In October of 2006, Richard went on an accidental job interview. I say accidental because he was on vacation at the time and had not been applying for jobs. He distinctly remembers having to purchase work-appropriate pants since he had 12-hour notice that this interview would occur. When he arrived at the office, they were surprised to see said pants. “Aren’t you on vacation?”
Richard returned England with a job offer and those new pants. It took about five months for Richard to apply and receive an H-3 visa. “H” visas an employment-classification visas; anyone seeking such a visa is usually assisted by the company with whom they will be employed.
Let’s talk about privilege for a moment…my husband is a professional with a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering. He works in at a company that supplies highly-engineered valves to energy applications. My husband and his colleagues have a perverse joke that the shut-off valve that broke and allowed millions of gallons of oil to be dumped into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deep Water Horizon vessel was their competitor’s valve. True story.
Anyway, the USCIS terms this “specialized knowledge” and the initial visa application would have included pages and pages of documents regarding Richard’s education and professional history. “Richard is an expert in the something-something- that attaches to the something-something. My company needs this something-something because our competitors have the something-something equivalent that controls 30% of the blah-blah market share.” This would go on for pages. I hated writing these kinds of letter at the law firm. First and foremost, they are profoundly boring, which is kind of the point. The UCSIS officer reading it should glance at it, feel assured that the immigrant’s skills meet the needs of the company and swiftly move on…
While typing away at the law firm, I would literally fantasize about writing more interesting applications. My sincere apologies are extended to my husband and all of our brilliant immigrant engineers. You all make important stuff work and the rest of us remain blissfully clueless as to how it is done. If anyone is interested, my immigrant application daydream involved writing a letter for a celebrity chef instead of an engineer.
“Gordan Ramsay’s newest Southwestern-style burger incorporates hatch chilis directly into the beef patty, paired will housemade jalapeno-honey jelly and pepper-jack cheese; this propriety burger will beat Bobby Flay…”
Back to Richard and his relative privilege, as a professional applicant whose immigration process was sponsored by his company, he never had to pay the hundreds of dollars in federal applications and the thousands of dollars in the associated attorney fees. He was fortunate to be single when he moved here, so he never had to worry about getting an accompanying visa for a spouse or other family members. Some companies will cover costs associated with family member applications, some won’t. For the average person navigating the visa process without corporate sponsorship, the costs become prohibitive very quickly. Additionally, he is a native English speaker which is particularly helpful if one wants to take the citizenship test which is only offered in English.
Richard first arrived on an H-3 visa. They are fairly easy to get but are not considered desirable because they only last a year and cannot lead to permanent residency. For the first couple years in the States, Richard would have to reapply for a new H-3 basically 10 months into every visa cycle. Most immigration attorneys will tell you not to leave the country while in process of applying for a new visa. It’s kinds of a gray area, get the wrongTSA officer on the wrong day and he or she may not let you back in on expiring visa.
When Richard’s grandmother, Nan, passed away unexpectedly, he had a serious decision to make . If he left the country, he would risk not being allowed back into the States. He opted to attend his grandmother’s funeral and was so fortunate to be notified of his visa renewal mere hours before his flight. He was able to leave and return successfully on his new visa.
Each visa has specific rules about how much time one can spend outside the United States. Being “out of status” in immigration terms, can mean both staying too long on an expired visa or spending too many days travelling outside the United States. Both of which will derail a permanent residency application. The vast majority of immigrants who are undocumented in this country are not those who have crossed a border illegally; but who came here originally on a legal visa and were not successful in continuing through the process.
Richard would likely have been on the H-3 visa loop for many years had it not been for the financial crisis of 2008. A little-known punishment TARP barred financial institutions from bringing new foreign employees to the United States for a certain number of years. With the financial sector out of the competition, it was a good opportunity for other kinds of employees to seek desirable employment visas like the H-1B. Popular visas like the H-1B are quota-determined; and require a lottery to determine which qualified applicants will be granted the visa on an annual basis. Richard made it through the lottery on his second try, woot! Being granted an H-1B visa meant that he would one day be able to apply for a green card.
How many years does it take to get a green card? It depends on how many years one spends on an initial visa that it not “tracked” towards permanent residency. Once on a desirable visa, it could be 3-5 years depending on the specifications of the particular visa. Richard got his green card quickly, within five years of applying for his first visa. It was a fortunate fluke that he cleared the H-1B lottery so quickly. Undoubtedly, there are USCIS statistics on how long it takes the “average” immigrant to acquire a green card but there is just so much variance. Once someone has a green card, citizenship can be applied for in 3 or 5 years depending on the qualifying reason.
Outside of COVID, Richard travels all over the western U.S. and Canada for work. After receiving a green card, the general rule is to travel with it as documentation within the United States and to take it internationally along with your foreign passport. The good TSA officers in Billings, MT. had apparently never seen a green card before and were quite suspicious. Richard tried to explain it and note that it is federal document. Richard tried to explain that the TSA is also part of the Department of Homeland Security, which had granted that document to him in the first place. The supervisor on duty was also of no use in this confusion. Richard was already mentally planning a long drive to Idaho when he realized that he still had his U.K. passport in his suitcase from his last trip to Canada. Foreign passport? Why didn’t he say so earlier? More common is the TSA officer who looks at the card and mumbles, “Oh, it really is green.”
After becoming a permanent resident, Richard could have technically applied for citizenship after three years since he was married to me by then. He waited another two years to apply based solely on employment. We simply preferred that the USCIS to stay out of our private life; neither one of us was keen on hauling our wedding photos down to an immigration office.
On the day Richard received his citizenship, the new citizens were seated separately from their families and friends. The guest line was long and it took several hours to get through the door. As we all sat around chatting, I asked several of my neighbors how long their respective loved ones had lived in the U.S. before obtaining citizenship. Most people said between 20-30 years. Richard’s twelve years looked like nothing in comparison.
Richard ultimately decided to become a citizen because he has an American wife and American children. We are adorable, after all.
His decision happened to coincide with the Trump administration’s repeated desecration of the immigration system. For the final piece in this immigration series, I am going to review Separated: An American Tragedy by Jacob Soboroff, an immigration correspondent for NBC News. This work offers an in-depth examination of the Trump administration’s family separation policy and the havoc that it brought to families at the U.S. border.