Every year thousands of students from all over the world make their way to American universities -- a pilgrimage of sorts -- traveling across the seven seas, spending hours on SAT/GRE/GMAT exams, filling bales worth of paperwork, and expending a significant percentage of their families' income getting there. Most of them come with the hope of achieving the American dream -- completing a Masters degree, joining a global conglomerate, owning a suburban home and, finally, getting the coveted Green Card. Our story started out on a similar note.
My husband and I came to the United States separately from India over 11 years ago, initially for a graduate degree, and eventually with similar hopes of making this country our home. As with every new "FOB" (Fresh Off the Boat) student, things started shaky, but pretty soon we both began assimilating into the American way of life. What started out as a superficial initiation -- getting used to the fast food chains, enjoying college football, getting rid of our accents, etc. -- slowly turned into true-blooded American spirit. To put it simply, every year, we got more "American" and less "Indian," growing further and further away from our roots until this country started feeling more like home. We got married and bought a home in blue-collared Pittsburgh, dutifully paid our taxes, built a wonderful family around our friends and neighbors, became manic Steelers and Penguins fans, followed the local news, sat glued through the political national conventions, called President Obama "our President," and celebrated every holiday with gusto. We enjoyed the American way of life and couldn't imagine it any other way.
While things proceeded smoothly on the professional and personal front, a dark cloud of immigration always loomed over our heads. Every international student goes through the process of transferring their F-1 student visas to H1-B work visas, with an Optional Practical Training (OPT) card that allows us to work in the interim period. Each year the pool of applicants for the H1-B kept increasing, mainly because universities were admitting more students, and by 2006 there were many more applicants than there were visas. It was decided that the fate of these applicants would be determined by a lottery, and that year several of my friends, with degrees from some of the best universities in the U.S., had to leave the country until they could apply in another year. I was fortunate to get my first position at a university, and did not require to apply through the H1-B lottery, and instead got an academic H1-B.
In 2008, when I met my husband, he had been working under an academic H1-B and his university had applied for his Green Card (GC), a permanent residence card that allows international workers to live and work without a visa and the restrictions it imposes. In 2010, his labor certification, or the first stage of the GC application, got rejected because of minor errors committed by both the university HR as well as the attorney. This put us at a risk, because as an international worker, you are only allowed six years on an H1-B and he was already in his fifth year. He couldn't apply for a fresh GC application in his final year, because you need an application to be in the "pending" stage for at least a year in order to continue living in the U.S. In the meantime, the university fired his previous attorney and hired a new one. He suggested that we apply for a National Interest Waiver (NIW), based on my husband's work, which is of national significance as it benefits multiple research institutions across the country. He also suggested that we apply for an O visa, which is for an outstanding individual in a chosen field. While both the NIW and O applications were pending, we spent months on the edge of our seats, not knowing the day we would need to leave the country.
In the meantime, I had been working on an H1-B visa as a postdoc for over three years and needed a change of pace. Since the economy was not suitable for a job change, and neither were employers willing to apply for the H1-B visa through the lottery as well as the newly introduced e-verification system, I decided to work on a part-time degree. Within one semester, I fell in love with my school and my course, and decided to pursue it full-time. This meant changing my visa again to the F-1 student visa, and every approved visa change meant that I had to either leave the country for a visa stamping (and possibly never get it stamped because I had already lived in the U.S. for so many years that I couldn't possibly prove ties with my home country) or never leaving the U.S. until I finished school. We had both previously gotten stuck for a couple of months when traveling to India for stamping of an approved H1-B visa, much to the disdain of our employers. So, I ended up not being able to leave the country for three years.
Before school ended, I was fortunate to volunteer with a NYC consulting firm who wanted to hire me as soon as I could convert my F-1 visa to a new H1-B visa. This time however, I would need to apply through the lottery. My husband was still working in Pittsburgh and hoping to move to NYC. Pretty soon he got a couple of offers, but after spending hours with lawyers, it became apparent that there was no way for him to change to another job and not give up on his now pending three year GC application. His other option was to convince the hiring company to port his GC application, and wait until the next lottery period -- or the first of April 2014 - to send in his papers. There was of course a significant possibility that he might not make the lottery, and then have to leave the country. We had already spent a year living separately, and even though his supervisor was kind enough to let him work remotely from NYC several times a month, the distance, the cost, and the constant issues with immigration took its toll on us. My only option at this time was to quit my company and move back to Pittsburgh, or convince my employer that I could manage my client-facing work remotely.
They say that opportunity knocks at your door only so many times; both my husband and I had to let years of opportunities pass by -- from being invited to attend TED Global 2012 but not being able to travel to participate, to a possible scholarship at the World Economic Forum or other international internships, from founding or joining startups to monetizing our first (and very well received) iPhone App. We just kept waiting for that approved Green Card to allow us to lead fulfilling lives, mainly because of the constraints placed on us by the work visa. When the time finally came to make a decision about our NYC-Pittsburgh situation, we felt that we had had enough. Things needed to change. Here were two hardworking people ready to put their soul into making a country their home, and no matter how hard they tried, things just refused to fall into place. We took it as a sign and decided that we needed to take a break and move away from the stifling immigration laws that kept clipping our wings and preventing us from taking off. Our employers were extremely supportive of our need and we agreed that a sabbatical would be the ideal compromise.
Today as I sit in Goa, India, setting up home in a country that feels somewhat distant and yet vaguely familiar, I am able to reflect on the condition of thousands of immigrants like us. I always believed that a country like the United States, and especially the United States, would value all that we had accomplished in our years there. My husband put in over nine years of dedicated work towards biomedical informatics research -- his department recently receiving a large grant primarily because of his contribution. At my most recent job, I led a team that was responsible for developing and implementing an end-to-end technological platform for the entire Los Angeles school district. I was also the 2012 Global Winner of the $1M Hult Global Case Challenge (Education Track), where I led a team that competed with teams across 130 countries to design a sustainable and scalable business model for the non-profit, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). The judges included Nobel Laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus, and President Clinton announced the winners. Based on this idea, my team set up a startup to implement some of our ideas. However, my visa constraints forced us to shut down prematurely; a situation so outrageous that it was even covered by the Business Times, Pittsburgh edition.
We are really fortunate to have people in our lives who are helping us with this transition; and it is not just our families in India. Our employers who made sure to remind us of their constant support, our close friends and neighbors in Pittsburgh who helped immensely in our final three weeks, our renter who is treating our home as his own, and our connections who are constantly introducing us to new people in India to start new projects. Despite all the trials that we have had to face, we have come out of it in the positive. But how many others are still sitting back home struggling for years on end, living a life in limbo; frustrated with a political system that so unfairly clubs the legal immigrants with the illegal immigrants, and forces every creative and enterprising spark to be dulled down to a quiet murmur.
Follow Ketaki Desai on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ktucky