Immigration 101: What it's like to immigrate to the US, part 1

Milk in Spain is sold in shelf-stable cartons. I had been warned that Spaniards thought American fondness for a cold glass of milk was strange, so I gamely purchased a box of milk my first week living in Spain and brought the room-temperature liquid home to my apartment. I needed to adapt to Spanish culture, I told myself, as I poured the white stuff in my cereal and in my coffee, finding it more and more distasteful. One day, however, after watching my roommates fix a bowl of cereal, I realized my information about Spanish milk was incomplete: once the box is opened, it does, in fact, need to be refrigerated. How I didn’t get violently ill after drinking milk that had been left outside for days is a mystery to me.

Milk in boxes: Shelf-stable, but not THAT shelf-stable

Milk in boxes: Shelf-stable, but not THAT shelf-stable

I was never truly an immigrant in Spain, but my years living abroad did teach me that the hardest part about being a foreigner wasn’t adapting to the food, the festivals, or even the language. It was the fact that I didn’t know how the washing machines worked, how to find the correct night bus, or how to store milk. I fought with a roommate over our security deposit, not understanding that the way she was managing it was completely normal. The reputation of foreign women as promiscuous was hard to shake: after I toured an apartment one day, the landlord messaged me to say that it was not available to rent, but suggested we meet there for a number of explicit activities anyway. I was lucky enough to make a friend who worked for the Spanish customs department and helped me get back the taxes that I had paid throughout the year; after he assisted me with the paperwork, about five other of my American friends asked him for help as well. The second year I was there, my appointment to receive my year-long residency card was scheduled for about three months after my 90-day tourist visa expired, and I had to go to an office for a tiny slip of paper that confirmed that I was waiting for an appointment and therefore wasn’t deportable.

Now that I’m married to an immigrant, it has only confirmed my impressions from living abroad: life as an immigrant presents special challenges, and it takes a lot of dedication, courage, and perseverance to build a life in a foreign country. There are deeply personal reasons, therefore, for me to oppose anti-immigrant sentiment. And while I understand that there are a variety of potential solutions to the current problems with immigration, I find that there are some widespread misconceptions about what it is like to immigrate to the United States right now. In this post, I’m going to talk about some of the paths to permanent residency (and eventually citizenship); next time, I’ll give a closer look at what it was like to sponsor my husband for his green card.

Note: I am not a lawyer. This information is my best understanding of the immigration system but should not be taken for advice on how to immigrate.

There are, broadly speaking, four ways that immigrants legally come to the United States: through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program; as a refugee or asylum claimant; with a work visa; or sponsored by a family member. (A very small number of people will fit into special categories, like diplomats’ children, etc.) I’ll go through the first three categories in this post, and then talk about my experience sponsoring my husband in another post.

Diversity Immigrant Visa Program

This is the closest that it gets to “waiting in line to enter the US.” Anyone can apply to be entered into the lottery to win the opportunity to apply for a green card. One major exception: since the purpose of this program is supposedly to gather a diverse group of immigrants, citizens of the top 15 countries who send immigrants to the US are excluded. For 2017, that means: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam. Also, in order to qualify, potential immigrants must have a high school degree or two years of work experience in a field that requires training. Finally, there are 50,000 visas available through this program; in 2015, 14.3 million people applied. The visas are distributed per continent, meaning that people from Oceania had an 8% chance of winning a visa; everyone else’s chances were less than 1.5%

For an excellent story of what the process is like when you do win this lottery, check out this podcast from This American Life, Episode 560: Abdi and the Golden Ticket. (Imagine your life-changing opportunity depending on your high school’s ability to send your transcript on time before your interview with the US consulate.)

Refugees and Asylum Claimants
Much has been written on how refugees are screened, a complicated process that involves coordination from the United Nations. Here are some articles that explain refugee visas in more depth:

People can also travel to the United States by any means and, once inside the country, apply for asylum, based on the fear that your life will be threatened in your home country due to your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The application for asylum must be filed within a year of arriving in the US, and if your application is denied, you become deportable. In 2014, 34% those granted asylum were from China, and 12% (the second-largest group) from Egypt. About 11% were from Latin America/South America.

Work Visas
If you think that immigrants are coming to the US and stealing jobs away from Americans…well, the system in place is designed to prevent that. 140,000 work visas are available per year to foreign nationals. In order for a company to sponsor a employee for immigration, they must first obtain a labor certification. This document “establishes that there are insufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to fill the position being offered to the alien at the time and place where the alien is to be employed, and that the employment of the alien, if qualified, will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.” In other words, the company has to show that they tried to hire US workers, but could not find anyone qualified enough, and that the pay for the position is at least at the average level, not below-market wages. As proof, the company usually has to submit evidence like job postings (published in at least three different places) and resumes of applicants who were rejected for the position. Once again, since there are more applicants than visas, they are distributed among workers based on three levels of classification: category 1 workers are extremely qualified (as in they hold Nobel prizes, Pulitzer prizes, Olympic medals, or other international proof of their extraordinary ability); category 2 workers include those with advanced degrees (masters/PhD) and category 3 workers have at least two years of training in their employment field.

How do non-US residents convince companies to hire and sponsor them? Most of the foreign-born people I know who are now working in the United States first arrived here on student visas. Part of this visa is something called Optional Practical Training (OPT), which gives student visa holders permission to work in the US for 12 months (28 months for STEM majors). After a year or two working for a company under OPT, it becomes easier to argue that they are the most qualified candidate for the job.

Of course, my favorite foreigner currently working in the US is my husband. Stay tuned for the thrilling tale of how, with just $2000+ dollars and 30 bazillion forms (give or take), we obtained permanent residency for him after our marriage!