An essay about the United States' immigration, and why I don't live there.
Let's start with the background intro: I entered the US during Obama's administration, legally, after paying for visas. Then, I paid for US education and enjoyed my time there. However, I also saw some flaws in the system. For example, immigrants without valid visas were allowed to study for in-state tuition while I paid out-of-state. These double standards left me rather unimpressed when I saw the president making jokes on television and doing other acts to be closer to the people. I felt like instead of such entertainment, it'd be better to improve the immigration system. Not that there weren't attempts, but they were focused mostly on the illegal issue, not on cases like mine. It is understandable, as that is a bigger group than the one I represented; still, I was somewhat bitter about it. Then, I got a temporary work extension, started a full-time job, paid taxes, and all was well. Before the extension expired, I looked into options to extend it, but the situation in work visas also turned out to not favorable for cases like mine, and I had to leave. I wrote details about the case here if you'd want to read a more in-depth version.
After I left, I didn't miss all the paperwork and fees, but I did miss the people and some of the American landscapes. That said, I had a potential return in mind, so I kept an eye on US politics. Little did I know about what is to come.
Obama was finishing his second term; someone new was coming for the seat. But the best candidates the US came up with left many in doubt. One had a mysterious foundation, not the best record when it comes to handling office communication, and her public speeches weren't overly convincing. The second candidate, while being comfortable with speaking to crowds, had an array of red-flag quotes like: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters," "Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness if I am not making mistakes?" and "I've used the laws of this country to pare debt," after a couple of his businesses have declared bankruptcy. The election proclaimed the second, Donald Trump, as the winner. And since one of the cornerstones of his campaign was the immigration, let's get back to the topic and discuss it.
Like his predecessor, the new president also focused mostly on the US' southern border. However, instead of politics, Trump picked technology as his solution. Specifically, to build a wall. This is of dubious value, as A) most illegal immigrants come to the US legally and overstay their visas (1), and B), if you climbed on a tree as a kid, you know that any fence can be crossed with the help of few basic tools. Moreover, high-profile terrorists can operate more than ladders and ropes – no border fence would prevent the 9/11. How about the Oklahoma City bombing, that Las Vegas mass shooting, or Sandy Hook? Right, that was done by whites born and raised in the US. But let's leave the wall, as that itself had a little effect on my case. On the other hand, the rhetoric the wall was justified with, had a much bigger impact.
The word immigrant got linked with terms such as rapist, thief, and drug dealer, (2). Even though researches overwhelmingly showed that the US natives are more likely to commit violent and property crimes than the immigrants (3), the damage has been done, and many accepted Trump's words as a fact. Many popular right-wing commentators often described immigrants as evil thugs or scammers who abuse the US' big-heartedness, (4), which fueled the message among their audience, (5). This is bad not only for those who would like to come to the US, it can be lethal for those who already arrived. The 2019 El Paso Walmart attacker, also a US-born white, killed 23 people because he was frustrated about immigration. With such derogatory language being voiced not just by national outlets, but also by its leadership, this is disappointing yet hardly surprising.
Some might say these negative attributes apply only for the "illegal ones." In fact, Trump and some other Republican representatives claimed they favor legal immigration, (6). Let's focus on it, then.
The average case-processing time of immigration applications hiked up 46% between FY 2016-2018 (7), so clearly, something's odd here. But you might argue that Trump wanted to re-work the entire immigration to a so-called merit-based system that would solve the issues. The bill did not pass but got reintroduced last year, so let's talk about it. On the first look, it can seem reasonable indeed, as in theory, "good people" should have a path to the US easier, and they wouldn't take entry-level jobs from Americans, (8). The way the bill wants to achieve it is by giving immigrants points for education, English language skills, age, wealth, and achievements. If they score enough points, they can apply. So let's look at my case: I am under 30, I earned a degree with an equivalent of summa cum laude honors from a university ranked as top nine in the UK (9), a country known for its world-class education. I have a clean criminal record, work experience, and some awards to my name – although none of the significance of the Nobel prize, or Olympic gold. With all that, I would not qualify. I would still have to get a job offer with a salary of at least 150% (!) of the median household income in the state of employment to barely pass, (10). The bill also includes a yearly cap on numbers of people admitted, which is much more strict than the current allowance. In fact, the bill was introduced to people as to reduce legal immigration (11), not to make it fairer. Therefore, the reality of the Trump's proposal is worse than the existing system, which is not great to start with. So, let's look closer at the current options.
At the moment, there are four legal ways for immigrants to get a green card (permanent permit to live and work in America), which can lead to US citizenship:
Family: The most permanent legal immigrants in the US, about 2/3, get there through family members, (12). These have to be close relatives, like a partner, children, parents, and siblings. Unlike what Trump said, you can't bring some distant nieces of yours. Trump himself called this family method a "chain migration," and called for it to be limited. Here, let's stop and point that two of three women Trump has married were immigrants. The first, Ivana, committed a marriage fraud before she went to the US, to be able to leave the Eastern Bloc. Something the US legal system would classify as a felony, (13). Trump's current wife, Melania, sponsored the US citizenship of her parents coming from Slovenia. That couldn't happen if Trump's proposed limit was in place, (14). Hello again, double standards.
The second most common way to get to the US legally is trough employment: This is by no means an easy task. In most cases, you need to be sponsored by a US-based company. People can technically sponsor themselves, but this can be done only by either getting an investor visa (which currently starts at $900,000 ), or by being an individual who demonstrated extraordinary ability in their field with evidence of significant sustained acclaim. So, sponsoring yourself isn't a realistic option for most. For companies, sponsoring applicants comes with paperwork and fees, so in many fields (including journalism where I worked,) companies are reluctant to file it, (16). But even if you are in a sector that will sponsor you, you still have to be approved. Which, many people aren't. For example, Kunal Bahl, a guy from India who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and got a work visa sponsored by Microsoft, but the US rejected his application; thus, he had to return to India. There, he started the company Snapdeal, which had 2019 revenue of $130 million. So about the claims that immigrants are dumb and stealing jobs – Snapdeal now employs an estimate of 3,700 people, (17). These people could be Americans if he'd be allowed to stay.
The hard truth about stealing jobs is that, well, you can't sneak into someone's house and nick it like a TV. Someone needs to give the job to you. If American families are so much against immigrants, how come they pay them to raise their kids and work on their gardens? And given the hassle the companies have to go through to hire foreigners legally, the fact that they are still doing it tells you that they are making a valuable asset to their workforce. Otherwise, no companies would bother – productivity and profits, not charity dictate their actions. This is where critics of work visas agree: Many, including the president, say that the hassle is worth for the companies because then they can pay immigrants lower wages than Americans. Well, in FY 2019, the average salary of the holders of the work visas in question was $100,461 – which, according to research by Cato Institute, it is actually 17% more than the average prevailing wage determination for that skill level, (18).
Foreigners in the US are paying its services and taxes, aiding its economy. On the other hand, look at how many major US brands off-shored their factories to countries with cheaper labor, and their headquarters to tax havens. Paying production plants in Asia rather than in America reduces the cost of the goods, but none of the money from the factory will go back to the US community. So while all businessmen care for their profits, the ones who employ immigrants in America also care about the US' growth, when comparing with those who invest into workers elsewhere. If people want to blame someone for the job market, maybe it is worth reconsidering who to point fingers at.
Let's stick with the visas. Even if an immigrant is lucky to score an employment visa, these are temporary. If they want to stay permanently, they need to convert it into the green card – for which, they need to be sponsored once again and go through screenings that can take many years to process, depending on the country they are from, (19).
The third way to get a permanent residency is as a refugee. This is a small fraction of the cake, and if the word "immigrant" has a bad name, refugee's not better. During Obama's time, stories emerged about people such as Constantino Morales Roque – a Mexican police officer and father of six, who fled to the US because the local drug cartel he was fighting against said to kill him. Constantino ended working in Iowa, before he got deported back to Mexico, for entering the country illegally. Before the deportation, he had a court where he told the judges about the danger if he gets back. No luck, his asylum request was denied, and later in Mexico, he was shot dead, (20). During his administration, Obama was labeled as "deporter in chief." These days, however, when Trump limited the intake of refugees to a historic low (21) and the stories of people sent to violence are on the rise (22), Obama's record shows in a different light.
The last, and the least likely option to score a green card is through a government lottery. This way, if you are from an eligible country and have some basic job training, you enter for so-called Diversity Immigrant Visa; but your chances are low. To illustrate the odds, the proportion of applicants who were selected in 2020 was 0.36%, (23). In comparison, this year's acceptance rate to Harvard is 4.92%, (24). I tried, but no surprise, I didn't get it. By the way, all those selected get screened by the US embassies before being approved, just like with any other visas. So this isn't a secret criminals' path either. Yet, Trump called people who get admitted in this way as "the worst of the worst," (25).
You see, it is not rare that people try to come to the US in peace, with intentions to contribute to the community and economy, but they are sent home. Just like I was. Thankfully, I was privileged to be in a situation that didn't get me killed.
Earlier in April, Trump introduced a ban on green card applications and restrictions on some work visas. Trump argued that this move would help US workers get jobs after the US unemployment reached the highest since the great depression due to the COVID-19 pandemics, (26). He also asserted that it would keep Americans safe from being contaminated by immigrants. However, Trump also suggested that injecting people with disinfectant could do the trick in curing the virus (27), and that the way to have the virus go away is to slow down the testing (28), which made the world laugh more than those Obama jokes. Anyway, closing the borders to keep the US safe from an infection sounds sensible. However, the bill didn't do that: It had an exception for those applying for the Immigrant Investor Program, (the self-sponsored visa for those with seven-digit cash on hand), and other non-essential visitors, like internationally recognized fashion models. And while the bill banned many skilled workers from coming to the US, it didn't apply to agricultural workers, (29). I guess nobody in America was qualified enough to pick vegetables. Basically, people were still going over the borders; many of them to prepare Americans' food. And as of the virus safety argument, with the current number of cases in the US, people in most developed countries would be at higher risk in America than they are in their homes, (30).
The bill kept the doors open to fill the unskilled labor that many people aren't keen to do, while keeping some talented individuals out. I'd argue that stopping the world's brainpower from coming to the US isn't the best for the country, but apparently, others didn't share this view. The host of America's highest-rated prime time cable news show, Tucker Carlson, was disappointed by the bill and called it too weak, (31). Surely enough, last Monday, Trump expanded that bill to target scientists, engineers, tech developers, and others, and extended it until the end of the year. No need to take my word for it; many big business players already responded that it will hurt the economy, even the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, said that "It will hold us back," (32).
Someone might still try to dismiss all the points above on a base that I cannot know what's right for America because I am not its citizen, I am not even there, and that I am biased. But, picture this: If you are about to buy a new product, you will probably seek reviews to determine which brand is the best or gives you the most for your money. And likely, you will trust to those reviewers who tested loads of similar products by different makers, and those who aren't paid by one of the brands. It makes sense, as these reviewers will know what works better than someone who tried just one brand, and they won't try to sell you the stuff. It is the same with countries. The more you see, the more you can evaluate different practices and beliefs without partisan biases. Yet, many of those loudest voices claiming their country aspects as the very best, or the absolute worst, often haven't left it for more than a few vacations, sometimes not even that.
In between the countries I lived in, I saw that it is possible to do immigration better. I believe that America can do it better. And I care enough to write this essay, while not being paid for it. (And since you made it this far, you care too – thank you.) But while I say I care, I no longer feel that this is my fight. I gave America a try, it didn't work, and any significant improvement is nowhere on the horizon. Life goes on. However, as the US was a country that I felt passionate about, I wanted to make a conclusion for myself in this issue, as it is something I spent a long time with. And maybe it will find readers who will deem a first-hand story, about a system that many don't get to experience, as valuable.
I firmly believe that a country that was built on immigration should celebrate the fact, and not let people full of national, ethnic, and economic prejudices dictate that immigration is bad. Trump's administration certainly worked hard on that front, with clear intentions to limit it as much as possible.
If you live in the US, maybe you think that some of the unplanned events of this year deserve discussion more than immigration at this point. But, with the immigration being one of the signature pieces of the last election, it is worth evaluating how the planned issues went, before extending the scope on the unplanned ones. But it is up to you. It is your country, so do what you think is best. Maybe you like a leader who says that: "Our country is full. Our area is full. The sector is full. Can't take you anymore, I'm sorry. Can't happen. So turn around, (33)." But if you do, you should say as it is. Don't give me the nonsense about the safety or economy, be honest: you don't want somebody who could look and maybe think differently to come. You don't like somebody like me to stay.
You have the right to do that. But then, don't be surprised if countries like China and Russia will suddenly have the best people. Even if you don't acknowledge other countries because "America's number one," they still exist. And while they might lack the US confidence, they don't dismiss diplomacy – so they are gaining. The global approval of the Russian leadership went from 26 to 30% between 2016 and 2018 and China's from 31 to 34%. Meanwhile, the US dropped from 48 to 31%, (34).
As said, life goes on for me. But many people around the world are in a similar position as I was when I decided to move to the US, thinking about where to go. If the tendencies continue, there'll be a point where these people stop considering the US as their first choice. Will that make America great again? That would be your call to decide. I will have my popcorn ready.
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- The lottery visas explained: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diversity_Immigrant_Visa [Accessed: 24- Jun- 2020].
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- M. Valverde, "Pick them from a bin? Donald Trump mischaracterizes diversity visa lottery", Politifact, 2017 Available: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2017/dec/20/donald-trump/pick-them-bin-donald-trump-mischaracterizes-divers/. [Accessed: 25- Jun- 2020].
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- A. Shaw, "Trump signs executive order restricting immigration: Here's what's in it", Fox News, 2020. Available: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/trump-signs-executive-order-restricting-immigration-heres-whats-in-it. [Accessed: 25- Jun- 2020].
"Donald Trump’s draconian visa ban", Financial Times, 2020. Available: https://www.ft.com/content/8098e5c6-b610-11ea-8ecb-0994e384dffe,. [Accessed: 25- Jun- 2020].
- Covid cases stats: https://news.google.com/covid19/map. [Accessed: 25- Jun- 2020].
- T. Carlson's remarks: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/immigration-hawks-executive-order-trump [Accessed: 25- Jun- 2020].
- a) N. Miroff and T. Romm, "Trump, citing pandemic, orders limits on foreign workers, extends immigration restrictions through December", The Washington Post, 2020. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/trump-immigration-workers-coronavirus/2020/06/22/3b969e88-b489-11ea-9b0f-c797548c1154_story.html. [Accessed: 25- Jun- 2020].
b) D. Sevastopulo, A. Williams, J. Thornhill and A. Edgecliffe-Johnson, "Donald Trump expands US immigration restrictions", Ft.com, 2020. Available: https://www.ft.com/content/46ecc003-758c-45ab-9b2e-2f7b89e0df62. [Accessed: 25- Jun- 2020].
- President's remarks on the system being full, 2019. Available: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-roundtable-immigration-border-security-calexico-california/ [Accessed: 24- Jun- 2020].
- J. Ray, "Image of U.S. Leadership Now Poorer Than China's", Gallup.com, 2019. Available: https://news.gallup.com/poll/247037/image-leadership-poorer-china.aspx. [Accessed: 26- Jun- 2020].
...and here's some further reading:
- History of US federal immigration limits: https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/our-history/overview-ins-history/early-american-immigration-policies [Accessed: 24- Jun- 2020].
If you find this article interesting, you might also enjoy my essay about finding home, where I discuss my journey of moving between countries, experiencing their values, and trying to navigate through the global foreign policies.
Finally, if you know someone who could benefit from these information, please pass it on. And if you have questions or comments, get in touch. I am open to meaningful discussions.
Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Essays