I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien. I’m an Englishman struggling to stay in San Francisco.
Sting has got it wrong and this is why.
For the last 18 months, I’ve been a Brit in my mid-twenties living in America. I landed on the seismic shores of San Francisco from London with the intention of expanding my own horizons and an opportunity to be placed in the heart of the world of technology that interested me so much. Thanks to my family’s religious watching of “Love Actually” at Christmas time, I was also predicting that being a Brit in America was going to be quite fun.
So I was slightly disappointed to be welcomed by streets paved with young men. But this wasn’t the greatest surprise. After the culture shock subdued and I no longer felt that everyday was like a new level in Grand Theft Auto, I observed a more real challenge on the horizon. I had heard that US Immigration was challenging, but even as a Brit? It couldn’t be that bad.
How wrong I was.
Immigration, the touchy subject that it is, is likely to rile up opponents of the free movement of people. In times of economic hardship, the border is often the first target by politicians with a strong nationalist rhetoric. However, there is no shortage of research that shows immigration is good for the economy. But away from the data and figures, I hope my story does connect with some American readers out there, who should understand what it is like to be an alien in the States living in great uncertainty, whether you are British, Mexican or any other nationality.
I wasn’t especially inspired after working in London following graduating, so I managed to find a way to make it to America as an intern in a digital marketing agency for 6 months where I’d be able to focus on my personal goal: building a global network at the same as gaining some highly valuable work experience in one of the most booming cities in the world.
San Francisco had so much to more to offer me so I wanted to stay. To do so meant I’d be facing the gruesome H1B visa; a visa that any foreigner trying to work in the US will know all too well about. This is not to be confused with H1B1, the equally unpleasant but slightly different swine flu virus. Widely regarded as the gateway to the Green Card, the H1B is a very popular visa that ‘high skilled’ foreign nationals attempt to obtain to work in the country (below is an insightful map from The Brookings Institution).
To underline its popularity, one only has to look at the time it takes to reach the annual 65,000 visa cap. In 2011, it took 301 days to reach the cap, effectively meaning that nearly everyone who applied got one. In 2015, it only took 5 days. So all 233,000 of us that applied for 65,000 visas this year had to enter into the lottery and in turn, be subdued to living in huge uncertainty over whether we’d be able to stay in our jobs or not. Great organisations like FWD.us are shining a light on the need for immigration reform, but I wanted to share my story and how it unfurled.
- I came over as an intern on a J1 visa for 6 months. After 1 month, I started the process of applying for another 6-month extension because I rather liked it here.
- I convinced my reluctant HR department to extend my visa. After 2 months of back and forth, over 50 pages of forms, one trip back to London, 3 trips to the US embassy, one emergency consular interview, one cancelled flight, and a large hole in my wallet, I succeeded in getting only another 6 months.
- I decide I want to stay beyond 12 months so I apply for the infamous H1B visa. I scrapped to find a company that was willing to sponsor me as the original company decided against my sponsorship, claiming it was too risky. I offered to foot the bill thus reducing the risk to practically nothing and still no. N.B. Many companies turn away exceptional foreign talent at this point because of the time it takes for approval as well as the risk that the employee may not succeed in the lottery.
- Knowing I had to get creative, I met and was hired by a startup willing to bend the rules. At the same time, I was introduced to an immigration lawyer that we knew as James Bond because he could supposedly get anything done.
- In the application for the H1B, I had to write my own job description and all accompanying letters of recommendation. I somehow convinced the authorities that my degree is linked to the role I’m being sponsored for (Geography -> Chief Creative Officer) and with the help of James Bond, I attempted to prove that I was better than any American at the role I’m applying for. I submitted my application into what turns out to be the most competitive year for the H1B lottery (as I find out later). 233,000 applications for 58,000 visas. 25% chance, and guess what, I didn’t get it.
- I turned to my plan B that would buy me only an additional 6 months until I had to go through the same arduous process again. With James Bond’s help, I was left with 48 hours to apply for the appropriately named B visa. In order to be eligible for the B visa (extended business trip), I had to present a case to the US immigration service. This entailed fabricating an entire company, business model and investment schedule, writing letters from ‘investors’ that I was going to ‘meet’, as well as pulling together a long list of conferences and events that I was going to ‘attend’ in the coming 4 months that form a (completely fake) itinerary.
- I faked conference tickets and receipts using photoshop and tapped my friends for tickets to big tech conferences that their companies hosted (including Salesforce’s Dreamforce). In the end, I had over $2000 worth of tickets that I didn’t spend a cent on.
- We submitted the application just in time, but I am still waiting to hear back as to whether I succeeded (I could receive a letter tomorrow saying that I must leave immediately). Until then, if I leave the country, I won’t be allowed back in and with a very sick grandparent back home, knowing this has been particularly hard.
If you do the math(s), you’ll see that of the 18 months I’ve been in the USA, I’ve been worrying about whether I can stay for 16 of them. Tomorrow, I’m flying back to the UK because I don’t want to continue playing with the system. I know a guy who has ‘married’ his roommate for equity in his weed delivery company in return. I know another guy who has applied for asylum in the US out of fear of persecution in his home country because he is ‘gay’. I know a girl who has raised over $1m for her start up just to build a better case for her application (she got denied). These are all, highly talented people who would contribute much to the US economy. I’m not interested in any of this.
In this day and age, where democratisation of technology and transport allows information, ideas and culture to flow across borders, it’s a travesty that such an archaic system can exist, putting so many through such misery. Whether you are an undocumented Mexican living in Texas, a fully Americanised Korean that grew up here, went to an Ivy league school but whose parents don’t have the right papers meaning you don’t either, or you are simply a British guy who values building a global network of friends and being exposed to new cultures and ideas from around the world, the American immigration system needs to be addressed because living in perpetual uncertainty is miserable.
I don’t want this post to simply shine a light on my plight alone because I know I’m incredibly privileged to have had this opportunity to come to America in the first place. But perhaps this post will shine a light on the other side of US immigration that isn’t talked about as much. My experience in the US has been greatly tainted by this system and I have no doubt I’ll be reluctant to engage with it, or any American institution again. Until it changes, those of us going through such immigration woes must be prepared.
Living in such uncertain circumstances has a big impact on one’s life and how you lead it. I will leave America tomorrow thinking that Sting should perhaps revisit his song and remind us that being a legal alien perhaps isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.