I Am a Legal Alien, and the Results of This Election Could Decide If I Have to Leave the Country for Good

Photo: Getty Images / W+G Creative
I’ve been in New York City since I was 18 years old—a wide-eyed college student. I always wanted to build a career in journalism, and I knew there was no better place in the world to do it… but unfortunately, being born in India caused a lot of problems when it came to getting sponsored for a visa.

In any traditional job in the U.S., for an H1-B visa—aka a visa that allows you to work in the country—your company has to sponsor and pay for it. This means you can only work for that one company, but there are several other hindrances to getting the H1-B visa. First of all, the cost: Including lawyer fees, filing fees, and premium processing fees, the cost of a visa can hover around $5,000. Even if you yourself have the capability to pay for these fees, you're not allowed to as an employee or possible employee—the employer has to. In addition, since 2013, the H1-B application has become a lottery system (prior to which it was first come, first serve), which means that you truly have no idea whether you’ll get sponsored or not, even if you have a company willing to go through all of the hassle for you.

And it’s not that you can just roll into the program and apply for the visa, either. The guidelines specifically state that the jobs have to involve “highly specialized skills”, and if you don’t get a visa while you’re legally allowed to be in the U.S. through your student visa, you have to go home. So, it’s literally all a numbers game, and it’s very precarious to have your future (literally!) hanging in the balance until you know whether you’ve been approved or not.

I was lucky, because after I finished grad school at NYU in 2013, Obama had expanded what’s called the OPT (Optional Practical Training) visa program, which allows those on a student visa to work without obtaining a work visa for a number of years after graduation. The years you were allowed to stay varied depending on your job and skill set. While I automatically got to stay and work for a year after graduation since I majored in media, my boyfriend at the time could stay and work for two years, since he was in the STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as a a tech consultant. In May 2012, however, the Obama administration increased the number of fields eligible for STEM extension OPTs, and digital media was one of them. This meant I had three years to apply for the H1-B lottery, as opposed to just the one time. Still a numbers game, yes, but definitely one with more chances.

Unfortunately, this program is something Trump wants to stop. In a radio interview on April 27, 2020, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said he was “very concerned” about the number of visas Chinese students had used to come to the U.S. to study in the past, and alluded to suspending those avenues, including OPT and CPT [another visa, which stands for "Curricular Practical Training"]. “We’ll have a series of recommendations that we’ll be teeing up and some of those could include students on what we call... OPT and CPT, Optional Practical Training, and a lot of those are utilized by Chinese students who could potentially stay here and work. So, yes, it is a concern that the Department’s highlighted as well," Wolf stated. Essentially, the Trump administration is using the COVID-19 pandemic to try and rewrite immigration law, without having to pass a bill through Congress.

In addition, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump has “suspended entry of aliens who prevent a risk to the U.S. Labor Market” until the end of this year, and he may extend the proclamation even beyond that timeframe, if he’s re-elected. This proclamation suspended aliens from applying for a number of visa categories that allow work, including H, J, and L visas, and in addition, said that any person outside the U.S. at the time of the proclamation could be banned from entering, even if they’re waiting on a renewal of a visa that’s already been issued. He’s also banned any dependents, such as spouses and children of those with work visas in these categories, from entering the U.S.

Trump’s argument is that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several Americans have lost their jobs, and so to protect those jobs, he’s halted temporary work visas. This proclamation contains exact wording from a February 2018 bill that the Senate rejected, even though at the time, the U.S. unemployment rate was only 4.1 percent. That legislation, much like the proclamation, also bans the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor a parent or adult child for a green card (the family categories), since Trump halted a ban on green card applications back in April 2020.

Thankfully, on October 1 of this year, federal judge Jeffrey S. White temporarily blocked further implementation of this order, writing, “The proclamation completely disregards both economic reality and the pre-existing statutory framework. Furthermore, without any consideration of the impact on American firms and their business planning, the proclamation changes the scope of immigration policy in the United States.” Still, this ban is only temporary, and it’s likely Trump will try to further implement more restrictions on temporary workers under the guise of protecting the economy. Trump also looked to increase fees for those applying for citizenship by over 60 percent late last year, and of course, who can forget the promise of building a wall with Mexico?

For me, specifically, I couldn’t find a company to sponsor my visa, but the three years I was given on STEM OPT allowed me to rise up the ranks fast and apply for an O-1 visa, which is given to “aliens of extraordinary ability or achievement.” However, without that STEM OPT, I don’t think I would’ve been able to prove my merit to be allowed to work in the United States. With this proclamation, though, I would’ve been unable to renew my visa, leave the country to visit my family, or receive sponsorship through my mom, who is a U.S. citizen. Several college students in specialized fields who received job offers this year had to go home instead due to the order, and now, they have no way of coming back.

Several college students in specialized fields who received job offers this year had to go home instead due to the order, and now, they have no way of coming back.

H-1B visas are capped at 85,000 a year, and they’re specifically designed for those who have certain skill sets that are in demand. Similarly, O-1 visas are for those who display specific talents, L-1 visas are for intracompany transfers with specific knowledge or in certain managerial positions, and J-1 visas are only for those in approved, short-term programs, including teaching or consulting. None of these visas are designed to take away jobs already available for US citizens—not to mention, a major draw for me and most people in the U.S. is its diversity. It’s always been a country of immigrants, where we all learn from one another and provide a global approach to not just work, but also our beliefs and culture.

Immigration has always been a cornerstone of U.S. national policy, and it’s one that Trump has been trying to squash since he’s been in office. BSA, a firm that represents several software companies, has explained that removing those who are more qualified for certain roles will actually hinder the U.S. economy, as opposed to helping it thrive: “Filling these roles that are more abundant than the number of U.S. employees qualified to fill them means these jobs can be kept in the U.S.,” the group said. “This allows companies based in the U.S. to remain globally competitive, which in turn boosts the US economy, creating jobs for millions of Americans.”

Similarly, when Tom Javetz, vice president for Immigration Policy at American Progress, testified before a hearing on the benefits of immigration at the U.S. House of Representatives on June 26, 2019, he specifically brought to light that immigrants make up 30 percent of new businesses in the U.S., despite only being 17.1 percent of the population. Smaller businesses also help make up the crux of the U.S. economy, and give the U.S. a global advantage.

I’m just one person, but the results of these elections can impact millions of jobs, legal immigrants, their families, and even the U.S. economy as a whole. Discrimination shouldn’t have any place in this country, and we need a president who understands that. Only then will we move this country forward.

Loading More Posts...