Immigration and the Caribbean student
By Kejan Haynes, writing from New York
The walk from the immigration desk to the inquiry room felt a lot longer than it actually was.
Yoachim Haynes (no relation) was returning to New York from Denmark, where he had spent the summer with his sister.
His photocopied J1 form did not bear the correct watermark and was invalid.
Now he sat in the interrogation room, scared, bewildered and alone.
For almost an hour, nobody told him what was going on.
The questioning officer was stern and meticulous in the interview.
It took a few well-placed calls to Columbia University, where he was about to start his junior year, to convince US immigration to allow him into the country. He would only need to reapply for the correct paperwork within 30 days.
“I’d be a lot more concerned if that happened now,” he said.
Influences on immigration
Amid an already tense immigration reform battle in the United States, on 15 April, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated two pressure cooker bombs at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon.
On 1 May, the FBI announced that one of the bomber’s friends, charged with destroying evidence, was admitted into the United States despite having a revoked F-1 student visa.
The US reaction was immediate.
An amendment to an immigration bill now requires students on an F-1, M-1 and J-1 non-immigrant visa to have their status verified in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (Sevis) before being admitted.
Since not all border officers have access to Sevis, international students entering the US may be required to undergo secondary checks, much as Mr Haynes was.
Columbia University’s International Student and Scholars Office emailed students body telling them to expect delays upon entry, urging them to be “patient, and answer all questions clearly and fully”.
This will not be a problem for Mr Haynes, since he has no plans to leave the US this summer.
But his post-graduation life lingers in his mind.
International graduates from US universities are allowed a 12-month temporary job directly related to their field of study, called optional practical training (OPT).
This can cost up to $480 to process.
As an earth and environmental engineering major, Mr Haynes qualifies for an additional 17-month OPT because he studies one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) fields.
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Overstaying your welcome
However, stricter rules being applied by the government of Trinidad and Tobago to additional scholarship winners such as Mr Haynes will prevent him from capitalising on the experience.
Unlike most international students on an F-1, Mr Haynes is on a J-1 visa.
This comes with a two-year home country residence requirement. J-1 holders are required to return to their home country for an aggregate of two years immediately after graduation.
“I always thought I’d be able to give back to Trinidad,” Mr Haynes said.
“But I also thought I’d be able to stay here, work and build a network of contacts. It limits the job prospects and takes away from what the scholarship provided.”
Mr Haynes will comply, but often, many illegal immigrants come into the US legally and then overstay their welcome.
The biggest immigration reform since 9/11 is playing out in Congress once again.
The “gang of eight” (four Democrats and four Republicans) are working on legislation that will legalise the status of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Once the bill is passed, immigrants will have a set window in which to register their presence in the US.
This will allow them to open a bank account or get a driving licence. They will not be eligible for federal aid such as food stamps, family cash assistance, Medicaid or unemployment insurance.
They will also have to pay back taxes and pay a fine for illegally migrating in the first place.
Where Democrats and Republicans disagree is how this new interim legalisation relates to border security.
The Republicans want to set a border security standard, keeping illegal immigrants in legal purgatory until it is reached.
However, with no clear definition of what the ideal secure border looks like, these “green card-lite” holders may never be put on the already arduous path to citizenship.
Much of the debate revolves around Mexican immigration (usually used as an allegory for all of Latin or South America).
US government estimates suggest that Caribbean nationals account for the third-highest percentage (just about 9%) of legal immigrants in the US.
As of 2010, about two-thirds of eligible immigrants had applied for citizenship, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The rest opt to keep their green card.
Jenna Romany, 25, toys with the idea of applying for citizenship. Her father moved to New York when she was a child and filed for her papers.
She left St Francois College in Trinidad in the lower 6th form and moved to Brooklyn, where she graduated from Brooklyn College.
She has a green card, so she avoided the OPT drama after her graduation.
She is not required to work, but she does not qualify for unemployment benefit.
Now that she is applying for citizenship, she will need to find the US$680 required just to send in the initial application, plus the extra money to fulfill the requirements in the exhaustive checklist.
“I would have applied for citizenship earlier, but $680 is a lot for a college grad to fork out,” she said.
Romany is lucky to avoid the interminable path to citizenship being proposed in the new legislation, but she still watches the debates closely.
“Everybody knows somebody who’s here illegally,” she said.
According to the 2010 US Census data on www.brooklyn.com, there are approximately 370,000 (16.4%) Caribbean descendants in Brooklyn.
“A lot of people came here as kids and if they’re deported, they’re going back to a country that they’ve never known. Can you imagine if they did that? Brooklyn College would be half empty.”