One night last week I spent six hours tethered to my laptop, trying to complete a two-screen form. First name. Last name. Date of birth. Country of birth. Photograph. Address. Marital status. If I was lucky, the next page of the form would appear after a few minutes chugging, demanding the same information about my future ex-husband. I’d submit the finished form hopefully, but again and again the process timed out before it was accepted. Then there was nothing to do but wait–chug, chug–for a new, blank form to start again.
Eventually, at 2.15 a.m. on December 30th, two hours and forty-five minutes before the official deadline, I successfully submitted an application to the 2005 United States Diversity Program Visa Lottery.
It’s new, this electronic process. For seven years I’ve been sending paper entries more faithfully than Christmas cards. Every year approximately seven million others did too (though I hear the numbers have dropped now that the US is going through one of its loonier periods). The program grants 55,000 Green Cards a year to applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the US. Canadians are excluded, as are British subjects, Chinese, and Mexicans. I qualify either on the basis of my Irish nationality or my Zambian birthplace. Each year I pick one randomly. Neither choice seems to make much difference to my 0.0075% chance of being selected. This year I’m Zambian.
Over those six hours I thought of my fellow hopefuls all over the world, choking the servers of the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, filling out three or four applications at once in the hope that one would get through before their internet café dollar ran out. There would be agents in Iran, in Cambodia, in Nepal, processing bulk applications in unfamiliar Roman script. In Ecuador last year there was a hunger for _los Estados Unidos_ that made me feel starved myself. People told me stories about the Mexican _coyotes_ who took eight or ten years of their savings and got them dumped in a border jail for a month before they were thrown back to Quito. The night of the lottery deadline, there would have been kids in internet cafés all over Quito, dictionaries propped up by the keyboards, dreaming of Queens.
But there weren’t too many Irish people huddled over the USCIS(US Citizenship and Immigration Service) website at 2 am, I’d guess. You’d want to be crazy, or very fond of America, or knocking your elbows on a small island, to consider leaving a prosperous country for the land of Homeland Security and a once-mighty dollar that can no longer buy a bar of chocolate in Europe. I am not sure into which category I fall myself, but I’ve already invested my twenties in New York City, and my professional contacts, friendships, and furniture are there. That’s why I kept pressing Reload on my browser.
US immigration law has influenced every single major decision I made since the age of 24. I repeat that often here, because its reach into my private life has frustrated and baffled me so. None of my citizen friends has ever fully understood this web of sticky, near-invisible restrictions. The USCIS(US Citizenship and Immigration Services) set the date for my wedding, steered me into the technology industry, ejected me to tramp around the world for a year. I chose my second New York job solely to get a certain kind of immigration status for my husband. Every year, or so it seemed, I stumbled off a red-eye flight to Dublin and went straight to the US Embassy to be interrogated for another visa in order to return.
There are two kinds of immigrants. There are the huddled masses, who seek asylum or simply a chance at a better life. They bring little but contact names and ambition. They may need help getting started, but in the US, at least, that help comes more often from private networks of people from home rather than from the government. In Europe and the US, poor immigrants, legal or not, do the jobs that the locals won’t. They are the reason why a punnet of blueberries costs three or four dollars, not twelve, and without them our economies would collapse. President Bush, looking to make Republicans of a generation of Latinos, seems to have understood this recently.
Then there are those immigrants who have already been lucky, the workers that a country brings in to fill skills gaps. Canada and Australia each have a Skilled Worker Program to attract people with education and work experience that can help the host country. I worked in the United States for five years under the H1-b program, designed as “a nonimmigrant classification used by an alien who will be employed temporarily in a specialty occupation or as a fashion model of distinguished merit and ability.” (Sadly, I am not a fashion model of distinguished merit and ability. If I were I could get a Green Card, or perhaps con a rich Yank into marriage–the Candace Bushnell version of the American Dream.) I’ve also spent time in the US as a J1 (student worker), J2 (spouse of a student worker), and H4 (spouse of an H1-b). There are various other immigrant and non-immigrant classifications for journalists, for hospitality industry workers, for medical workers, and so on.
The United States and Canada differ greatly in their treatment of skilled workers. Philosphically, Canada decides that these are good people to have around. They are a terrific deal for the country, after all: already vaccinated and highly-educated by foreign taxpayers, and ready to fill jobs where local skills fall short. They bring immigrant energy, and may even create jobs. Once an applicant qualifies on the stringent entry requirements, therefore, Canada grants freedom of labor movement and, after three years or so, full citizenship rights.
The United States, on the other hand, treats skilled workers like high-class indentured servants. Their status in the country is entirely in the gift of their sponsoring employer. As an H1-b worker, your employer’s name is in your passport. The work permit is granted for just three years, and may only be renewed for a further three. Then you have to get out. You may not change jobs without applying for a new work permit–a slow and expensive process for employers–and don’t even think about setting up your own company. If your employment ends, you have a few weeks in which to pack and get out. Forget about the social security contributions you made: you’ll never see them. The deal is that you are welcome to give America your ambitious and productive years, but you cannot plan a future or a family there.
In the recent boom, these restrictions imposed real inconvenience on American employers. The US education system wasn’t up to meeting the demands for skilled workers of the late 1990s, and employers were stuck with months of waiting and paperwork before they could hire. Eventually they lobbied to have the quota of these workers raised from 60,000 a year to 190,000 a year, and to ease some of the bureaucratic requirements in exchange for premium processing fees. In these rougher times that cap has just fallen back to a tiny 60,000.
The United States, naturally enough, wants to protect jobs for its own workers. This is only fair and right. However, it is not making full use of the talents at its disposal. These skilled workers are exactly the kind of people who create jobs when times are tough, but they are expressly forbidden to. Though it’s close to impossible, still some of them figure out how to work the system, not in order to claim the piddling US social welfare handouts–please–but to start companies. They front them with American business partners and keep legal status with the help of working spouses. When my husband wanted to start a company he spent hours with a sympathetic lawyer interpreting whether language like “actively managing investments” could be stretched to mean “unpaid Founder and CEO”. A third of the companies in Silicon Valley were set up by new immigrants like him, no thanks to USCIS(US Citizenship and Immigration Services). For his trouble, and thanks to great bureaucratic effort, he will eventually get permanent residence as an Alien of Extraordinary Ability. No joke.
Ireland is now facing these issues for the first time. It has to decide soon whether to extend to immigrants the conditional, crippling welcome of the United States, or the freedom that Canada and Australia give. Small countries demand personal contacts to get most jobs, and for new arrivals often the best way to survive is to start a business, however small. But right now many of our immigrants are not allowed to work at all, though they get extensive social welfare benefits. This means we have potential workers stuck in state-funded bed-and-breakfast accommodation, unable to contribute. I hope we make an imaginative decision.
I’m lucky. When I don’t win that US visa lottery, I have other choices. I have access to a job market of 300 million Europeans. Thanks to an education funded almost entirely by Irish and European taxpayers, I have some saleable skills. My English is fluent. My own country is still thriving, so I could work at home, near my family, and earn the euros that each buy more than a dollar and a quarter now. I could get into Canada if I tried hard enough, or Australia, or New Zealand. I am free of oppression and poverty, and I have access to generous European social benefits.
My heart goes out to those whose choices aren’t as broad, to the Ecuadorians and Iranians hoping on a lottery for what might be a chance at life.