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Opting In: Struggles with U.S. Immigration

There comes a time in every third culture kid’s life when trouble arises with immigration.

For me, this moment arrived in the middle of my sophomore year at NYU. I had been accepted for study abroad in London, and decided to notify my school’s International Office since I was a Canadian on a U.S. student visa. Would there be any special protocol I’d have to follow for study abroad? Would I have to maintain a U.S. mailing address while I was gone? I thought I was being proactive; staying one step ahead of the game. I was wrong.

After patiently explaining how to maintain my F-1 status abroad, the advisor asked to see my passport, which I dutifully handed over. Immediately, her eyebrows furrowed. “Where is your I-94?”

Funny that she should mention that. The I-94 is a travel document for visitors arriving into the United States. But thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadian citizens don’t need to fill one out when entering the country. But the last time I entered the United States, I filled one out anyway. Since I was on a student visa, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Much to my surprise, the immigration officer waved my form away and coolly informed me that I didn’t need an I-94. Even when I’d clarified that I was entering the U.S. as a student, he’d maintained that it wasn’t necessary and promptly dismissed me. It had struck me as odd at the time, but I wasn’t about to challenge an immigration officer.

As I finished telling the advisor my story, I noticed that her smile began to dip. “Oh no. Oh no.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed.

“You need to go to JFK and get this fixed as soon as possible.” Seeing the confused look on my face, she elaborated. “You may just have entered the country illegally.”

Needless to say, that threw me into a panic. Even though she calmly walked me through the steps I’d have to take to fix this error, I felt my head spinning the entire time. She told me that worst case scenario was that my current visa would be rendered null and void and that I’d have to apply for a new one. Given that this process can often drag on for months, I might have to take a leave of absence from school. And, there would be a mountain of paperwork, to say the least.

Damning as the prospect of temporary deportation was, however, it wasn’t my most pressing concern. In fact, I was more distressed at the thought of my future home slipping out of my grasp. At 16, I had spent a summer at Columbia University and decided that New York was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. To my close friends and family, this was a strange decision. Apart from a few vacations and summer camps, I’d never actually spent an extended period of time in the United States. I had no official ties to the country. How was I so sure that I’d be happy in a place that was, to myself and most of my friends and family, foreign?

As a Canadian, I love my passport nation fiercely, yet I don’t dare to claim that I know it. I was born in Toronto, but left after six months and spent the bulk of my life in Hong Kong. I love Hong Kong to bits, but my international school upbringing had erased my Chineseness over the years, making me incapable of truly fitting in there. At the core, I had always suspected I was too Westernized to live as an adult in the city I’d always called home.

On the other hand, the eclectic vibe of New York was like a siren call to me. There, I could go from bohemian artist to bourgeois citizen to Central Park tree-hugger, all in one day. There, I could switch from English to Cantonese to (broken) French without anyone batting an eyelid. There, I could be whomever I wanted to be.

But, there was the tricky issue of my non-U.S. citizenship. And now this I-94 mess.

“Don’t be surprised if I get sent ‘home’ to Canada this weekend,” I told my roommate that night. I hadn’t been back to my passport country in more than five years.

Fortunately, the I-94 problem was solved, and I didn’t get deported. But, the incident made me realize that my ability to live the life I want is entirely contingent on the whims of the American government. But perversely, this episode has only intensified my desire to stay in New York.

I say perversely, because now I am all too aware of how highly the odds are stacked against me. I recently attended a workshop at school about “The Realities of Finding Work in the U.S.” To my understanding, in order for non-US citizens to stay in the U.S. long-term, we have to be sponsored by a company to receive an H-1B visa, which eventually enables us to become permanent residents or green card holders after a certain amount of time. Mexican and Canadian citizens can apply for a Treaty National (TN) visa, but only if their jobs are part of a small list of approved professions. Either way, the paperwork is intensive, and there’s no guarantee that the visa will actually be granted, barring the magical appearance of an American spouse.

The workshop panelists repeatedly stressed that it’s pretty much impossible to get sponsored for an H-1B visa by non-finance firms. Most companies simply don’t have the financial resources or know-how to sponsor visas. The law wants companies to say: why bother going through all this trouble to hire a foreigner when we could just hire an American, never mind the diversity of perspective TCKs bring to the table?

And even if you’re willing to make the effort, your employer may not feel the same way. I’ve heard horror stories from friends who were rejected for internships the minute their employers found out they’d need to file paperwork. “Are you a foreign student?” the interviewer asked, to which the candidate replied in the affirmative. “Well then, this interview is over. You’re not getting the job.”

If getting an internship is so difficult, imagine how nightmarish finding an actual job will be. “Come prepared with your own lawyer to guide you through the process,” one of the panelists advised. “It’s going to cost you maybe $500 an hour, but it’ll be worth it.”

Despite all this, I’m still determined to build my future in New York. The freedom to embrace my identities – all of my identities – is simply too valuable to me to give up. I’ll work harder and do whatever it takes to show American employers that I have something unique to contribute. By fighting to stay in the States, I’ve chosen the rockier path. But I’m opting in, simply because I must.

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