By Guarav Ghose Posted Apr 1 2006
After earning a master’s degree from the Missouri School of Journalism, I hoped to gain some good experience in the United States before returning to India. I went to work for small business papers, first in Florida and then in Nevada, but the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) decided to make life difficult. By the time this appears, I will be back in India.
My employer had to apply for an H1-B, the type of visa that would allow me to work in the U.S. in a so-called specialty occupation. However, mistakes made by me, my lawyers, and the two papers I worked for, as well as the USCIS, made working in the U.S. impossible.
I learned a few lessons and share them now with readers around the world.
Within a month of graduating with a master’s degree in journalism in December 2004, I got a reporter’s job on a business weekly in Sarasota, Fla., to cover commercial real estate. At the time of my hiring, I discussed the H1-B — its costs and sharing of company information — with the publisher. He said he would take care of it.
Students from foreign countries can work in the United States under what’s called Optional Practical Training (OPT) for a year after they graduate. If they want to continue working and prove that they merit sponsorship, the company has to file for the H1-B.
I joined the weekly in the first week of February 2005, and after three-month’s probation, I was confirmed as worthy of a permanent job. The publisher sent me to his immigration lawyer, who asked me who was going to pay the charges for the H1-B, which would total about $6,250. I told him the publisher had promised to pay.
Two weeks later, the publisher surprised me by saying he did not realize that the visa would cost so much. He proposed sharing the costs. I said “No,” first, because I expected him to keep his word and second, because I was financially constrained.
I should not have refused a compromise.
Around mid-May, the lawyer e-mailed me a reminder about the need for documents and fees from the publisher. I forwarded the e-mail to the publisher and got back a reply saying he was busy with another publication he was about to launch.
A week later at work, I made Associated Press style mistakes doing a calendar for the new publication. The publisher, who edited my copy, found the mistakes, and they were never printed.
At the end of the first week of June, the publisher called me to say he was not satisfied with my overall performance and I had to leave. He said he had expected someone with more experience.
First lessons learned: Do your research when choosing the company, city and beat you want to work in. Ask questions about the expectations the publisher/editor has for you. Get your AP style right! And remember that small employers are doing you a great favor by signing visa papers and disclosing internal company information to immigration authorities. So be ready to pick up the tab yourself.
At the end of July, I got an offer from a business weekly in Reno, Nev. The editor was upfront about the H1-B costs. He said that while the company would sign the forms with the required information, it would not pay the costs. I would have to hire a lawyer and get the H1-B filing done myself. I agreed and started work in mid-August.
I hired a Dallas-based lawyer who was recommended by a friend who had worked with her. My editor was extremely cooperative, and the application for the H1-B was filed in late September. I filed the application under the normal processing category, which meant it would take about three to four months to process.
For an extra $1,000, I could have gotten a decision in two weeks. I had about five months before my student visa was to expire on Jan. 20.
In response to the initial filing, the immigration service asked for a list of things that included:
• A detailed description of the work I perform with a listing of specific duties and a percentage of time spent on each duty.
• Evidence showing that the position I was hired for required a bachelor’s or higher degree, or that the degree requirement is common to the industry in parallel positions among similar organizations (i.e. organizations with 13 employees).
• Evidence that the position of a reporter is a common position required by similar-sized offices with similar annual incomes, and evidence that the company’s competitors require degrees for positions closely related to that of a reporter.
• The advertisement of the job I was hired for showing that the company requires its applicants to have a minimum of a baccalaureate or higher degree, and copies of past job announcements.
• Copies of reporters’ transcripts showing that they have bachelor’s degrees.
• The company’s federal income tax filings for the past two years.
• A quarterly wage report showing names and social security numbers for all employees.
• City, county, state and federal business licenses.
We had to provide all of the evidence with a letter from the editor by March 10.
I gave the response, or what’s called a Request for Evidence (RFE), to the editor on Jan. 4, the same day I received it from my lawyer. He looked at it and said it would not be a problem; the human resources department should have most of the documents. The editor kept on reassuring me that he would work on it at the earliest.
I started working immediately to get letters of support from similar-sized organizations by writing to the Mizzou Mafia, the e-mail listserve of former students of the Missouri School of Journalism, as well as to the South Asian Journalists Association. I got letters from a couple of members of both.
However, we had a problem. The job advertisement did not specifically say the position required a college degree. My lawyer said the USCIS could render a negative decision because of it. My editor said he would work around it, explaining in a letter that the kinds of beats I covered assumes one should have a college education and also, that all of the company’s past reporters had master’s degrees.
My lawyer said in a letter that that should work.
The only sticking point, the editor said, was in regard to providing transcripts of other reporters, which he felt (and I agreed) was an intrusion into the privacy of individuals.
But as I continued gathering evidence from other newspapers, my OPT time expired on Jan. 20. According to the rules, I had to get off the payroll, which my lawyer should have told me about earlier rather than after it expired. That would have allowed me to push the editor to work on my application. So, I informed the editor, and I hired a new lawyer, one who had dealt with a similar RFE case of a Kenyan journalist, who now works for a small paper in California.
My editor said he would get back to me as soon as possible.
When I met with him on Jan. 23, he said he would get the letter done and mail all the required documents by early next week. I assumed that he had spoken with the company’s human resources department.
I met him again on Jan. 27, and he told me that a USCIS decision could take a minimum of 60 days or more, as my lawyer had pointed out. But she also said that was on paper, and in fact, in many instances RFE decisions have come in within two weeks. The Kenyan journalist received approval four days after filing.
The same day, the editor met with the company’s human resources director. He then told me they could not hold on to my position for two months or more. They had to let me go.
But when I told him about the premium processing option for an RFE (and I said I was willing to pay the extra $1,000), in which case a decision would come in two weeks, he said even that was too long a wait. It’s not guaranteed that the decision will be a positive one, he added, and so it’s not worth it for the human relations department to put together the documents.
Final lessons learned: Get a lawyer who has experience in filing H1-B forms for foreign journalists. Ask him/her all kinds of questions and options one has when filing.
Even if it costs $1,000 extra for premium processing at the time of the initial filing, go for it.
When you get an RFE, push your editor to work on it right away.
Apply for jobs that clearly state that the position requires a four-year bachelor’s/college degree. Otherwise, later on you could have problems in satisfying the basic criteria of a specialty occupation.
Finally, try to avoid small news companies, but if you can’t, help them to learn the process.