A single word that has acquired the ability to evoke a spectrum of reactions, so diverse among the general US populace that few themes could compete.

The news is alive with jargon surrounding illegal immigration- DACA, ICE, CBP, border wall, overstayed visas and deportation.

But my conversation with you today, is about the other kind of immigration. The legal, strictly by the books sort.

It is telling how many Americans can form some sort of opinion about distant illegal immigrants, their lives, their stories, challenges, livelihoods, communities and children, while knowing nearly nothing about the immense stress of legal immigration that Anita, in the adjacent cubicle is enduring….and Heng, near the copy room, and the friend from India they have lunch with

The front and center of American discourse surrounding immigration, from couches to Congress is occupied by far, by illegal immigration. With every move of the government on illegal immigration grabbing headlines, the domain of legal immigration falls so far outside the visible spectrum of the general public that it is hard to see…and harder still, to care. Legal immigration is relegated to releases on the USCIS website, sparse mentions in the news of the H-1b visa, with details and jargon guaranteed to dilute the interest of the average American enough to make this a domain of interest of primary stakeholders alone.

While no equivalence may be drawn between the issues of legal and illegal immigration, the cost of this skewed distribution of limelight is borne squarely by educated, productive, working, tax-paying, law abiding, legal immigrants.

This is not a post arguing for immigration reform. This is neither a rant, nor a plea. This is a post seeking to inform the hand that votes- the average US citizen, what the life of a typical legal immigrant is like. It is information that, if the citizens of the US had, would widen the immigration discourse to include the lives of the many, many highly productive individuals that contribute immeasurably to the United States.

Per ICE, in Feb 2015, there were 1.13 million international students in the US on student and vocational visas [1]. These are people that, in substantial part, go on to become your friends and co-workers.

Here’s the immigration processes your typical Indian colleague, let’s call him Ajit, has been through between deciding to apply to the US for a Master’s degree program (say, in 2012) and landing up as your colleague. This scenario considers the best of outcomes…and distills the very basics of the process.

Ajit decides he wants to consider a Master’s program in the US, for which he will have to select and apply for a Master’s program, with the additional step of appearing for an English competency exam like the IELTS or TOEFL. Additionally, he has to find the means to fund his whopping $40,000+ education, since he cannot count on scholarships at the very beginning.

Easy enough?

Once he gets a positive admission letter from the university, Ajit has to provide a guarantee of funds enough to cover 1 year of tuition, living expenses and such to obtain what is called an I-20 document. This is the first immigration document in a long, torrid relationship he will have with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for the rest of his life.

Once he obtains the I-20, he has to start his F-1 (student) visa paperwork which includes a hefty processing fee (close to $200), schedules an appointment at the US consulate, goes through an interview where his getting a visa is dependent greatly on the interviewer he faces.

If you are thinking that an admission from a university would mean a near automatic visa…you are mistaken.

The purpose of the visa interview is to determine whether you are a “potential immigrant”, whether your field of study is a potentially dangerous one, whether the university that gave you an admission is credible etc. The parameters of this assessment are unclear, and no reason is provided for rejections, requests for greater evidence etc.

The layman understanding is that anything from your choice of degree, your choice of institution, any relatives that you might have that stay in the US to the contents of your financial statement and declaration of funds can affect this decision.

If all goes well, he has a student visa, for which the US consulate holds onto his passport for anywhere between a few hours to a week (!)…and he can plan his travel to the US for his higher education.

Once in the US, almost every decision of his, requires immigration oversight. Change of address, on-campus jobs, internships, poor grades, any academic infractions, assistantships, unexplained absence, delay in graduating, how many credits he takes per semester, travel outside the country, hours that he might work, places that he might work, among others, require the USCIS and school authorities to be notified.

Towards the end of his master’s degree, in the midst of graduating, Ajit has to find a job, file paperwork for work authorization and, if it is approved, he is permitted to work for a period of 1 year, with the possibility of a 2 year extension ONLY if he has a STEM degree, with the following stipulations-

  • If he has not exceeded full time work of 365 days while being enrolled in the Master’s program
  • If he works in the a related field as his master’s degree.
  • If he finds work before graduating or within a grace period of 90 days following his graduation
  • He has to work for a USCIS approved employer who is able (and willing) to file immigration paperwork for him as needed.
  • He regularly checks in with the school to report any changes in employer, address etc.

During this period, Ajit must transition to a work visa (typically an H-1b) if he wishes to work beyond 3 years. If he is a STEM student, Ajit has 3 attempts, on April 1st of every year, to file his application towards the H-1b. If he is non STEM, he gets only a single attempt, after which he loses the eligibility to live and work in the US.For simplicity, let’s say he is a STEM worker.

In his first year following graduation, he worries about finding work and an employer that will be willing to file his H-1b visa, the most popular, employer sponsored work visa program in the US…and the minuscule part of the immigration process that is now part of candidates’ lexicon come election time. If he is unable to file or does not receive a visa, for whatever reason, he loses one turn, and files for the 2 year extension for STEM students.

A word about H-1b.

It is picked via a lottery. Yeah…you heard me right. Whether you studied in Harvard or a nondescript party school in Miami, whether you were a straight A or barely scrapped through, you get thrown into a raffle where the prize is the privilege to continue working and living in the US.

The visa has salary restrictions, requires lengthy justifications on why the immigrant worker was hired over a citizen, reams of paperwork to be filed by the employer and tons of processing fee and a legal team to work out its complexities.

The H-1b offers a maximum of 6 years’ employment authorization, split typically into two 3-year terms…and I hope by now, you can guess that the 2nd term is not guaranteed, though it is by the mercy of God, lottery-free. In this 6 year span, you are expected to file for Permanent Residency, another complex maze that I will not get into in this discussion.

It is no wonder why those that hire, would give a limb not to have to deal with this elaborate labyrinth and substantial cost of immigration processes and hire a citizen instead.

During this process, Ajit will have no clue as to his odds of getting picked, though Master’s and PhD’s do have an advantage over Bachelor degree holders. He will have no clue on when he might hear from the authorities on the results of the lottery and no way to track the progress of his application in any tangible detail.

As an added annoyance, his ability to apply for or renew his drivers’ license may be linked to his immigration situation and he might, at times, when in-between processing or visas, be denied the ability to drive.

Since it is pure luck and based on whether or not the employer wants to file that year, it is likely that you either don’t get filed or don’t get picked the first time…then comes the second turn…and then the third (one turn, every year of your post graduation employment period of 3 years if you are a STEM person)….with each missed turn, adding to uncertainty and stress.

Let’s say Ajit got picked in the lottery, he is far from done. He still has to go through processing. Additional evidence can be sought and everything is fair game for scrutiny- starting from the places he has lived, the nature of his job, whether he actually even works there etc etc etc.

Didn’t get picked all three years? You are out….

Had an employer hoodwink you, promising to file but didn’t? No luck, you lose your turn this year, better luck next time.

Lost your job? You have a grace period depending on your current status (90–150 days minus any unemployment days you may have lost) to find a new job, else…you’re out.

Need to travel abroad for an emergency or family occasion? Sorry, any time you have an application of any sort pending, it is not “recommended” that you travel abroad because you may not be let back in.

Your visa expired, but your status is valid and legal….? You have to get your visa stamped if you leave the country (which can be denied, or take months and might annoy your employer), but you can stay here…no problem.

By the time Ajit has gotten his H-1b and is working with you, he has likely missed weddings, the birth of nieces and nephews, festivals back home, his parents’ 50th anniversary.

He has likely spent anxious nights worrying about the delay in work authorization requests coming through, hearing about lottery results, worrying about layoffs, paid in excess of $500 to the USCIS in processing fees, had crushing uncertainty and stressful days and weeks.

He has waited in anxiety in immigration clearance lines, upon arrival, after long international flights, with meticulous paperwork and a spotless legal record and still just hoped the immigration officer doesn’t badger him for some strange reason and call for additional questioning with no justifications offered, no expected time given and no access to cellphones.

And this is, if everything goes well.

For an average citizen, the anxiety of joblessness is financial, maybe social.

To an immigrant, working legally, paying taxes (including social security and medicaid, if he’s an H-1b worker), being productive, losing a job…is to lose stability of all forms- geographical, financial, career, immigration status, and basically life as he knows it…with a ticking clock counting down from whatever grace period he is allotted.

This is merely the introduction in a series of articles I plan to write on the lives of students and workers in the US who have lived in the good graces of immigration and law….have followed the painstaking process, the restrictions, the stipulations.

This is my reply to citizens who mistake the lives of legal immigrants to be far simpler than they actually are. To citizens who might be tempted to think “they signed up for it”. Or those that might be completely unaware of what working in the US entails for their international counterparts at work.

When legal immigrants decided to follow a system, they signed up for some paperwork, not being considered citizens and afforded the privileges of one.

No, they do not sign up for crushing stress, despite following the law to its very punctuation…

They do not sign up for uncertainty lasting years…

…for a life that has all the trappings of “home” in a system that will relentlessly point out, on every turn, that you do not belong.

`Silent acceptance is not evidence of fairness. Having a country to go back to, is not always a ready alternative. The sentiment of “home” does not follow the rules of citizenship. Surface calm is not indicative of peace of mind. The significance of the time and resources poured into a life, do not change because its roots, lie in foreign soil.

Please stay with me, as I explore the substantial role that the legal immigration process has on almost every significant aspect of the life of an immigrant in the US.