As crowds of illegal immigrants march through the streets of American cities, I look down at the protest from my Seattle office and wonder "Why don't I march with them?" Well, because I'm not illegal. In the last six years while visiting this country and starting my new job with Discovery Institute, I have paid the U.S. government nearly $20,000 in visa and application fees. I have spent 90% of the money I earned in the U.S.A. in this country, and I have volunteered for nearly 2,000 hours with local non-profits. My good friend Franklin Cudjoe, the head of the Ghana think tank Imani, was denied a visa three times, before he finally received one last year. However, Franklin never complained and always paid the non-refundable fees.
If you are a native born American, you probably have no idea what visas are or how difficult they are to get. The brief description of a non-immigrant visitor's visa into the U.S. is as follows: let's say you decide that you want to visit the U.S. for a conference, or to see a relative for a couple weeks (the visa Anton Verstakov, the news editor of Russia Today, obtained to speak here). You should apply for a B visa (B1 = Business visitor, B2 = tourist, B1/2 = business and pleasure). After filling out the forms and paying a $100 non-refundable, cash-only fee to the U.S. government, you get scheduled for a visa interview. A one year visitor's visa will cost $100 cash (in addition to the first hundred), a two-year visa is $200 cash. Don't forget to have your finger prints taken. If you don't pass the interview, you get rejected and go home, leaving the first $100 behind in Uncle Sam's hands. The embassy workers don't have to have a reason to reject you.
The B visa is the most basic type, the cheapest, and it doesn't allow you to work. When you get into J-1, F, L, H1-B (the one I have), etc. the sky is the limit for fees. To demonstrate the bureaucratic insanity of the process, I'll give the reader a brief description of the visa applications that a foreign worker has to go through to legally work in the USA. I'll start with the basic prices (payable to the U.S. government, cash or check only):
Filing fee - $750
Premium processing (to get an answer in less than two weeks) - $1,000
Fraud fee (not quite sure what this is, I guess just an extra 500...) - $500
I-129 filing fee (something you wouldn't understand anyway) - $185
But before all this occurs the employer has to go through a very complicated verification process and get official approval to hire a foreigner. However, this can happen only after the cash fees are paid and an audit comparable to IRS auditing is done.
Now add half a year of waiting and paperwork, enormous legal fees (it is nearly impossible to file something like that without professional and very expensive legal assistance), a 3-inch stack of documents and constant miscommunication between Labor Certification Administration, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Department of Homeland Security. The three agencies each have their own regulations which contradict the others and confuse the applicants and the lawyers.
To save Discovery Institute legal fees, this author started reading the Federal Register online every morning at 6 a.m., to see if a dozen hours of legal work done the previous week were suddenly useless due to some new regulations.
An applicant at a US consulate in Russia
When all the applications are filed and cash is paid, the invitation to an interview comes in mail. My interview was in Vancouver, British Columbia, the nearest US Consulate. In case I was rejected, I packed up everything I had so I would be ready to return to Russia to pass an interview at U.S. Embassy in Moscow. I didn't fail the interview, but while I was getting ready for it, my car was burglarized. My laptop, camera and all my clothes were stolen ...
After I paid another $200 cash (for something), spent about 3 hours in Soviet-style lines and received my visa; I headed back to Seattle. On the border, the customs official looked at my car with Washington state number plates and jokingly asked me the official question he was supposed to ask "What is the purpose of your visit to the United States of America?" I answered, "Mmm... to get home!" Then I paid another $15 cash fee for his precious time and hard work and so here I am -- a legal worker in the United State of America! Not a resident alien though. If I lose my job, I have 72 hours to pack and fly home; forget about my bills, rent, car, friends, lifestyle...
Panamanians line up for visas at the US Embassy in Panama
Maybe all this seems crazy to the average American, but it defines so much of my life, just as it does for many of my foreign friends, who live and pay taxes in America. I pay federal, Medicare and Social Security taxes, though I can't vote or use any of the benefits of the system. I volunteer at summer camps and churches, because this visa doesn't say that I can't do it (some visas do!).
When Americans ask me "Is it Putin's Russia that doesn't let you or your parents out and charges you so much to come and witness our great democratic society?" I laugh and say "No, it's all Uncle Sam. Putin couldn't care less!"
I'm not whining. I'm happy to live in America, pay taxes and I appreciate being a part of a country so big and powerful. I enjoy composing music, giving piano lessons, volunteering when I can, skiing, swimming, and the rest. I don't have the right to vote, but I love liberty, the freedom to do all these things. When Americans speak about freedom, they think about education, voting, and sometimes, welfare. When I say freedom, I think of giving piano lessons to a 12 year old student, driving Washington State Highway 20 through the Cascades, and buying Mexican food for $5.75.
If I were in Russia I wouldn't be able to ski - it costs $3,000 and you have to go to Austria, versus $40 on Mt. Baker. I wouldn't have the time to produce music, and it's more expensive to make music in Russia since you have to fly to London or Los Angeles to master quality recordings, and no one buys legal, non-pirated CD's. Moscow is such a busy town, there's no time for music anyway. In Russia I wouldn't be spending time with kids or giving my spare time to the community. The idea of volunteering raises only one question from Russians, "You're doing what? For free?!".
I've worked hard to be here, and I'm enjoying living in America and contributing as much as I can to this great country. I believe in free markets, and I think that it is unfair for someone else to jump over me, come here, and work illegally, not paying income tax, not contributing socially, and then on top of this insist on having the rules changed for them. Honestly, I can't even understand why they protest. Isn't the word "illegal" synonymous with "prohibited" or "bad"? I'm no one special, my parents are in Moscow and they didn't help me to get here. If you want to do it legally -- there is always a way!
Russia Blog supports securing America's borders and making it easier for people to come and work in this country legally.
Please also read the article "Free Enterprise and Choice: The Making of a Conservative" by Discovery Institute Senior Foreign Policy fellow James Na, also a legal immigrant.