Seven Years in Visa Land

    30/03/2016

    Last week I finally received my green card after a seven year wait. Overjoyed and grateful as I am to be a permanent resident now in the US, with a legal ability to pursue my own career and travel more freely, my long journey navigating the immigration system can only be described as kafkaesque and reminiscent of that famous Samuel Beckett play, "Waiting for Godot". The difference between having a green card and having a visa in the US is, as this article put it, the difference between bondage and freedom. Most foreign workers at universities and companies depend on the H1B visa as a lifeline to sustain their legal status in the US and to be allowed to begin the green card application. You are tied by the proverbial ball and chain to your employer, for better or worse. As a British citizen I should have been able to acquire my green card approval relatively easily. However, being born in mainland China, I was sent to the back of the line to wait in the "Priority Date" category. The USCIS system (short for United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) grants only so many visa numbers every year to immigrants from mainland China, India, Mexico and the Phillipines. What's worse is that you are categorized not by your current citizenship but by your birth certificate. You could have spent your entire childhood and adult life in one country but because you happen to have been born in one that is blacklisted your immigration to the US will have to wait. At the last visa bulletin, the favorite webpage of all those unfortunate enough to have been born in the "wrong country", the backlog for applications extended back as far as 13 years for certain petition categories in China and as far as 1993 for the Phillipines.

    In spite of my delay I know that I am among the more fortunate. I had a mother already living in the US to file a petition for me. I also submitted my own petition, through the National Interest Waiver (NIW) system. This requires you to be a published, active academic researcher and be fully employed in your chosen field at the time your petition gets reviewed. There is still a backlog for the blacklisted countries, but the wait time is shorter. I have many Chinese and Indian friends who have submitted an NIW petition and are currently still trapped in the priority date bureaucracy. Like many of us they have families, children, bills and expenses to pay for, futures they want to plan and years of productivity they could be contributing to the economy. But they are all being held back by USCIS and by politics. Last year I came across the unfortunate story of Tamer Elsayed, whose situation was featured in Science Magazine. He took out a federal student loan to try and fund his studies as a mechanical engineer in California before he had acquired a green card. It is illegal to take out federal loans before you are a permanent resident. Despite eventually earning a PhD at Caltech, his subsequent imprisonment and ban from visiting the US led to a slew of difficulties finding a stable faculty position in his native Egypt and visiting his daughter in America. Admittedly his ignorance and youthful rashness led to the worst case scenario. But there are many other harrowing stories about scientists not being able to stay or leave the US because of their visa status.

    There are easier paths to getting a green card, such as getting married to a US citizen yourself, or joining the armed forces for a period of time. These options, however, were not on the cards for me and nor are they for many of my colleagues working away everyday in the lab. I previously wrote about this very unfair struggle that foreign academics face here on my blog. In spite of the best intentions of many Fortune 500 company CEOs (e.g. Mark Zuckerburg) and a growing number of senators, the pressing issues of US immigration reform for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) professionals remains buried under the rug. Our issues lay hidden beneath a cacaphony of politically charged headlines featuring illegal immigration. The numbers are against us - there are 11.7 million illegal immigrants in the US and only around 10,000 foreign PhD students graduating from US institutions every year. Last year just over 340,000 foreign workers filed for an H1B visa and only around 275,000 people were granted it. The year before that, in 2014, over 318,000 people filed and 315,000 people were granted it. The time taken for an H1B visa to be approved has also increased from 3-4 months to half a year. Why this slowdown? Well, take your pick from the panoply of issues, such the increased perceived fear of foreign terror attacks, the worsening drug war over the American border and the political dysfunction in Washington DC. But when you really look at the breakdown of foreign H1B visa applicants you realize that over 41% have a Masters degree, 9% have a Doctorate and over 45% have at least a Bachelors degree. That's a huge number of people who are likely to be of value to the national interest.

    In the run up to this year's bizarre presidential elections and the knee-jerk rhetoric thrown around about walling off Mexico and banning asylum for Muslim refugees, I feel that it is timely I have received my green card. Not only does it give me a unique perspective on the absurdity of candidate debates over immigration, it also means it will now be harder for the authorities to deport me. ThereĀ is no telling what the new president and administration will really do, whoever wins the election, but the probability that they will throw a wrench into the already overwhelmed immigration system is pretty high. That means, along with the undocumented immigrants, STEM immigrants could face even longer wait times for a permanent residence application and, potentially even longer years of underpaid work. In a way one could rephrase Donald Trump's now famous rhetoric "Who will pay for the wall ... Mexico" to apply it to academic research: "Who will pay for the grunt lab work ... Foreign scientists". The latter will be more true than the former.

    I understand the importance of homeland security and providing better jobs for the citizens of one's own country. Companies cheating Americans out of highly paid tech jobs by replacing them with cheaper foreign workers on visas crop up all the time (I'm lookin at you, Microsoft!). Clearly there are issues at stake on a national level bigger than the cries and sorrows of a few scientists. But since the backbone of America was built by immigrants, the spirit of America was founded by embracing immigrants and the founders of America were immigrants themselves, surely America needs to maintain at least some semblance of her old values by overhauling the immigration system in the 21st century. To quote the Statue of Liberty poem, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" seems antiquated today, when there is so much wealth disparity in all nations. But if there are well intentioned scientists, doctors and engineers knocking on your door, just to get a chance at improving the lives of the poor in your homeland, then why not let them in more quickly. Otherwise, those very same people will quickly run back to their home countries making their developing nations disproportinately more competitive. That surely is the biggest threat to US homeland security.

    That piece John Oliver did in 2014 on the broken state of the American immigration system is now more relevant than ever before: