As I think I’ve mentioned here before, though I do work a full-time job, I also tutor part-time and take freelance gigs. At the moment, my main ongoing outside writing gig is doing a specific type of writing/legal-assistant work for an immigration lawyer. My job is to take all of the evidence submitted for applications for visa/greencard special circumstances waivers and write a cover letter summarizing them/highlighting the most compelling bits of evidence, ideally building a narrative about this person’s life and/or accomplishments that meshes nicely with the requirements for their particular waiver.
I got this job initially because of my science background. There are special immigration waivers you can get based on having special skills, and this particular law office does a lot of those sorts of applications for scientists. The lawyer I work with posted an ad looking for a writer with science knowledge who could explain the importance of these scientists’ work in a compelling fashion, I answered the ad, and the rest is history. In the past year, I’ve averaged about two cases a month, and they’ve largely been successful. And I get paid. It’s pretty cool.
The scientists this lawyer works with are primarily applying for EB1s (extraordinary ability: requires demonstrating that the person has an exceptional skillset and is at the top of their field, results in a greencard) or NIWs (national interest waiver: requires demonstrating that the person’s skills and work are important and unique enough that it is in the national interest that they be allowed to stay in the country, results in waiving the requirement for a “labor certification” usually required for getting a greencard in the EB2 category, effectively allowing you to get a greencard under the EB2 category without being sponsored by an employer), and they’re pretty straightforward. I basically get the scientist’s CV and a stack of recommendation letters from even bigger-deal scientists, get a feel for their work and what makes them special, and then I summarize/highlight the strongest evidence of their awesomeness.
At its best, this is really fun… I get to learn about a new scientific subfield, I get to read about the state of that area of research in the words of leaders in their respective fields, I get super excited, and then I get to figure out how to convey that excitement in the form of a formal letter. It’s interesting and challenging.
Of course, there are tedious bits too–keeping track of lots of documents, formatting things, stating the obvious. And irritating bits. [For instance, for fuck’s sake, never write your own reference letters if you can help it, even if your references are Super Busy Important People who just can’t be bothered to do more than sign their name. I know it’s easier to give in and offer to write it yourself, but this is a place to stand up for yourself. If they are that Busy and Important, they can have an assistant write it. But a dozen reference letters all written by the same person? I promise you, the people who sit around reading those things all day for their fucking jobs–they will notice.]
Honestly, the worst part about the whole job is the feeling that it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Every single EB1 or NIW case I have worked on is for a fucking brilliant and extraordinarily accomplished scientist, and just a glance at their CV or a single reference letter is plenty to convince me that I want them in my country if they want to be here. It’s my job to prove that these people are insanely amazing, and I’m glad to do that, because they are, but I don’t even think that should even be necessary. As far as I’m concerned, being a decent contributing member of society should be plenty, and having demonstrably in-demand/unique skills should be more than enough. You shouldn’t have to be the BEST or a RISING STAR, shouldn’t have to have recommendation letters from literally the biggest names in your field.
Isn’t being a decent human who is working for a pitifully small salary given their level of education and expertise so they can serve Science and the Greater Good… isn’t that enough for us to want you to be one of us? Or, at the very least, for us to let you stay here and do that work? All I did to be an American was GET BORN HERE, and yet you can work your ass off to be a contributing member of society and live an unimpeachable life, and still get told you’re not enough?
Which brings me, finally, to why I’m writing this post today. See, I recently started working on a new type of case that is pushing my “this whole process shouldn’t even exist and the system is hopelessly broken and I will now spiral into despair” buttons way, way harder than EB1s and NIWs: I-601A waivers. Like all immigration crap, they’re somewhat complicated, but let me try to explain. [If you are interested in the nitty gritty details for some reason, look here.]
There are lots of paths to greencards, some more fraught than others. Typically, we think of marrying a citizen as a pretty straightforward route though–hence “greencard marriages.” However, there are a number of reasons you can be termed “inadmissible” despite having an otherwise solid case. The one relevant to the I-601A waiver is this: If you have resided in the US illegally for long enough, you are “inadmissible” and are barred from applying for ANY kind of legal re-entry to the country for some extended period of time, starting when you leave the US [180+ days unlawful residence = 3 years barred from legal admission, 1 year or more = 10 fucking years].
Now, there has long been a way for illegal immigrants to petition to waive [ie. be forgiven for] this and other grounds for inadmissibility: the I-601. The problem with this is that usually, you would leave the US, apply for your greencard at the consulate in your home country, get officially ruled inadmissible, and THEN apply for your I-601. Problem being? This process takes months, even if your waiver is ultimately granted. Not to mention, if your waiver is denied, you are now barred from reentry for 3 or 10 years.
So if you have been in the US illegally for years, and have married a US citizen, maybe started a family with them, and now want to become legal? You would have to either go back to your home country alone to initiate this process [which will take months if successful, or may bar you from the country your family is in altogether if you fail], or you could bring your family [US citizens, remember] to live with you in your home country to keep everyone together.
Obviously, this is a bitch, and I-601A waivers are designed as a way around this. If you can demonstrate that undergoing the usual process would cause extreme hardship for the members of your family who are citizens, you are then allowed to initiate the greencard process from the US. This means avoiding long-term separation from your family, and knowing for sure that your waiver has been approved before you leave the country for your consulate interview.
I-601A waivers are relatively new, and it’s really great that they exist now. That said… I-601A waivers are really hard to get approved. It isn’t enough to say that the petitioner is a decent human and that it would be a hardship for the person/family to leave the country, you have to prove that the person is an EXCEPTIONALLY good citizen and that their family would experience EXTRAORDINARY hardship if they are required to comply with the usual rules.
So while it’s great that a legal process exists to potentially help people in the unenviable situation of having to tear apart their family in order to even ATTEMPT to become a legal resident, the fact that you can show legitimate hardship and still be denied makes the process feel pretty fucking cruel. Imagine basically being told by the US government: “Oh, your kids would be SAD if you left? Your husband would struggle to afford daycare/care for your kids while you’re gone? You would struggle to support yourself in your impoverished home country as a woman on her own? Boo fucking hoo. Sorry, that doesn’t sound hard ENOUGH.”
These cases are harder for me than EB1s and NIWs because they are way more personal. For scientists, I’m reading CVs, research papers, professional recommendations. For I-601As, the requirement to prove extreme hardship means getting an intimate look at these people’s lives. We’re talking bank statements, school records, monthly budgets. I have never met and will never meet these people, but I’ve read things like their cable bill and their children’s certificates of academic achievement.
It’s all for a good cause, but it still feels voyeuristic and dirty. And worse, I’m getting attached to these people. I feel for them. And there is a very, very good chance that despite my best efforts, I will still fail and they will be either torn apart or forced to move to a poor, dangerous country where their children have never been. All because their struggles are not ENOUGH.
Even before this gig, I knew our immigration system was fucked up and cruel. I knew it tore apart families and ruined lives, and that it kept people out who could do great things here.
But this work…this work makes me feel that knowledge like a punch in the gut.
I don’t have answers to this. The only way that we could avoid at least some degree of arbitrariness/unfairness/life-ruining bureaucratic nonsense in this process would be to have no restrictions on immigration whatsoever, and that’s impractical*.
But fuck, guys. We have to be able to do better than this.
*I’m really not well-versed enough in these things to host an actual debate on immigration policy or hash this out, but before someone counters me on the infeasibility of open immigration–yes, I am aware that there are arguments for it, and I do think something approaching it would be ideal and is theoretically achievable in the long term. I’m just saying that any immigration reform we could do right now couldn’t go directly there or even close without producing a fair bit of chaos. But I think we should all be able to agree that even if we can’t rid the system of injustice in one fell swoop, reform would make things less awful. Even just creating more paths to legal entry and citizenship, and producing some reduction in bureaucratic hurdles [which is what is the closest to being on the table, and would be if our congress wasn’t a fucking disaster], is a worthwhile and achievable goal.