Three years ago, 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 the 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. To understand the problem, read the larger story:
It all started after I graduated from high school, and 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 didn't have a strong attachment to the country or the city I lived in. 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. 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. Being happy with the western ideals of freedom and economy thinking, and being 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 biggest 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, as the education costs in the US are considerably higher, 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 with great values. In fact, some of the best people I ever met. I got to fight through classes in my third language. Since photography couldn’t pay all my bills yet, I got to learn all sorts of stuff while working to be able to cover my expenses. Talking about things like building fences, helping to put a new roof on a church, and giving a hand at an oil rig. Some minor downsides became invisible, outbalanced by tons of positive aspects. Oh, it was amazing!
Meanwhile, I realized a way to connect picture-taking with my 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.
It worked just as good as it could; I was surrounded by individuals representing the way of life I liked, and was genuinely happy. As the end of my program (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 to a four-year university - while I was able to make money to cover my college while studying, the universities are more than twice as expensive as 2-year colleges. Given by my international status, gaining funds while studying, both by legal work and by scholarships, is restricted a lot. 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. Okay, that sounded great. So I filled another pile of paperwork, paid another fee to the government, and I 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 concentrated on the job and forgot about the future, as things felt grand. Until I did my math, and found that my plan had a flaw, which started to worry me. Researching my options for sustaining a university, I realized that I would have to go into debt even at the cheapest places. Although the debt is becoming to be a normal part of even in-state students and many people’s lives in general, it’s not something I'd want. Mainly after I realized that I am some $30,000 short to finish a degree.
OK, 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 single 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 laws give advantages to those who, for whatever reason, went against the system. Yes; people without documentation can go to college here for in-state tuition – less than one-third of what I’d have to pay. And that’s the kicker. This absurd immigration system began to annoy me beyond a line. But I didn’t give up. I knew that it wouldn’t be enough to just fill another forms this time; the whole 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, among others, about my issue with the foreign policies implementation on the education system. One word: hopeless. The vast majority wasn't even aware about the problem. The reply from the governor of Kansas, “Hmmm, I didn’t know that there is such an issue,” basically represents all of them.
I get that – it isn’t widely known, because there aren’t many people like me. The masses of foreign students here in the US universities as I experienced them are as follows:
• Sportspeople – who were brought here by universities who pay most or all of their bills.
• Exchange students – Short term visitors, who attended some foreign university with an agreement with some 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. The financial struggle is therefore erased completely.
• Illegal immigrants who pay just a portion, as mentioned above.
• 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 just to be able to live "somewhere they want."
The funny thing is, that while at school, I constantly heard from the other groups mentioned (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 school, and looked into options of just keep on working here. In the end, I had a job, paid taxes, I had a place to live, and a community to belong, I was all sorted. All; except my legal status. Turned out, getting my work visas extended was not any easier.
To get Skilled Workers Visas, your employer must file a petition to the government that you are needed for the job, and agree to pay you 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 paid 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 where's not enough of domestic laborers to fill the position. Unfortunately, taking photographs apparently didn't qualify for that. Then, you can buy investment visas, but they start at $500,000... Right.
Some Americans I spoke with 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. After cheering for those moral standards, throwing them in a bin would be a step backward. As a bonus, an interesting (but not surprising) fact: the sanctions for someone who came legally first and then turned illegal are worse than for those who came illegally in the first place and didn't get caught. I had to read all that while applying for the working visas extension.
I could also 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. Nevermind the economic aspect, as getting a baby before establishing some base of resources leads to poverty increase - not a happier life.
I could go on about the policies forever, but I don't want to bore you - this article is long already. In short, it is expensive, or complicated to the point that illegal methods are more attractive than the legal alternatives. Ruling the second option out, ask yourself: Would you pay tens of thousands USD only to be allowed to live somewhere you feel good? Even after seeing that others are getting the cake without the work?
The current White House administration is busy with filming funny videos for YouTube, with the President playing basketball like "everybody does," or performing with a stand-up comedian. 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. Oh well, back to the topic.
In the sense of a comedy or cheap TV shows, all wannabe-legal-immigrants can enter a lottery by the government, which then draws one individual per year who will receive a green card. Right?
There is also a way to obtain some sort of political asylum, but I have no information in that regard; in the end, I’m not escaping from some totalitarian tyranny. I got into a point when I started to question whether should I keep trying to conquer the beast. All that time spent researching and fighting thought the bureaucratic junk resulted that the happiness from the place was suddenly on 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.
A couple decades ago, the situation was different. During the World Wars, the majority of advanced 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 industrial power form the UK, art dominance from Italy, engineers from Germany, and so on. Nowadays; however, there is no such driving force; and, as the rest of the world recovered, there are many more choices all over the earth.
Here's another funny thing: The administration defends the hardship of getting visas by saying things 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, gas stations, and so on 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. Who, besides the Indians, has the right to shame immigrants anyway?
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.. whatever. 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. It was well worthy. 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 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. Whether only 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 to do so.
I will probably write an article summing all the pros and cons I’ve experienced while living in the US at some point later. The coin has always more than just one side. Thanks for reading!
Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories