Beki Grinter

H1-B Exile: In Which I Became a Visiting Scientist Luckily

In immigration on April 15, 2011 at 9:41 am

Generally, I tell people that I’ve been employed by three institutions since graduating. Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and now Georgia Tech.

But there’s a fourth place I spent five months. Xerox EuroPARC in Cambridge, the United Kingdom. I describe it on my vita as a Visiting Researcher. I was a visting researcher, visiting England and EuroPARC because the INS was transfering my H1-B visa from one company to another. When I left Bell Labs, I wanted to start work at Xerox PARC, but the INS had other ideas about that. Specifically, the dual-intent H1-B visa is employer specific. So, in addition to the caps on the visa, the fact that it’s one of the few that’s dual-intent, it is also tied to a particular employer and a switch requires reprocessing.

Perhaps this made sense when employment was more traditionally for life, but that’s not the typical case today.

Unfortunately, the modern world is not the one that the INS promotes for its foreign workforce. There is no nimble or agile move, one that might be of benefit to the new employer (presumably since the candidate has been through a rigorous interview including demonstrating that they are more qualified for the job than any available American in order to qualify for the visa in the first place). Instead, it is time to enter a period of processing ambiguity.

For the future employee that is a period of unpaid exile (since the person can not be employed by the new employer). There is no grace period (well not one long enough) in which one can remain in the United States while the processing occurs. So, the lucky “customer” wins a trip home with no specified end-date.

And I was lucky, very lucky indeed.

I was lucky that there was a possibility for me to continue in my research career in a place where I was legally able to work, the United Kingdom. I was even luckier that there was a group of talented individuals whom I got to know through the course of this visit. I also got lucky that the UK was seeing very rapid adoption of SMS among teenagers and I was able to study this.

I was also lucky that I had a support system in the United States. I left the country, but I was still receiving a variety of mail. Since it was my intention to come back, I did not want to re-route all this paperwork to England. I needed an address where the material could go. I also was required by Bell Labs to perform a roll-over of some of my accrued retirement, one that was nearly impossible to do from outside the country (favourite advice “just call this 1-800 number”, only possible from inside the U.S.). I needed help to manage these matters while I was in exile..

Thank you to both my support systems. The one in the U.S. who held down the fort. And the one in the U.K. who developed my career in an exciting new direction. The opportunities and interactions I had in Cambridge have lasted far longer than the time I spent there. I was very lucky.

And so this is probably the last of these posts. I’ve called attention to what I think the problems are of our current immigration system for the people that it serves. In this post I also want to highlight the problems that the current immigration system poses for employers, the backbone of America’s economic vitality and continued success. This system has failed them as well as me.

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