A legal immigrant’s long road

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It is my 20th year in the United States. Yet I am not a citizen.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is a long and arduous process, if you come into this country as a student, which is what I did.

I came to the States by chance. I had recently switched careers from being a scientist, and I was curious to see if I could enroll at the same university where my sister was completing her Ph.D.

Getting another master’s degree, I thought, would kill two birds with one stone: education in my newly found journalism career and time with my sister. The stars did align; I got a scholarship to come to the Ohio State University on a student (F-1) visa. My intent was to get my degree and head back to India.

Commencement at Ohio State, March 2000.

After some culture shock, most of which centered around fitting in and thinking of myself as an individual instead of a participant in a communal society, I slowly worked toward being a student at an American university. As I readied for graduation, I learned of the Optional Practical Training option. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services defines OPT as temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. Eligible students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before or after completing their academic studies.

It was too tempting not to try. I applied to numerous publications across the nation. I had two jobs lined up before I graduated: One with Dow Jones as an entry-level reporter in Washington, D.C., and the other with the Rochester Business Journal as a reporter.

Of course I wanted to go to D.C. But, not only did the RBJ say I would have autonomy with the articles I chose to write, the paper also uttered the magic words every foreign student turned job applicant desires to hear: “We will sponsor you for your work visa, the H1-B after the OPT expires.” So, RBJ won.

Smriti has lived in Rochester for 18 years.

I got my OPT card, which looks much like a driver’s ID but also mentioned my temporary status, and I moved to Rochester in 2000. The RBJ filed for my H1-B the same year, but it wasn’t approved right away. Immigration officials questioned whether I had met the requirements.

The H-1B program allows employers in the United States to temporarily hire foreign workers in occupations that require application of highly specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher in the specific specialty, or its equivalent, according to the USCIS.

How did I fit in? I have two master’s degrees, including one in biochemistry. The RBJ hired me to cover science and medical research, among other areas. In an administrative snafu, however, proof of my graduate degree in journalism from OSU got lost in the shuffle.

I had 60 days to leave the country. Gone was my bravado about being employed in the U.S. I had to pack up my things from my desk and wait for the agency to respond (or leave the U.S., if the 60-day mark arrived sooner). It was a surreal experience. I questioned my desire to live and work in a country where it was so hard to just do my job. I relished being a reporter. My journalist counterparts in India asked me to come home and promised me jobs at national newspapers. India was growing fast, they said, as were news outlets. My friends told me jobs were better back home.

Still, with dwindling financial resources, I stuck it out with RBJ’s emotional support. A month and a half later, which felt like a century, my visa was approved. I was incredibly relieved to be able to work in the U.S. for another three years. (H-1B visas are valid for six years.) The days sped by and then I was back at the USCIS for my H-1 B renewal, which was simple enough, even though I was prepared to pack up again.

In my fifth year as an H1-B visa holder, I thought long and hard about becoming a permanent resident of the U.S., the next logical step in my immigration journey. I approached the RBJ to gauge their willingness to sponsor me. Eventually, with the RBJ as my sponsor for an employment-based permanent residency and an immigration lawyer, we applied for my green card.

U.S. immigration puts employment-based green card applicants in three categories; priority workers (those with extraordinary ability); professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability; and skilled workers. I was not extraordinary or exceptional; I was only skilled, as were hundreds of other applicants from India and from China, the countries with the largest numbers of such hopefuls.

I applied for my green card in 2005. The paperwork, which included advertising my current post to ensure no U.S. citizen was qualified to do my job with the same credentials as I had, was laborious. I cringed as my boss had to make the job that I held open to others. He waded through resumes as I waited anxiously to clear the labor certification portion of the application.

I passed labor certification as legal fees and the stack of papers detailing various stages in my immigration status grew. Eight years later, I was still waiting for my green card. Along the way I had to renew my work visa a couple of times.

Somewhere in between USCIS opened the gates to speed up the process. My spirits soared. I envisioned freedom. But the authorities called it an error. However, immigration attorneys nationwide petitioned for those who had managed to squeeze through the open window, to progress to the next stage. I was one of them.

I traveled once during the green-card process to visit my family in India. My travel documents: my passport and a piece of paper that mentioned I was cleared to enter the U.S. Upon entry at Atlanta, I was detained for four hours, which is normal for those with documents such as mine, until they checked my file and status to let me into the country. I sat in a holding area with many immigrant families and their young children who were exhausted from their journeys and the wait. My suitcases were next to me and my identification was with border officials. Even though I knew I had the right documents, I was forced to confront the thought of turning around and going back to India. It didn’t happen, of course, but I never traveled again after that trip, even though my mother was diagnosed with cancer and my father’s heart failed him.

Did I get my green card? I did. Not through employment, however. As much as I wanted to become a U.S. resident in my own right, my husband Kevin sponsored me. After nearly nine years of waiting, I closed the employment-based application and applied as a spouse of a U.S. citizen. I got my green card in three months.

The elation I expected to feel was not as effervescent as I had played it out in my head. I thought of countless friends and other immigrants who had come through the proper channels and were – and are still – waiting. I moved to another employer and found others there in line for permanent residency, fearful of losing their H1-B visa status.

The United States granted nearly 1.2 million individuals legal permanent residency in 2016, more than two-thirds of whom were admitted based on family reunification. Employment-based preferences were 12 percent. In late 2017, there were more than 4 million applicants on the State Department’s waiting list for immigrant visas, a recent report from the Council of Foreign Relations shows.

Not all Americans know that most immigrants in the U.S. are here legally. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that fewer than half of Americans (45 percent) are aware of this fact. According to the center’s estimates, legal immigrants made up about 75 percent of immigrants living in the United States in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available.

And yet, things have become tougher for legal immigrants. The recent crackdown on those who have entered this country illegally has upped the scrutiny on those who have entered this country legally. Legal immigrants fear smaller quotas for work visas and longer waits for a green card, in addition to questions at border crossings and ports of entry.

President Donald Trump endorsed a Senate bill last year that would reduce by half the number of foreigners granted lawful permanent resident status each year, lowering immigration levels, reports suggest. The bill would also decide who should receive permanent residency and eliminate the diversity category for immigrants from countries with low immigration to the U.S. and cut refugee admissions.

I recently spoke with two foreign-born economics professors who are mulling a move to Canada, as their green card applications languish with USCIS. Though they fall in the exceptional ability category, they are doubtful America will continue to embrace immigrants like it has historically.

I realize that I am one of the lucky ones. I get to live in the United States, a country my parents taught me to idealize for its education systems and freedoms. It is my home now. I am considering citizenship, but I am loath to go through the process all over again – the paperwork, expense, fingerprinting (which would give USCIS at least three sets of my fingerprints) and more.

Still, I am terrified to cross the border and worry that the very ideals that make me proud to be in America as an immigrant are under the microscope. Perhaps, with time, that feeling will pass, and as a nation we will come together to understand that diversity will continue to take us forward.

4 thoughts on “A legal immigrant’s long road

  1. Great article, but you really gloss over many of the details about the path to citizenship when you go the marriage route. I sponsored my wife. It took us 5 years start to finish to get her citizenship (which, by the way, was the easiest process. Took only 3 months since application. The green card process is much longer. 9-12 months after application to receive temp green card (valid for only 2 years). Then 90 days before your 2 year anniversary you basically have to apply again to prove your marriage was not a sham and only then do you get your permanent green card (about another year wait). So start to finish to get your permanent green card through marriage is 3 years, not 3 months. At least it is now (2013 applied). Then after 5 years of having a green card you can apply to become a citizen (which is really easy and something I highly recommend). It was such a beautiful ceremony and celebration that was treated with great dignity and pride by local officials.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Smriti. I’m glad you’re here! I shudder to think of the time and talent that’s sacrificed to a system that desperately needs an overhaul. And I soooo wish that more Americans would devote some effort to *really* learning about our immigration system rather than reacting to half-truths and fear-mongering.

  3. Very insightful article. Especially when most life long Americans know so little about the immigration process. It would be interesting to survey the public on their attitudes about immigration followed by questions as to what they know about the process. This past Spring I recall hearing the # of RIT masters degrees conferred and that the majority of those receiving degrees were foreign students. Amazing how we who are American born take educational opportunities here as a given, but often do aspire to advance our education.

  4. Smriti- thank you for sharing your personal Journey. You are a wonderful person and our society benefits from having you here.

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