‘I’m not going down that road of eleven years’ is what I remembered thinking as the engines of Sri Lankan Airlines roared to life, accelerating to take me away from my island in 2009. ‘Four to five years and I’ll be back home…’.
American University’s (AU) letter informing of a Dean’s Scholarship had suddenly made a farfetched opportunity of a Top 100 college a flight-away reality. The admission was rather ironic – I had squeezed in an application on their deadline date – likely the last applicant of my class. I thought I was only coming to the U.S. to find myself, discover my academic passions and professional career path – I was naïve.
Now, when I reflect on perceptions of Immigration, it never ceases to amaze me how folks out there think it works versus how it actually works. “You have the Green Card right” is a common misinformed assumption we foreign nationals routinely get thrown at us like a fact. If only life was that simple. I usually smile, then speak. Sometimes it comes from a good place, and sometimes from a lack of knowing what a labyrinth the U.S. immigration system really is. So let’s bust some myths:
There are a couple of ways to get the “prized” Green Card which allows you to reside permanently and work here. There is:
- The famously easier, fast and convenient way: marry a U.S. Citizen.
- The lucky way: win the Green Card Lottery.
- The expensive way: bring in investments of over $500, 000 and/or open a business.
- The beneficent way: get sponsored by an immediate relative.
- The unfortunate way: be a victim of crime, human trafficking, abuse or seek asylum.
- An exceptional way: show an extraordinary ability.
- Or, there is the long, taxing, uncertain way: get sponsored by a U.S. employer.
What I have learnt, in taking that last, overly down-trodden path, is that it doesn’t matter how hardworking, lucky, smart, persistent, innocent, or talented you are. Getting a Green Card through that winding pathway involves having ALL of them at once, ready to appear at any time to serve you either individually or collectively throughout the whole process. The only guarantee is that there is NO guarantee. You could be as smart as Einstein but if you get unlucky – pack your bags; leave. In terms of the chances, imagine notching an arrow and having to shoot it through six hoops that sway independently. What are the odds of making that one shot? Exactly.
The road to the American Dream for an international student is as predictable as a dream state itself – one second’s utter fragile bliss can turn into a spiraling nightmare with the next slip-step.
What International Students Go Up Against to Live and Work Permanently in the U.S.
When I arrived in 2009, like all international students, I started on an F1 student visa. To make some spare cash I could ONLY work on campus (not outside with any other employer). This meant a maximum of 20 hours a week when class was in session, and up to 40 hours a week during college breaks. There is a temporary option called Curricular Practical Training (CPT) but I won’t bore you with those technicalities.
After graduating you are given one year of Optional Practical Training (OPT) which finally allows you to be employed AND paid by any employer in the U.S. as long as the job is in a “relevant field of study”. However, to obtain OPT international students need to get employed within 90 days of graduation OR, pack your bags; leave. The OPT clock start date is determined entirely by the student—in other words I had to choose when the clock starts not knowing whether I would have even found employment by that date. I remember choosing January 1, 2013. A senior staff member looked at me in bewilderment and said “why would you waste it on a holiday, pick January 2!”
Pause here. Take a second to imagine what that feels like – to have a stopwatch hovering over you that wants to kick you out of a country on top of all the other stressors that come with being a new college graduate seeking a full-time job (sometimes) for the first time in life.
Because of this merciless clock, immediately after graduating in December 2012 I took on a nightmare of a physically demanding job with a marketing economics consulting firm whose main client was Verizon. I was given the impressive title of “Junior Business Executive”. I worked 16 hour days, 6 days a week just so that I could activate my OPT and halt the 90 day boot kick. On wintry evenings I remember fumbling in frigid darkness with a scanty team of coworkers making our way from client site to client site cutting through minus-degree winds wondering, “why am I here doing this?” I had double major with Honors and here I was earning barely $200 a month (i.e commissions) knocking on doors in America. I could be comfortable back in Sri Lanka. Why am I here struggling to make ends meet? A week in, I got a call from ICF, one of the forty plus companies I had applied to during my job search – they wanted to meet. I took a day off from my then current job to go in for an interview. Seven interviews later, ICF made an offer I’d never refuse.
I submitted my first formal resignation – I lasted two weeks in a job that felt like two years.
Next, by fortune, effort and ability, if international students do get employed and realize they like the U.S. and want to stay on, their primary option is to convince their employer to sponsor them for a specialty occupation work visa known as the H1-B (they could also leave and work for an international organization or try one of the other routes listed above). You usually get three kinds of employers: 1) they’ve never heard of the H1-B; 2) they have heard and run far from it; or 3) they are well-versed with it (here comes my friend Luck to my aid, ICF knew all about it). International students then have to be savvy enough to know their employers well enough to identify how to proceed bringing up this loaded conversation. It has to be had sooner than later since there is another stopwatch window for that too.
Obtaining an H1-B requires demonstration that the employer is paying a reasonable wage through a certification from the Department of Labor (DoL) in addition to proving the employee has specialized qualifications.
Unlike OPT, there’s a catch. Regardless of the employer saying “yes”, and then everything being done, spent (it costs thousands of dollars for the employer) and filed correctly, U.S. immigration law states that if more than 85,000 H1-B petitions are received in a given fiscal year the system will select winners using a randomized lottery system (this is where Luck MUST be your friend, regardless of the other five). Soon after the 2008 economic crisis, from 2009 to 2012 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not receive 85, 000 petitions for years so everyone who applied for the H1-B got it. However, come 2013 (the year yours truly came out fresh out of college), a roaring economic boom coupled with rapidly hiring employers saw over 120,000 petitions filed that year. Just my luck – unlike my predecessors, now I had no guarantee anymore – instead, a 40% chance of rejection. Today, we are seeing over 200,000 petitions being filed each year. All around the U.S. International students today have it way harder than I did in 2013 when I thought I had it worse. It kind of reminds you how everything is relative, right?
As fate would have it, Luck (prayers is what I believe) came to my aid on the day of the lottery yet again and chose mine as one of those golden files that would move on to see an approved H1-B. My story was allowed to continue with ICF. Here’s the other catch: since an H1-B is a sponsor visa done by the company that sponsors you – you can ONLY work for that company while you are on this visa status. This meant a few things – if I lost my job at any time – pack your bags; leave. There is a 60 day grace period to find another alternative (i.e. a new sponsor, international organization) if not – pack your bags; leave. Thankfully for me, ICF as a company and my leadership have been a blessing to work for (praise to the Almighty). Some other folks in my shoes aren’t that fortunate with their employers who could at times be exploitative. The lack of mobility is, I admit, a definite downer mentally – but sometimes you have to work with the hand you are dealt, it’s not like we have a choice. The freedoms held by Green Card holders and U.S. citizens are cherish-able privileges. It’s like a 15 year old looking at drivers on the road with licenses, they could go anywhere. The last note is that an H1-B is issued for three years, with an option to renew for another three years, a total of six. After that, pack your bags; leave.
Unless, of course, you take your chances (like me) and decide to go after the PERM…