As many of you know, I traveled to Australia for the first time a little over a year ago, and met Kirsty, my wonderful girlfriend. Ever since last winter we’ve been trying to figure out how to get her into the country so we could finally spend more than a few weeks at a time together. We thought it would be difficult; after all, the U.S. immigration system is notoriously difficult. What we didn’t realize is that it would be nearly impossible. We didn’t know that you could have a decent, valid, legit job offer here, with an employer who was willing to do all of the proper paperwork, and have literally NO VISA you could apply for that would allow you to come here and take it. But that is the case.
On Tuesday night, the attorney we’ve retained notified us that there is no way Kirsty can be eligible for the visa we were trying to get for her. That leaves very few options, and none of them are all that great. By way of background, Kirsty is a bicycle mechanic. Out of high school, she did a four-year apprenticeship in bicycle mechanics, and has spent nearly ten years in the industry. She can build wheels from scratch, while I can’t even manage to inflate my bike tire without something going horribly wrong (exploding the tube, ripping out the valve, I’m serious…it’s not possible). Her bike, which she built for herself, is worth more than my car several times over. In short, she knows what the fuck she’s doing.
Guess what though? In order to get a work visa in the United States that lasts more than a few months, you have to have a college degree. That’s right, if you couldn’t afford to go to college or thought some other career path was more interesting or a better move for you, we don’t want you. If you’ve somehow managed to work 12 years or more in a “specialized profession,” that can substitute for a college degree, with every three years of work “equaling” one year of college. What counts as a “specialized profession?” One that usually *requires* a college degree. Knowing how to assemble hydraulic brakes? Apparently THAT’S not “specialized” enough. And so we were told the other night that Kirsty’s four years of apprenticeship work, certification in two countries, and ten years of experience was not worth enough to equal what is often, in the United States, a totally worthless piece of paper.
There are a ton of work visas, it seems. However, all are so specialized. The H-1B is the aforementioned “specialized profession” visa, that many people (with college degrees) use to work in the United States. The process to get one is long (around 4-6 months) and expensive (up to $2,000), but with our limited lack of options is looking pretty ideal right about now. The E-3 visa is like the H-1B visa, but JUST for Australians. In fact it’s one of the ONLY work visas that is country-specific, and it proves how much we like Australians around here: It’s faster (1-2 months), cheaper (around $400), renewable INDEFINITELY (even the H-1B doesn’t do that), and the cap is almost never met (the cap for E-3 visas is 10,500. Only about 3,000 have been granted per year. To give you a comparison, the cap for the H-1B is only 65,000 granted per year, for ALL OTHER NATIONALITIES IN THE WORLD. You can bet that is usually met). We were trying to get that one for Kirsty, it would have been awesome. However, you already know the problem.
We’re left looking at all the things we can’t have. “L” visas are for people transferring to an American branch of their company. “J” visas are for au pairs, students working over the summer, or recent graduates working right out of school (since Kirsty graduated over three years ago, she’s not eligible for these). “O” visas are for “aliens of extraordinary ability” (I’m not joking) and you can get one if you’ve won an Oscar, a Grammy, an Olympic medal, or a Pulitzer Prize. “P” visas are for “Internationally Recognized Athletes or Entertainment Groups” (if you ever wondered what T&S or An Horse or any other band has to do to be allowed to tour in the U.S., there you go).
We have only three options for Kirsty: an H-2B visa, a K visa and the visa waiver program. An H-2B visa is for “Temporary Unskilled Nonagricultural Workers.” To get one, you have to PROVE that the employer couldn’t find an American to hire instead, which requires you to jump through all kinds of fucking hoops. You also have to prove that there is some extenuating circumstance creating this need for foreign workers within the company. You also have to prove that the need is only *temporary* (e.g. you’re not going to get here longer than a few months). We are probably going to try again for this one… we started the process back in April, when she was first offered a job at a shop here, but we made mistakes and have to start over. Now that the summer bike shop “peak season” is wrapping up in a few months, we might have to wait until next spring to even try it again. I was hoping she would be here in July of this year. March of 2012 doesn’t really cut it. :(
“K” visas are student visas. You know what you can’t do on a student visa? Work or support yourself at all. You know what else you can’t do? Get any federal loans or grants, because you aren’t a U.S. citizen. So what does this mean? You have to prove up front that you have all of the money to support yourself for the entire length of your visa, or that you have people who will sign an affidavit pledging how much they will give you to support each year. Plus Kirsty doesn’t even know what she’d want to go to school for, and she’d never really planned on going back at all. She doesn’t see it as an awesome option to have me completely supporting her (provided I could even do that on my salary, though I think I could) or to take out tons of private loans to not even know what course she wants to study.
Then there’s the visa waiver program. It allows people from certain countries to stay in the U.S. for up to three months at a time, until U.S. Immigration catches on to what you’re doing and won’t let you back into the country. You know what you can’t do on the visa waiver program? Work or go to school or do pretty much anything at all that would let you lead a productive life.
“So why don’t you just get married?!” everyone asks me, “It’s legal in D.C.!” Ah, right you are my friend. However, you forget that immigration is a federal issue, and the federal government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages at all, let alone for the hotly-contested purposes of immigration. I wish it were so easy. If we were a straight couple, we could get married now and she could start the process to gain U.S. citizenship. Or, we could apply for a fiance visa, which would allow her to be in the country immediately, provided we got married within 90 days. Go ahead and argue if you want that that process isn’t necessarily “easy”… but let me tell you that it is easier than NOT having that option.
You know, I was never overly concerned with the same-sex marriage debate. Yes, it is a hugely important issue and one that I support with all my heart. However, as I saw it, we are on the right side of history. The wheels are turning slowly, but they are turning. In the end, we are going to prevail, no matter what the other side says or does. There WILL be a time where people look back at this time and can’t believe the debate was as fierce as it was, or even that it existed at all. THAT TIME WILL COME. I have no doubts. But for me, marriage wasn’t in my foreseeable future, and I was (reasonably) content with thinking that if it DID end up in my near future, I could have a commitment ceremony, or get married where it was legal, and be perfectly happy with that, at least until the laws changed. Well… as is always proven, some things (everything) changes faster than laws do. Did I expect that I’d end up meeting someone from the other side of the world, and suddenly have the marriage debate, and even more pointedly, the immigration debate, apply directly to me? Not so much. But here we are. For the first time in a long time, things feel truly unfair. In the next month I will go to two weddings, and instead of being bitter about being single — as I have usually been at weddings — I’m going to feel bitter that I have no power to get my partner here like they could if they needed to. I’m looking at straight unmarried couples with one non-American partner and thinking that at least they have an out. I didn’t plan on marrying someone so soon after meeting them, as Kirsty and I have only been together a little over a year… but I’ve thought about it and without a doubt I would, if it meant that she could be here with me every day. I was explaining the situation to our receptionist the other day, when up on CNN flashed the headline “Green Cards Denied for Same-Sex Couples” and it just felt so ironic. We are so new to this issue and this problem, where there have been people dealing with it for years, fighting in court, being deported. The more I think about it, the more I think that it is one of the cruelest effects of the ban on federal recognition of same-sex couples in this country.
So, back to the drawing board. “What about doing it the illegal way?” people whisper to me, “People do it all the time!” I know they do. But do you know what happens to them if they’re caught? Stay in this country for six months before being caught, and you are BANNED from the United States for FIVE YEARS. Stay for a year before being caught and you’re banned for TEN. Can I imagine what it would be like if for TEN YEARS Kirsty couldn’t see my family, stay at my house, live where I live? “Okay, maybe not,” people whisper back to me. “Can she marry a man?” Well, she could… we have several male friends who I bet would do it, who have even offered. But do you know, in this post-9/11 world (oh how I hate that phrase) just how much you have to prove to establish a relationship worthy of granting the foreign partner a green card? Do you know what the punishment would be for attempted “marriage fraud” for the purposes of getting someone into the country? I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I’m thinking a ten year ban from the country would probably be lenient. The federal government does not like being tricked. Especially while it’s supposed to be all busy protecting us from “terrorists” and “illegals.” Not to mention that trying something like that would mean that the guy who tried to help us — and probably myself as well — would go down too for conspiracy to commit marriage fraud and all that jazz. Not a great move for the career of a lawyer.
A law firm I know put a program a few weeks ago called “Immigration Options for Same-Sex Couples.” I wanted to go because at this point, it seems like our best “immigration option” is for me to move to Australia. And I want to move to Australia, just not right this moment… the plan was for her to live here for a few years and then for me to go live there for a few years. It made sense — she’s lived in Brisbane, and with her parents, for a long time and is ready to try something new. I’ve just started my first real, permanent job out of law school, which actually pays well and would let me put her on my health insurance. Her parents typically visit the U.S. every year and could come see her, while my parents couldn’t do the same. Not to mention that with an American law degree, moving to Australia for me would mean at least another year of school in order to practice there, which would come with a price tag of at least $23,000 just for tuition.
People ask me all the time whether it would be easier for me to go there. Hell yes. Unlike the U.S., Australia isn’t completely retarded, and even though same-sex marriage isn’t legal there, all you need to do is to be in a relationship with an Australian citizen for over a year in order for them to sponsor you as their de-facto partner. You don’t even have to have been living together. How is that for a step in the direction of equality, and not just for same-sex couples?? Quite apart from that, as an attorney, I could probably quite easily get a work visa, even if I couldn’t practice, and of course a student visa wouldn’t be difficult either… except for the aforementioned $23,000 (and I’m not even going to tell you how much debt I already have in the way of student loans).
So here we are, our options next to none, and our hopes of getting her here anytime soon pretty much smashed. Again, I can’t say enough times how ridiculous it is that you could have a perfectly fine job offer here, and have no visa that would allow you to come and take it. That your only options would be ones that wouldn’t allow you to financially support yourself. What kind of system is that? I agree with Obama on that one: A broken one. People wonder why there are so many “illegal immigrants” and “undocumented workers” in this country, but I’ll tell you why: Because it’s fucking impossible to do it the right way, and after spending months of trying to do it the right way, you’re ready to opt out of a system that pretty much encourages you to do so (and to say “fuck you” on your way out the door).
And I think of the marriage debates and I think of the immigration debates and I look at the picture of me and Kirsty that I have on my desk, and wonder why something as simple as us could be so impossible.
“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt