Visa and marriage
By Kejan Haynes
There’s a tradition at Columbia University’s graduation in which each school customises its celebration when the president presents their class.
At the graduate School of Journalism, we shred a few newspapers and toss the confetti into the air as we let the irony of what we’ve just done flutter around us.
As the papers were being handed out, one headline caught my eye.
It was a copy of the Wall Street Journal. The headline read, “Sorry, College Grads, I probably won’t hire you.”
“You’ve entered a dying field,” my friend, a web designer, told me exactly one year later after my graduation. “You might as well have gone to school to become a travel agent.”
First, find your sponsor
International students made up almost half of our graduating class.
There are lots of journalism jobs out there and, for us, finding one wasn’t an option.
We had 90 days to find a job or find ourselves on the next flight out.
We were about to learn first-hand that legal immigrants in the US had it only marginally easier than our undocumented counterparts.
I did get hired, at a 24-hour local news station that covers New York City with the comprehensiveness of small-town media.
For one year after graduation, international students are allowed to work in the US because of their Optional Practical Training visa.
But once that’s over, you need to get your company to sponsor you for the H1-B visa.
It allows you to work in the US for up to six years.
Living the dream
For the international students who didn’t return to their home countries immediately after graduation, this was the dream.
Work your butt off, impress your employers and let them pay for you to stay for three more years, or maybe six after the renewal.
Hanging out on weekends with fellow J [for journalism] school alums became a support group. We shared ideas and gave progress reports on our sponsorship plans, back-up plans and back-up to the back-up plans, in case we didn’t get sponsored.
The Americans in the group usually sat quietly. Many of them had travelled the world and had never applied for a visa once.
They’d ask questions or say how unfair the system was, but their faces always said: “Boy, am I glad I don’t have to go through that.”
“If all else fails, you can get married right?” they’d sometimes ask.
Most of the jobs I interviewed for ended after the question, “So what’s your visa situation?”
They didn’t want to deal with the sponsorship after a year.
So what’s the big deal? It’s hard to say exactly. But for smaller companies, filing an H1-B opens their financial records to government scrutiny.
They have to show that they’re able to financially support you.
For many companies, money isn’t an issue. They have lawyers on hand, but they still have to report to the government.
Every promotion or demotion you receive, they have to report, including increases or decreases in pay.
If you resign, you have to tell the government immediately. If you’re fired, your company has to pay for your ticket home.
Even if they do take the time and money to sponsor you, it’s not guaranteed.
Your name then has to go through a lottery system.
Only 65,000 visas are granted a year. Your chances are a lot better with a Master’s degree, but it’s still not a guarantee.
For some companies, it’s as simple as, “Why should I hire you when there are hundreds of Americans waiting to take your place?”
Having a Plan B
So we look to our Plan B.
Finding a lawyer in New York is about as easy as finding a dollar slice of pizza.
Most of us hired immigration lawyers to run through all of our legal options.
There are countless schemes out there and, as journalists, no one had any plans to be on the other side of a deportation story.
My Spanish room-mate created his own company in Spain, then gave himself the I visa for representatives of foreign media. As long as you can prove that your media work in the US is vital to your foreign company (and they’re paying you to do it), tou can stay for up to one year at a time, with unlimited renewals.
Now that he was in the US, his plan was to start a company, in which he’d be the founder, CEO and sole employee.
Since he, personally, was not allowed to work in the US, potential employers could instead hire his company of one.
The plan was crazy enough to work, and not completely unheard of.
There are an increasing number of cases of undocumented immigrants starting legal businesses that actually become so successful that they managed to avoid deportation, because of the service they were providing.
Eventually he told me he found someone in Miami who was willing to sponsor him.
He moved out of the apartment and I haven’t heard from him since.
Pick your visa option
I told my lawyer about my room-mate’s plans. He laughed and said, “Well that’s one way to do it. But as your lawyer, I wouldn’t advise it.”
Should Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism ever have a class on the many visas that the US provides, we’d be the most qualified to teach it.
After the H1-B, the next best option is the O-1 visa.
It’s what we nicknamed the Bieber Visa. It’s awarded to people with extraordinary abilities.
And this isn’t just a “my mommy thinks I’m special” visa.
You have to prove your worth by providing 12 recommendations from your home country and five letters of intent to employ in the US, show that you’ve won or been nominated for several awards, throw in about $4,000 and you’re set.
Then my lawyer threw out another option: the J-1 Trainee visa.
Here’s the most convoluted visa I came across.
You need five years’ relevant experience in your home country to qualify for this visa.
Then your company works with a special government-sanctioned company to create, approve, evaluate and continually monitor your training programme.
Oh yeah, and you pay them hundreds of dollars a month to do this.
And there’s more
Then there are those visas that you’re not sure you ever want.
In early May, activists sued the NYPD for failing to issue visas to foreigners who were victims of serious crimes and were helping to bring the perpetrator to justice.
The U visa was established in 2000. Immigrants on that can work in the US and are eligible for a Green Card.
The lawsuit alleged the NYPD does not currently have any written guidelines for issuing U-visas, even though they must have them under federal law.
They alleged the commissioner of police had the sole discretion in the city to grant the visa.
In other words, you could get shot in the face, but still be deported.
Get me to the church
So why don’t you just get married? Honestly, it probably is the easiest way.
And if you had listened to your friends, it should’ve been your first option anyway.
The toughest requirement of this visa is having the ability to show you met your fiancé, in person, at least once within two years of filing your petition.
Then you have to get married within three months.
So what did I choose? Unfortunately, my employer has a strict policy of not sponsoring visas. I found out around March that there was no way around it. I haven’t made a decision yet, but at least I’m sure I know every single one of my options. Who knows, maybe I will just get married.
I’ve gotten quite a few offers.
As one of my friends put it, apparently finding an American to marry you is an achievement more worthy of a visa than completing a graduate degree.
Kejan Haynes is a Trinidad and Tobago broadcast journalist who is currently based in New York.