The immigration system in the United States is designed to constantly remind non-Americans of their precarious position in the country.

In the arduous US immigration system I got my chance Now many may not
news Immigration Thursday, June 25, 2020 - 14:16

It’s 2012, and I’m about to graduate from a journalism school in the US when finding a job in media has never felt harder (spoiler: it got harder). All year, we had been repeatedly told that positions in journalism were few and far between, and to gird ourselves for a tough future in an industry that didn’t know how to make money. For those of us who were international students and hoped to spend a bit more time living and working in the US, the situation was compounded.    

Moving to the United States, as a student, an employee, a spouse or whatever other role you fall under, involves a lot of waiting around. Waiting for appointments, waiting for letters in the mail, calls from lawyers, approvals, refusals, and requests for more and more and more information. If you’re a student like I was, you’re given a year (24 months for STEM fields) -- under a programme called Optional Practical Training -- to intern or find a job, one that will sponsor the expensive and laborious process that will ultimately give you a H-1B work visa. I was a 22-year-old who had never worked a full-time journalism job, and had the anxiety-inducing task of convincing a company that I was somehow worth a chance. 

The immigration system in the United States is designed to constantly remind non-Americans of their precarious position in the country, one that can so easily topple. It’s a system that’s never been easy, and it has only gotten harder. (And the wait has only gotten longer). Non-immigrant work visas, like the H-1B, have been in the news this week after United States President Donald Trump signed a proclamation to suspend the issuance of new visas (namely H-1B, H-2B, J and L) as well as new green cards that offer permanent residency to non-Americans, till December 31. 

Read also: US President Trump suspends H-1B and H-4 visas till end of the year

While most people applying for the H-1B visa are in the IT industry, I was in a slightly different situation. Google, Amazon and other multinational corporations sponsor thousands of work visas every year, but I was left to navigate the extremely competitive New York City media market, trying to prove that I could offer a skill that few others could. 

My OPT year was spent between internships, coupled with numerous job applications, cold emails and interviews that went nowhere. I went from New York to Washington D.C. and back to New York for internships that barely covered my living expenses. I got on a train to meet with the editors at a newspaper in a (very) small town to cover an even smaller community. It was also spent building friendships, creating a second home and finding love. While covering an exhibit on spiders at the Natural History Museum, I was suddenly faced with an utter sense of dread that all this would be for nothing, and I would have to start over. I was in the early months of a relationship that I wasn’t ready to lose to long distance, a person who I would marry a few years later.  

In March 2013, I finally got my shot, just a couple of months before my time in the US would have expired. That chance gave me almost four years working as a journalist in New York, four years of new memories with (now old) friends, four years to turn a new relationship into a marriage. That chance is now being denied to numerous people. Job opportunities are fleeting and likely won’t wait till the end of the year for those who have earned them, a fact that many must now reconcile with. 

The Trump administration has cited high unemployment as the reason behind the restrictive measures against non-immigrant work visas, which they say will open over 5,00,000 jobs for Americans. Yet, it’s been reported that these positions are not easy to fill without labour from outside the US. A number of top American executives, including Microsoft president Ben Smith and CEO of Alphabet Inc. Sundar Pichai, have also criticised the order, saying it will impact the US’s economic growth after a precipitous fall during the pandemic.     

Smaller companies aren’t always aware of the work that goes into securing these visas, which can scare away even the most sympathetic employers. It’s an arduous process involving stacks and stacks of paperwork, filing deadlines, and expiration dates that force you to do the whole thing all over again. One year, I had the unfortunate task of telling my parents I couldn’t come home anytime soon because I couldn’t leave the country.  

Over the years, stories of friends of friends of friends who have been denied visas in the lottery seem to have become more common. While many, myself included, are fortunate to have support systems in India that allow us to return and start over, others aren’t as lucky and rely on experience and salaries nearly impossible to secure outside the States. 

Along with the announcement of restrictions, there are renewed discussions around reforms that may be implemented for the H-1B system. There are plans to prioritise visas for workers who are offered the highest wage. It would raise the program’s minimum wage requirements, and according to reports, some estimates suggested that could be as high as $150,000 to $250,000, depending on the location and title. In my first job, the one that sponsored my visa, my salary was a small percentage of that. When I went for my visa appointment at the consulate in Chennai, the interviewer, an American woman, asked how I planned to live in New York City on such a small amount. Modestly, I replied. 

This likely isn’t the last proclamation we will see around restrictions to work visas in the United States, as the Trump administration continues to point to job losses in the pandemic. And as many have done through student visas, work visas and green cards, we will wait. Wait for letters, wait for appointments, wait for approvals, and wait to be told whether to stay or go.

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