Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
18 years in between. Plus, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I got sucked into a 13,000-word essay the other day—a first person immigration narrative on what it was like for an Indian-born computer engineer in the USA to spend 18 years trying to play by the rules, “do things the right way,” and ultimately qualify for permanent residency here.
It’s so different from my own experience, as someone who was lucky enough to have been born in New York. So, I contacted the author, Rajiv Prabhakar, and asked him if I could share a much-scaled-down version. You can read the original article here.
My Journey Through the U.S. Immigration System as a Computer Engineer
It sounds surreal, but I’ve been living in America since I was a teenager. For 18 years, I was a legal transient, hopping from one temporary visa to another. As a result, I’ve become the go-to guy among my friends for U.S. immigration questions.
Here’s my story.
I was born in India, graduated from high school in Singapore, and was admitted to the University of Michigan in 2004. My acceptance letter was my ticket to apply for an F-1 student visa in the United States.
My heart pounded as I interviewed at the U.S. consulate, which was also the first time I ever talked to an American. Luckily, it all went smoothly. A few months later, I hopped on a 22-hour flight to New York, and then on to Ann Arbor.
I found Americans to be extremely welcoming and friendly, and I could write an entire book about my cultural experiences. However, I’ll keep this essay focused on the immigration system itself.
My student visa was good for four years, but after I completed my undergraduate degree in only three, I pursued a master’s degree at Stanford with my remaining time.
I graduated, and in January 2009 I landed a dream job at Intel. The next step in my immigration journey would be to apply for the infamous H1B work visa lottery.
Intel & H1B visa
At one of my internships, we used to host “Deported” parties to bid farewell to colleagues who did not win the H1B lottery and had to leave the country.
However, I graduated in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis, when there were unusually few H1B visa applications. So, after five years on a student visa, I became an H1B “nonimmigrant worker.”
An important point about an H1B visa is that if you ever quit your job or get laid off, you have 60 days to find a new employer who’s willing to file a new H1B petition for you, or else you have to leave the country immediately.
But, I now hoped to use the H1B visa as a steppingstone towards something far more stable: permanent residency, otherwise known as a “green card.”
Green card applicant
Intel applied on my behalf as an “EB2” applicant, which is described as someone either an advanced degree or “exceptional ability.” Their first step was to get something called a Permanent Labor Certification, or PERM, showing that they’d advertised my job and proved that it could not be filled without hiring a foreigner.
(For perhaps the first time in history, employers are incentivized to post the least effective job advertisements possible!)
My PERM certification was complete by late 2011, so about two and a half years after I started work. The next step would be an I-140 petition, which the government describes as a “petition for an alien worker to become a permanent resident in the United States.”
For many people getting your I-140 means getting close to receiving your green card. However, my journey was only just beginning.
Years in limbo
The length of time you have to wait for a green card after getting your I-140 depends on the country of your birth. Had I been born in any country besides China or India, I could have received my green card within a year.
But because I was born in India, I needed to wait 11 more years.
In the tech industry, people in my situation are a dime a dozen: immigrants from China and India who have approved I-140 petitions but are stuck in immigration limbo. Often, they wind up also stuck in a particular job for fear of upsetting the whole process if they switch employers.
[Bill here: I’m going to interrupt for brevity’s sake. As Rajiv tried to keep his career going forward, each step risked upending his application to stay in the United States. However, he decided to take a few risks.
He moved on to Sun Microsystems, and then as a software engineer at a hedge fund, and then to jobs at Google and then Amazon—before ultimately deciding to start his own company in the United States.
The ups and downs, hopes and dreams, near-misses and surprise wins in this process really make the story. The tale of what happened when he went on a beach vacation in the Bahamas and tried to return to the U.S. is worth click through on its own.
But some of you probably have to go work today, so we’ll fast-forward.]
Love and marriage
It turns out there is an exception to the long waiting time for people born in China or India. If you marry someone who was born in a different country, you can use their place of birth, instead.
That’s what happened with me. I fell in love with my future wife, who was an Australian citizen working in America as a university professor on a temporary visa.
I had already been waiting for nine years at this point and was nearing the end of the estimated time, so using Australia instead of India didn’t really benefit me a tremendous amount (and it is certainly not the reason we got married).
But it was a nice extra perk! All that had to happen now was for the immigration agency to process our final petition: the I-485 “Adjustment of Status.”
Except that 2020 stretched into mid-2021, and COVID delayed things even more.
By now, my wife was pregnant, which raised the stakes even higher. We finally got an interview date. We drove to Newark, made our way to the immigration office, and waited our turn.
Everyone looked nerve-racked. If their interviews didn’t go well, that would be the end of their American dreams. Finally, we met with the friendliest person I could have hoped for. After a brief chat, she excitedly told us that we were approved and would be receiving our green cards! Words I had been dying to hear for over a decade!
My wife and I walked out of the interview feeling elated. We called both our parents, shared the good news, and had a celebratory dinner.
A small part of me even reminisced fondly on the past two decades. Being a transient without permanent status had kept me hungry and kept me focused.
Oddly, I thought, “I’m going to miss those days.”
However, days went by. Then weeks. We started to get nervous. From the stories that my wife was reading online, a lengthy silence like ours was commonly a precursor to denial.
Finally, we got a letter in the mail. Our case was not approved. They needed us to submit more evidence.
We worried and thought about alternative plans. My wife is an Australian citizen, so we could go there—but it would take a year for me to get permanent residency in Australia.
Could I really be away from my firstborn for an entire year? Besides, would it even be safe for my wife to fly across the world while heavily pregnant?
But if we stayed in America without status, it could cause us severe legal problems for the rest of our lives. I wondered if it might even prevent me from getting permanent residency in Australia and joining my wife there in future.
The end of the beginning
Finally, I was commuting to work on the train when I received an email notification about an update on our I-485 case: “Your card is being produced.”
A week after that, we held our green cards in our hands. It’s hard to describe the immense relief we felt.
Simply knowing that we would be allowed to stay together in this country—for the first time in my adult life, I no longer had a stopwatch counting down to the day when I would be forced to leave.
Within another month, we celebrated a second monumental event: the birth of our son.
After the marathon process I went through, it is amusing to think that my baby boy, spending his entire day napping and drinking, has already lapped me just by virtue of having been born in American soil. As a natural born citizen, he will never need to justify his right to live, work, and pursue happiness in this land of opportunity.
It’s still hard to believe sometimes. It’s a tremendous privilege that I’m simultaneously thankful for and envious of—and one that I suspect he’ll never fully appreciate.
Signal Boost (submit yours here) … Today's is from subscriber Lisa Maniaci …
My son was diagnosed with severe hemophilia A at the age of 11 months. It's the third most expensive, incurable medical condition with about 19,000 people in the U.S. affected. He is 6'4", 200 lbs., and his clotting factor (treatment) will cost just under $400,000 this year.
The Hemophilia Association of N.J. (my husband and I are on the board of trustees) is hosting our 43rd annual golf tournament on May 23rd at the Plainfield Country Club in N.J. (link). If you can't make it here for the tournament but you'd like to support us anyway, we're selling 50/50 raffles. (link)
7 other things worth knowing today
U.S. News says Huntsville, Alabama is the best place to live in America. It beat out Boulder, Colorado, which held the top spot for the last two years. (U.S. News)
Americans are much more interested in news about the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard than (a) inflation, (b) the leaked Supreme Court decision, (c) Russia's war in Ukraine, or other top stories, according to a review of social media interactions per article published on each topic. And yet here I am, not mentioning the trial at all. :) (Axios)
Interesting note, even if it might not come to anything: Even if Elon Musk buys Twitter (looking less likely) and reinstates former President Trump's account, Trump is now legally obligated to post any of his content on Truth Social (which he owns, or at least owns a lot of) six hours before any other site. (NY Post)
My home state of New Jersey has banned grocery stores from giving customers single-use paper and plastic bags. Violators first face a warning, then a $1,000 fine that jumps to $5,000 for their third breach and any thereafter. (Machine Learning Everything)
A House panel held the first public congressional hearing on unidentified flying objects in more than half a century on Tuesday, with top Pentagon officials saying the number of "unidentified aerial phenomena" (UAP) reported by pilots and service members had grown to about 400. (CBS News)
NEWS YOU CAN USE!!! OK, not really but it's interesting: a new study in the journal Scientific Reports finds that house cats are able to learn the human-given names of other house cats. (Nature, opens as .pdf)
Why does this amuse me so much? A researcher built a—a contraption, I guess would be the word—to figure out how he could work comfortably on a computer while lying flat in bed. Compete with illustrations. (Cambridge Clarion)