I’m getting kicked out of America and you probably don’t understand why, or why the fact you don’t matters

With all the talk of travel bans, registries and deportations in the current political climate; you’d think the average person has a pretty decent idea of how the immigration system works. I say this because every conversation around illegal immigration always brings up the line: “well they should’ve just come here legally”. Well you dear, sweet, naive believers in the American dream, I’m here to help clear up a few things for you. A little background on me: I’m 26, I think Black Widow and Hawkeye are the best Avengers, and I’m about to be kicked out of America after having lived here for the better part of a decade. I’ve broken no laws, followed the exact process laid out by the government, and contributed thousands of dollars to my local economy over the years. So, how did this happen? Well…

Limited ways to come to the states

I came to the states right after I graduated high school to come to college in New York (the best and worst state). For this I needed a student visa, which you get through whichever college/university you enroll in. Oh we should probably get this out of the way early: almost every visa to get into the country requires a person or business in the US to apply on your behalf or sponsor you. You can’t self-petition on your own merit, you always need a guy on the inside which, in a way, is a pretty solid lesson on American culture, but I digress. This is a pretty common way for people to start out, it lasts for the length of your studies and has some important requirements like: don’t be terrorist, obey the law, talk shit about New Jersey, and (this is the important one) demonstrate the intention of returning to your home country afterwards. Now this is somewhat reasonable and many of you down in the comments are already typing away how, yeah I agreed to it so off I go, but dude…I had just turned 18 when I first came to the states. So what wound up happening is that I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life here, and things might have changed a little since the days when I thought the new Indiana Jones movie was going to be great (it was a simpler, more innocent time). “There are other visas you can switch to if you want to legally stay here” I hear you say across the aether; to which I say: “maybe pump the brakes on that for a second Jimmy.” There are in fact other visas that you can technically switch to but that’s basically where most American citizens’ knowledge on the subject ends. This isn’t a criticism, you have no incentive to look it up.

Your options are super limited

So after 5 years I started getting close to the end of my degree program and was soon going to graduate with a Bachelor’s in Computer Science, then start along the path of creating our coming robot overlords. As I said before, a lot had changed since I’d first got off the plane and I wanted to build a life here, so I went to talk to my DSO (Designated School Official) about how I could go about getting an off-campus job. Some eyebrows probably went up there. “Why did you go talk to the school instead of just getting a job from the job tree like everyone else? Also Why does it sound like you had to report to a probation officer or something like that?” Thank you convenient fictional strawman for your question. Well you’re not legally allowed to work in the states unless you have a work visa, in fact when you apply for a social security card, they’ll issue you a special one made specifically to track that. You can though, work on your university campus…no more than 20 hours a week, or work an internship…unpaid and as long as the company can prove that you wouldn’t be taking any American’s spot, so…options, I guess? I spoke to them and they gave me the rundown of my options to work in the states legally: I’d either need to get a work visa (more on those later), which would be laughable since they are incredibly expensive and have to be applied for by an employer on your behalf. Or I could switch on to something called OPT (optional practical training), which lasts 12 months.The idea behind it, is to give students on a student visa a shot to work with employers who might want to sponsor them in the future. Because I was in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field, I also qualified for a 24 month extension, so that’s 3 years for those of you doing the math at home. So I sent in my paperwork and the $500 (non-refundable) filing fee to apply for it, just hoping I didn’t get rejected for the laundry list of possible reasons. Luckily I was approved, then after a couple of weeks of job searching I got myself a decent job on Long Island, which wasn’t exactly what I had initially been aiming for, but it was interesting. I liked the people I worked with, and I even started and DM’d (Dungeon Mastered) a DnD (Dungeons and Dragons) group with a couple of people in the company including one of the executives, which turned out to have been super useful down the line. But, the problem was: OPT is nonrenewable and you can only use your extension once per degree. So if I wanted to stay in the states I would need to get sponsored. But…

Sponsorship is…challenging

So after 3 odd years of working for this company, I became pretty excellent at a very specific job, one that maybe two other people could do as well as I could. It would take maybe 3 years for someone new to be trained to my level. I was also pretty well liked around the office, so when I went to HR to ask if the company would be willing to sponsor me; remember that exec I played DnD with? Dude basically kicked down doors to make it happen for me. So cool, right? Company was willing to sponsor me, I’m done right? Well ‘bout that… there are a couple of options available to you depending on some key factors like: are you one of the best in your field (like are you the Elon Musk of your industry?), are you a celebrity?, are you crazy rich? I was none of those, so both my and the company’s lawyers (yeah, if you want anything close to a chance you need to lawyer up) laid out that the only options would be either the company trying to sponsor me for a green card (we’ll come back around to this) or sponsoring me for a type of work visa called an H1B. Now this is the part where I’m going to have to bombard you with boring minutia because you’ll need it to understand everything that comes after. The way an H1-B works is that it requires applicants to have at least a Bachelor’s degree and be sponsored by a company. The company needs to prove that they can’t hire a citizen to do the job, show that the employee is being paid the prevailing wage for the job, and they need to file on the employee’s behalf, pay the application fee (which is thousands of dollars), etc. We did all of that, plus sending the government a copy of every piece of identifying information I had plus DNA samples. We made a packet to be delivered on the morning of the first day that they were accepting applications. Oh also, they only accept applications once a year from April 1st to 30th. We got it all in, perfect. But not one bit of that mattered for a couple of reasons. If you’ve been reading about some of the stuff the president has been talking about you might be familiar with the fact the he is not a fan of the program, and as such signed some executive orders to make it even more difficult to get one, including possibly doubling the salary requirement for an application to be accepted, in order to subtly discourage companies from going through the trouble. But that shockingly isn’t even the biggest problem. This visa (like a lot of US visas) has a cap set to 65000 with an additional 20000 for people with Master’s degrees (but only if its from a US University). Now this might sound like a lot, but consider that the US is a nation of 300 million, that’s 0.0283% of the population, not exactly the flood of brown people that everyone is so terrified about. So 85000 people a year, but it’s one of the only ways to legally come to the states, so it gets around 2–3 hundred thousand applicants a year. One number is bigger than the other, so what happens to all the extra? Well what happens is that everyone that applies goes into a lottery, regardless of anything. If you get selected, cool you make it through to the next stage (where you can still be rejected for any reason) if you don’t win: you’re done. Hope you can convince your employer to do this again in a year!

The situation now

So, spoiler alert: I didn’t win the lottery. In the words of the one and only Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness; that is life”. That is a brutal truth that, if I’m being honest, was one of the most difficult for me to accept. You need to understand that I when I was a kid back in Zimbabwe, I grew up on American media, it’s how I learned to speak English, I’ve wanted to come here since I was 6 years old. I spent pretty much my entire life working towards the point I am now and I made sure I did everything by the letter of the law, because I am the goodest of boys and I kind of figured that if you played by the rules you would be rewarded for that. But that is not quite how it works out. I built myself a life here. Don’t get excited, it’s not anything super baller, but it’s something. I have a close circle of friends that I get shitty Applebee’s appetizers with, an okay apartment which costs way too much, I volunteer, I do walks for diseases, I donate blood (universal donors represent!). You get the point. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m almost aggressively mediocre, I’d be the dude that your aunt would point to and cringingly say “He’s one of ‘the good ones’.” I’m pretty much a model citizen, I’m the guy that you could bring home to meet your parents (they might be a little disappointed that I’m not better looking and a little awkward, but you get the point). And I now have to dismantle all of that and go back to a country that I haven’t seen since high school. Look, it’s not like I’m going to Syria or anything, I’ll have a lot of trouble getting on my feet but chances are I’ll hopefully be okay; but I spent my entire adult life figuring out how to be an adult in the states, I have no idea how to function back on that side and what little I do know from my memories of being 18 could have changed completely over the time I’ve been gone. How do I open a bank account? How do I get a driver’s license? What’s the process for getting a job (do I need the equivalent of an SSN?)? How do I get an apartment without any credit history or references in the country? And that’s just the surface level stuff.
Now this is the part of the story where people are usually shocked but here’s the thing:

This isn’t rare

None of this is rare. This is the type of thing that is common across the entire immigration system and it’s deeply ingrained. I guarantee that you know people that are affected. People getting rolled over by immigration aren’t just the folks picking your veggies; it’s the people doing your taxes, treating your wounds, fixing your computer, making your entertainment. I guarantee you there is someone in your office who is in a situation similar to this. But the average person would not know that because the conversation around immigration is incredibly narrowed in such a way that it ignores everything but a very specific kind of illegal immigration. Now if you combine this with the fact that the average person would have no reason to look up the actual immigration process, it creates a very warped idea of people’s experiences. So what can an enterprising young man like myself do now that I’m in this situation? Well…

Options are limited

I have spent so much time and money in offices of immigration lawyers asking them what I can do. Essentially it comes down to 3 options. I can either: get married, re-enroll in college for my master’s degree, or leave. Each one of those options has some wrinkles so let’s break it down.

  • Getting married is the one that people usually jump to. “Why don’t you find a nice lady to get married to for a month so you can get your green card?”. Well, hypothetical person, that is what they call “a crime” and the government has been wise to that scheme for longer than I have been alive. Let me explain how that whole process works. Supposing you find someone that you’re super in love with that wants to touch your butt exclusively for the rest of their life, you can get married. Once you’re married and all the paperwork is filed, you can have your spouse apply for your green card. This is the part where things become a nightmare. You see, the government will want you to prove your love to them, and it is not as simple as just kissing each other once in front of your interviewer. They’ll call you in to a USCIS office for an interview, where you’ll face a gauntlet questions about every detail of each other’s lives (How many siblings do they have? How old is each one of them? How many windows does the bathroom in their apartment have? Which direction do the windows face? What was your first date?) and you better hope you get those right. Let’s suppose that you made it through the interview and convinced the interviewer that you’re actually a couple or at least did your research. Now you get a provisional green card. Essentially that means that you are on probation for 2 years. During this time you’ll need to report to your case worker periodically for more interviews. You can expect random home visits to confirm that you live actually together and if you prove that you aren’t just roommates, your neighbours can be interviewed so don’t piss them off. You will also need to accumulate supporting documentation, such as statements from shared bank accounts or jointly filed taxes. We also live in a time where they can look into all of your social media, including facebook posts, instagram posts, tweets, myspace (they’d better be in your top 8), everything. So, assuming you can put up enough photos of the two of you making out in front of sunsets with #blessed #love #relationshipGoals tagged for 2 years, you get the official green card; but you’re not out of the woods yet. The government will still check up on you just in case, so if you get divorced afterwards or rather get divorced too soon, your status could still be revoked. And that is a big problem for everyone involved. You and your spouse will be charged with fraud, so that’s potential jail time, and you’ll get deported with the addition of being barred from ever entering the states again. So…less than ideal.
  • The next one is going back to college for another degree. How that works is that if I were to re-enroll, I would be able to switch onto a new student visa which would last till the end of my degree program. It’s worth noting that this is a relatively short period of time since I’m legally required to be a full time student (which is 9 credits per semester). “Okay that doesn’t seem too bad, you can take classes at night and work full time to pay your tuition” you say. Well, you may want to hold up on that. Fun thing about immigration law is that unless you’re on a very specific kind of work authorization, you cannot legally work in the United States, with one exception: working on campus in a student worker position (we’ll come back around to this). So, I can’t work while I go to school, that means I would need to find some other way to pay for school. What would be your first guess? Financial aid? Foreigners qualify for none. Okay, what about loans? Technically, yes I could take out loans to pay for my degree, I have phenomenal credit for someone my age. There is an important caveat: only US citizens and green card holders can take out loans, so someone like myself would need a US cosigner to take out any money. If you’ve got some friends or family who are willing to sign up for thousands of dollars of debt with you, awesome. If you (shockingly) don’t, then you are out of luck, friend. So then what options are available to me? Well remember when I mentioned the student worker positions on campus? If you are fortunate enough to attend a college that has them, you can pick up a graduate assistantship which instead of paying you money, pay with credits, usually earning up to 6 per semester; you can work a maximum of 20 hours a week. Now if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice 2 problems there. The first is that you’re sinking 20 hours a week into a job that isn’t getting you anything you can use to buy burritos. The second is that it only covers 6 credits…out of the 9 needed. So now you need to come up with the money for the remaining 3 credits worth of tuition upfront, every semester, without being able to work. And that’s kinda where I am now.
  • The last option is: leaving. Which we already went over the issues of above, so I won’t bore and depress you further with that.

What happens now?

  • So what happens now? The honest answer is: I don’t know. Most likely I’ll have to leave and rebuild my life on the other side of the Atlantic. I’ll still want to come back because my entire life is here, but it would be incredibly difficult and expensive, so I don’t really know what I should do now. But I do know what you should do now. Right now I imagine a lot of you are getting ready to say how sorry you are that I’m in this situation and how the system should be changed. Don’t be sorry, do something. Help people like me, people like your buddy at the office, people like the guy at the deli, people like the guy who fixes your computer. Write to your senators and representatives- call them, let them know that this is something that you want to change. Don’t let this be another issue that you let stay terrible or get worse because it doesn’t personally affect you. Beyond the words you’re reading now, I don’t have a voice, so I need you to be a voice for me and for everyone else that came here trying to follow the American dream of paying way too much for rent and eating way too much taco bell.