Left Out by the Legal Route In

By Susan Laurel Hodges
Monday, June 12, 2006

It's hard to make decorating decisions when my partner isn't around. Should the wall beside the fireplace be painted gold to match the rest of the living room, or would another color deliver that bold statement we're looking for?

We really can't decide until Kirsten is here to see it, and that won't be for another two months. It's not that my domestic partner chooses to spend so much time away; her absence is required by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a bureau of the Department of Homeland Security.

Kirsten is a German citizen who cannot lawfully move to the United States until she lands a job with an American employer. She has a sister in Pennsylvania who would willingly sponsor her immigration, but the waiting time for sibling visas is currently more than nine years. I would sponsor Kirsten myself in a heartbeat, but the U.S. government recognizes no bond between us, so I cannot sponsor her as could a husband his foreign-born wife or a wife her foreign-born husband. Nor would it help for me to move to Massachusetts, as so many of our friends have suggested, because although the Bay State would allow us to marry, the federal government still wouldn't give us the time of day.

Thus the need for Kirsten to find a job. But before she can be hired, she must have a work visa known as an H-1B. An H-1B visa allows a foreign professional in a specialty occupation to work for a U.S. employer for up to six years. During that time H-1B holders who wish to become permanent U.S. residents can apply for, and usually receive, a green card.

The H-1B visa is necessary because Kirsten is a physician, a radiologist, in fact, whose expertise is medical technology, specifically electronic patient records. She is one of only five doctors in Germany to possess this combination of skills, and is highly sought-after in her native nation. She also speaks fluent English.

Germany and most countries in Western Europe are miles ahead of the United States when it comes to this type of technology; in fact, many German hospitals are already acquiring their second generation of electronic records systems. Knowing this, you might think someone with Kirsten's background would be the darling of U.S. immigration officials, not to mention the toast of domestic med-tech providers. But such is not the case.

A U.S. employer must be willing to jump through hoops to sponsor her, and until that happens, no visa can be issued.

Among the hoops: extensive advertising to find an American citizen who can fill the job before it is given to an outsider, and retaining an attorney who can competently navigate and file the blizzard of forms that must be filled out by the potential employer and potential employee. These forms demand a colossal amount of information, ranging from the dates, reasons and details of all previous visits to the United States during the past several years to copies of diplomas and certified translations of all documents in languages other than English.

Three years elapsed before Kirsten found a company with the foresight and willingness to hire her, and now this fourth year is being spent waiting for the immigration wheels to turn. That's not to say that approval of her visa is guaranteed. At the end of 2003 Congress slashed its quota for H-1B approvals from 195,000 to 65,000 a year. If Kirsten is not one of those 65,000, she will have to wait until April 2007 to reapply. As to whether the firm offering her a job is willing to wait that long, we have no clue.

Meanwhile, our own immigration attorney has advised Kirsten to adhere to a strict policy that prohibits her from taking any steps that could be viewed by immigration officials as attempts to establish U.S. residency before her visa is approved. That means few visits and for no more than a couple of weeks. Her prospective employer wants her on-site for training and meetings, but until she receives her work visa, Kirsten must spend the majority of her time in Germany.

When Kirsten is able to visit briefly, she and I encounter dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who live here but cannot speak English well enough to be understood or haven't had the benefit of even a rudimentary education. "And yet, they're here," Kirsten observes wryly, "and I am not." Meanwhile, I'm really hoping we can find the right wall color before another year goes by.

Susan Laurel Hodges is a freelance writer who lives in Burtonsville.

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