I moved into the States to experience the land of the free and the country of the legendary economy. Last week, I moved out to pursuit values, freedom, and happiness elsewhere. Here is why:
In short, because the US foreign policies forced me to. Have I broken or abused the law? Oh no. The immigration laws for people like me suck; that’s why. Of course, things aren’t just as simple, so to understand the problem, read the larger story:
After I graduated from high school, I was deciding what to do. I had some work to show, but nothing that would put me ahead of the competition, and my part-time jobs weren’t going anywhere. I wanted to continue my education, but I felt like I needed to do some bigger step in my life than just change an institution to attend. Not having a strong attachment to the country or the city I lived in, I looked for a change. I traveled across Europe a bit already, and I wanted to see more. Not just sights, but also different mindsets, beliefs, values, etc.
And so, I decided to look further beyond the old continent. As I felt in line with the western ideals of freedom and economic thinking and was (sort of) familiar with English, the places I started looking into were the USA, Canada, and Australia. Soon, the USA was the goal, as it has the largest diversity to explore. Still, it wasn’t an in-a-heartbeat decision, as it would mean to ditch my friends, family, and familiar environment. Also, the education costs in the US are considerably higher, so all my hardly accumulated savings would go just for the first semester. Then I’d have to be on my own. But, after I counted my chances, pros and cons, I was well-confident about the choice: I love travelling, exploring new places and cultures – check. I want to meet new people with new approaches, opinions and beliefs – check. I want to improve my language – check. Become more independent; you know, stuff that goes along with the fact of being alone on the other side of the planet – check, check. I want to move forward – oh heck yes, check!
Research led me to Mid-America, as their living expenses are much lower than anywhere on the coastline. I filled a good amount of paperwork, sold whatever I owned to get extra cash, and got myself a plane ticket.
Right, let’s rock big time. It was many things at once, but I felt fantastic! I got to meet many hard-working, supportive people representing values I admired. In fact, they were some of the best people I ever met. I got to fight through classes in my third language, but I managed. Since photography couldn’t pay all my bills yet, I got to learn all sorts of new stuff while working to cover my expenses. We’re talking about how to build fences, put a new roof on a church, give a hand at an oil rig, and so on. Some minor downsides became invisible, outbalanced by tons of positive aspects. Oh, it was amazing!
Meanwhile, I realized a way to connect my picture-taking and active lifestyle into a profession: journalism. I got lucky on a phenomenal journalism program that opened many doors I didn’t even know about. And in the meantime, I got to see bits of the country, too.
It worked just as good as it could; I was surrounded by individuals living the way I liked, and I was genuinely happy. As the end of my school (and my visas) was approaching, I was 100% decided to continue my higher education path in the US.
I finished my associate degree without going a cent into debt. But I couldn’t just enroll on a four-year university – while I was able to make money to cover my college, the universities are more than twice as expensive as 2-year colleges. Given my international status, gaining funds while studying, both by legal work and by scholarships, is heavily restricted. That being said, I was looking for some other way to earn money for school, and I found that there’s a visas extension that allows me to get a full-time job for a year. Okay, great! So I filled another pile of paperwork, paid another fee to the government, and got approved.
Applying for jobs all around the country, I ended with a few offers and eventually started working in a field that I love: Shooting photos all day, sometimes all night, while meeting a ton of interesting people and visiting cool places. I focused on the job and forgot about the future, as things felt grand. Sadly, the future started to worry me once I did my math and found flaws in my plan. Researching my options for sustaining a university, I realized that even if I save every penny during the year, I would still have to go into debt even at the cheapest universities. Although the debt is becoming a normal part of even in-state students’ and many people’s lives in general, it’s not something I’d want, mainly after realizing that I am some $30,000 short of finishing a degree.
Now you may think: “Well, so what? If he can’t afford it, his bad.” Fair, if it would be like that, I wouldn’t say a thing. But it isn’t the case, and that’s the problem – and the point where it gets frustrating.
Different states have different rules, but there is an insane double standard within immigration laws in general. And what’s crazy is that in many cases, the system give advantages to those who, for whatever reason, went against the laws. When I attended the college, I studied with people without documentation who paid in-state tuition – less than one-third of what I had to pay. In the universities, the situation is similar. This absurd immigration system began to annoy me, but I didn’t give up.
I knew that it wouldn’t be enough just to fill another form this time; the system would have to be modified. So I tried there as well: As a part of my job, I got to photograph several state representatives, senators, and people with powers in general. And so it happened that I started to talk to some of them about my issue with the foreign policies implementation on the education system. One word: hopeless. Nobody was concerned; the vast majority wasn’t even aware of the problem. The reply from the governor of Kansas, “Hmmm, I didn’t know that there is such an issue,” basically speaks for all of them.
I get that – the issue isn’t widely known because there aren’t many people like me. The masses of foreign students in the US universities as I experienced them are as follows, in descending order:
- Sportspeople, who were brought here by universities that pay most or all of their bills.
- Exchange students and visiting scholars: Short-term visitors, who attended some foreign university with an agreement with a US institution, which grants them the same tuition rates as in their hometown, where they need to return to finish their degree.
- People funded by parents or sponsors, who are lucky to be without the financial hardship altogether.
- Illegal immigrants, who pay just a portion of the fees when comparing with those with valid paperwork.
- Guys like me, who came here because they wanted, with a legit passport but not a fat bank account to back them. The smallest group from the list, since you don’t find that many people willing to sacrifice pretty much all spare time and money only to be able to live somewhere they want.
The funny thing is that while at school, I constantly heard from the other mentioned groups (mainly the sportspeople) how is this place/school/country miserable, big time. Something served is easier to appreciate less than something earned.
So it happened that I ditched the plan to continue with education and looked into options of just keep on working here. In the end, I had a job, a place to live, a community to belong, I paid taxes... I was all sorted. All; except for my legal status. And as it turned out, getting my work visas extended was not any easier.
To get the Skilled Workers Visas, my employer would have to file a petition to the government that I am are needed for the job and agree to pay me above the average. I know some people in academic or technology jobs who scored this deal, but in journalism, I had no luck. My employer didn’t even pay all my overtime; paying any extras for me to stay was not an option – not to mention filling annoying paperwork to go with it. Other companies I asked told me “sorry” as well. There’s a different working visa to cover a gap in fields with not enough domestic laborers to fill the position. Unfortunately, taking photographs apparently didn't qualify for that. Then, one can buy investment visas, but they start at $500,000... Right, nope. Some Americans I spoke about my struggles suggested turning onto the illegal route.
“I know a guy who can get you a fake driving license for just $500...”
But I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to throw the moral standards I admired before in a bin. As a bonus, the sanctions for folks who came legally first and then turned illegal are worse than those who arrived illegally in the first place and didn’t get caught. I had to read these interesting (but not surprising) facts while applying for the temporary working permit.
I could go on about the policies forever, but I don’t want to bore you – this article is long already. In short, legal work visas are expensive and/or complicated to the point that illegal methods are more attractive than legal alternatives. Ruling the illegal option out, ask yourself: Would you pay tens of thousands of USD only to be allowed to live somewhere you feel good, after seeing that others are getting the cake without the work?
Sure, there are a few other options. I could marry someone with citizenship and create a family, which would pave the way to a residence permit. Some of my classmates went in that direction, but I didn’t feel like settling yet. Never mind the economic aspect, as getting a baby before establishing some resources' base leads to poverty increase – not a happier life. Why the system supports it? Well, that’d be another essay.
There is also a way to obtain some sort of asylum, but I have no information in that regard; in the end, I’m not escaping from some totalitarian tyranny or war-torn country. A couple of decades ago, the situation was different. During the World Wars, the majority of industrialized nations were turned into a pile of smoking dust, whereas the US gained economically with the mainland untouched. Plentiful space and resources, it was the place to go. Suddenly, America took the art dominance from Italy, engineers from Germany, imperial politics from the UK, etc. Nowadays, however, as the rest of the world recovered, there are many more choices all over the earth.
The current White House administration is busy filming funny videos for YouTube, with the President playing basketball like “everybody does” or performing with stand-up comedians. Might as well make some use of those taxpayers' money. What’s next; delivering a speech while riding a unicycle? It clearly works; people love him. In a couple of years, students will learn about US politics as a prime example of how to use the power of public relations. [EDIT, 2019: only if I knew back then about the PR sequel.. Oh well, back to the topic.]
In the sense of cheap comedy TV shows, wannabe-legal-immigrants can enter a lottery by the government, which then draws a handful of individuals per year who will receive a green card. Right?!
Here’s another funny thing: Some officials defend the difficulty of getting visas by saying narrative about “preserving the American culture.” Now let’s be honest: almost every user manual, contracts for insurance or cell phone services, information in grocery stores and gas stations are already bilingual in English-Spanish. I understand private businesses’ decisions for this, but it is in many schools and some other governmental agencies as well. Now, I have nothing against supporting southern visitors, but then please, all that conserving and the whole protective policies of the US immigration suddenly sound entirely like a big pile of bullshit. Then, there’s the obvious: Who, besides the native Americans, has the right to shame immigrants in this country anyway?
I got to a point when I started to question whether should I keep trying to conquer the beast. All that time spent researching and fighting through the bureaucratic junk resulted that the happiness from the place was suddenly on a much, much lower level. The only things that held me sane were my friends and my job. It wasn’t the American flag pinned in my living room anymore.
While I heard some US politicians saying that America still wants productive people to come from all over the world to build better community and stronger economy, from what I experienced, the truth (and I am honestly sad to state that) seems like it is not the productivity, nor the merits of people that matter. It is the color of their passport, their bank statement, and perhaps their willingness to make use of some loopholes. Without those, if you play by rules, want to be independent, finish a school, run a small business, or work hard as an employee, contribute towards the greater good.. No luck. This lesson learned, I counted my pros and cons and ended with a simple outcome: get out. Something I totally forgot to consider, because I just liked it over here so much. Until I realized that it is no room for me.
Nevertheless, don’t get the impression that I am leaving with a bad attitude. I have to say, the overall experience was stellar, and I don’t regret all the effort it cost, not for a second. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet some amazing people, and I will miss them. I had a great time while earning my degree and photographing a variety of assignments. Also, I definitely enjoyed visiting some magnificent places across the nation. Currently, I just have to move on. But I believe I will come back someday. I hope. Either as a tourist or something else. It may take some time, though.
I don’t know where I’ll end up, but it will be somewhere where I can be productive and where they let me do so.
I will probably write an article summing the pros and cons I’ve experienced while living in the US at some point later. The coin always has more than just one side. Thanks for reading!
Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Essays