He said by the end of March there typically aren’t many openings for tenure track positions. There are more openings for secretaries or part time positions, but a university isn’t likely to want to pay extra money for legal immigrants to fill these jobs. “Usually university picks who they know and that’s usually Americans,” he said.
“I was depressed during that time,” Rui said. “I lost sleep, I wouldn’t want to talk to people. I would feel very sad and I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to go out.” Rui said he went to a conference in April or May to see as many friends as he could, telling them he didn’t think he would be able to stay in the U.S. “My friend always joked and said you can marry me,” he said. Luckily, one of the faculty members at Lamar University decided to change jobs at the last minute.
While Rui got the job, his troubles didn’t end here. The university put Rui in contact with a lawyer to obtain his worker visa, which Rui said he was “slow and very rude.” Each time Rui asked about the visa and told the lawyer he needed it by a certain date, the lawyer told him he didn’t need to worry about it. Closer to the required date, Rui asked what he should do if he didn’t have it by then. The lawyer said, “I don’t know, it’s out of my hands, you just have to suck it up.” During his first day of orientation for work, he got the message that the worker visa was approved.
Rui said he was unaware of how problematic the process of getting a Green Card is. “I didn’t know that this Green Card system has so many tricks,” Rui said. “I didn’t know the Green Card attorney could make so much money.” His attorney told him he didn’t have to wait for one as long as other immigrants, because he works in academia and has a PhD. An alternative option, Rui was told, is the EB-1.
The EB-1 extraordinary ability classification is for immigrants who are recognized as being at the very top of their field and who are coming to the U.S. to continue work in that field. Rui said this route is the most competitive and decided to apply this way. Rui paid $3,000 for the EB-1 application alone. If the Green Card is approved, he has to pay another $3,000. If the Green Card is denied, the money is non-refundable. He said he also had to pay the government a lot of money. “I remember I first paid a 500-ish check to the government and then I wrote two more checks which is above $1,000.” Rui said this doesn’t include the check to his doctor for a health examination and to prove that he doesn’t have any “crazy” diseases.
He said there was a lot of paperwork to fill out and that the recommendations he needed to prove he was an excellent scholar needed to be from people who didn’t know him personally and hadn’t worked with him directly. “You have to find someone who doesn’t know you,” he said. “I started to search for whoever cited my publications and I sent out emails to people in Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Taiwan, Australia,” he said. He said he had to be very strategic in the people he chose because the USCIS will say it’s not good enough having letters all from people in America. “There’s this unspoken discrimination against Asian and African countries because the USCIS thinks scholars from that area are not as smart as scholars from Europe.”
In addition to obtaining these letters, despite already paying $3,000 Rui was required to put together and write all of the documentation he needed to send to his attorney, costing him $20 to mail all of the paperwork. “You can imagine how heavy that was,” Rui said. He said the attorney only wrote his letter of petition, which was eleven pages, and Rui wrote everything else. Rui said it’s this system that is so problematic.
In June 2016, his request for a Green Card was approved through the I-140. His Green Card was mailed to him in October. “This system has so many tricks,” Rui said.
Saif Shahin came to the U.S. from India, with an admission to the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on getting his PhD completed. He said that usually when applying for an F-1 student visa it takes two to three days, but in his case it took more than three months and was never told why it took so long. He said the visa officers give interviews before immigrants get the visa. “The visa officer, he asked me one question, and he didn’t even wait to hear and answer,” he said. “While I was in the middle of responding he just got up and took my application to another segment of the office.”
Shahin said administrative processing usually takes three weeks or so, but in his case it took more than three months before finally getting the visa. He said he was supposed to start his PhD in the fall of 2011, and finally got the visa after the semester had already started. He said the university, the International Office of the university, and the department all tried to contact the U.S. Embassy of New Delhi to expedite the process. They responded saying it would take however long it takes. “I honestly had actually given up hope of getting the visa,” Shahin said. He said that the uncertainty of when the visa would come made moving arrangements from India to the U.S. difficult. He said that when the visa finally came, he wasn’t prepared to leave. “When you’re moving away to another country for a long time you have to wrap up a lot of things,” he said.
The University of Texas at Austin then said that the semester would be so far completed by the time Shahin arrived, so he would need to join in the spring of 2012 instead of the planned starting date in 2011. He said that it was nice of the university to understand the situation and allow him to continue in the spring semester, rather than having to reapply. “It was not the ideal situation to be in but it happened,” he said.
Shahin also said that his wife could come to the U.S. on a dependent visa, but wouldn’t be allowed to work at all. He said that she came here to stay with him for a while, and then went back to India because she wasn’t able to work. Shahin now works at Bowling Green State University in Ohio on an H-1B worker visa, allowing him to work in the U.S. as a professor.
Shahin said his wife would have to apply for another dependent visa under the new visa he has. “It’s really hard for families to stay together because of the terms of the visa regime as well,” he said. “When I am allowed to work I just don’t see why my wife shouldn’t be allowed to work.” He said that the broader reason for this is to discourage immigration. “The more problems you create for people trying to immigrate, the harder it will be for them and therefore fewer people will be willing to do that,” he said.