There is an immigrant story that books and the media fail to cover. It’s the story of the international students who walk the long road to becoming immigrants in the United States. It’s a story I identify with and a story that you will hear today.
Four years after my departure from my beloved home country, I still have a number of friends who ask me “What exactly are you doing there?” They know I’m not a green card holder and I’m not a U.S. citizen either. It’s a question that always lead me to my scratching my head before I answer. How do I explain what I’m doing to someone who wouldn’t understand the struggle? Because the answer is not black or white. It’s gray with a tinge of blue and specks of brown and, okay, hints of green. To put it bluntly, it’s shit.
Me: I am an international student here in the U.S. But I also do work on the side.
Friend: What work?
Me: Some work.
Friend: Okay. And what are you studying?
Me: Some studies.
That’s the best answer I can come up with. And I know, given my vague answer, that my friend is not far from thinking that I am an illegal alien in this country.
Okay, you want the real truth? I am not an illegal alien. I have a legit valid non-immigrant status. I am an international student and I study at an ESL school. “Study”. Now this answer opens another bag of worms. My friend goes, “But why?? You don’t need to study English.” I probably don’t, but I NEED it so I can stay here.
If you choose to be an international student in the United States at a college or university, you need to have kaching in your kapow. I don’t know what I just said, but you need bucks. Thousands of bucks. At least if you’re looking to apply for a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree for a year, you need to show an estimate of $25,000 – $100,000 in your bank account… Or your sugar daddy’s bank account. Or whichever person you find who would be glad to sponsor you, good luck. Yes, if you don’t know it yet, to say that you will avail of an American education is usually a joke. An expensive joke.
If you’re an international student who would enroll at a college or university, you are required to take a full-time study which should not be less than 12 credits. Mind you, the usual price for 1 credit at a community college, the cheapest you can find, is $600. You do the math. You need at least $7000 for one semester. And that could be you learning basic foundational courses like Math, English, and Science… which you already did in your past life when you completed your Bachelor’s Degree in your home country.
Now, let’s say I will go for the international student option, but I am poor and I don’t have a network of capable sponsors. What can I do? My family lives here in the U.S. (legally) and I want to live here too. I don’t want to leave just yet. Do I just give up? Maybe I do have other options.
Enter English for Second Language schools aka ESL schools. An ESL school is a different breed of school. They accept international students on F-1 visa, but the full-time study only costs about half of what you spend in one semester at a college or university. Let’s say $4000 for 2 semesters or a year of school. Good enough. I found a legitimate way to stay here and “perfect my English” while I’m on it.
On to the next problem, international students are not authorized to work in the U.S. The only exception is if you found a job on campus. If there are no jobs available on campus, how are you going to live then? This is the major problem that people like me who take this route live with everyday. I am an adult and I’ve reached past that point of mom and dad being responsible for my breathing, my eating, the roof above my head… my makeup, my happy hour margaritas, and (duh) my avocado toast brunch-driven millennial lifestyle. Because we have to survive (and let’s be honest, a lifestyle to maintain), we need a good source of income. In comes the side jobs aka waitressing, bartending, coffee-making, babysitting, caregiving, old people-sitting, dogwalking, etc. In Manhattan, it is a LEGIT source of living, I kid you not. Babysitters make more money than you in your office job that you feel so smart doing. I’m talking about $100 a day playing with kids and dropping them off at ballet classes and soccer practice. It is a good source of living, but you ask yourself, is this really the life that you want? Is this something so sustainable that you’ll be doing for the rest of your life?
I’ve spent two years at an ESL school, so why am I doing this again?? And why are there so many foreigners like me who are doing this? Being in a community of ESL students on F-1 visa here in the United States, I must know of a thousand reasons why. And all are sewn by a common thread. We are people who have Bachelor degrees in our home countries who decided to take a risk and get better chances at a country that appreciates and pays hard work. It’s definitely not an easy life. I have made a lot of friends who left the familiar, jumped out of their comfort zones to provide a better living for those who they left behind or to provide for a better future.
But what exactly does our future look like? The hope is that we can actually convert our status into something that allows us to live and work here, without the constant worry of Trump suddenly kicking out all international students. There is a way which is finding a company that is willing to sponsor you for work, but that road is also congested and demands 10+ years of work experience. The hope is that some kind of magic happens where work authorization cards grow on trees and it wouldn’t matter whether someone is a non-immigrant in this country. Can’t we be allowed to work anyway? Because when you have been a U.S. resident for more than 5 years, can’t that count as residency yet? Immigration is a real tricky thing.
We are not undocumented immigrants, but we are the almost-immigrants nobody really knows a lot about. We just live in the seams, hoping that there would be a quick and easy solution to all of this paperwork, that doesn’t involve having a fake U.S. citizen marriage.
I can’t blame the people who choose to live their lot here. It clearly is better here than what we left behind, but nobody really grasps the difficulty of figuring out a way to stay for good when you don’t have the benefits of a U.S. citizen. And it haunts you in your every waking day.
To be honest, when I began this journey, the only reason that made me stay is because I don’t want to take the chance of not seeing my family again. I knew back then that if I opted to stay behind, I would be risking not seeing my family again. So right after college, I packed my bags with no certainty of what I was gonna do and let Jesus take the wheel. I did that. And I’m here now. I’m still at a place where nothing’s certain but I just continue to carry the hope that tomorrow will bring some sort of solution to my problem and I would be able to live free and travel to Europe without worrying if I can ever come back to the U.S.
My parents just got their green card two days ago. I tell myself that I don’t have to fight so hard to be here anymore. I can find work in another country and try my chances elsewhere and my parents and brothers can just visit me. But then I fell in love with Uncle Sam. I fell in love with my life here. I fell in love with what I slowly grow up becoming — independent and carefree. And I don’t see myself living this kind of life in my home country or anywhere else just yet. Now I have a different reason to stay but the circumstances are the same.
I don’t know how this story ends. I’d just have to live everyday and see the opportunities unfold. It is so cliche, but everything really is uncertain. Wherever you may choose to live in this world, life has a way of challenging you and hitting you with roadblocks. It may not be immigration issues, but it sure is something else. You just continue hope that you’d have enough strength and stamina to face it all. With a little help from friends and family… and some vodka. 😉
And that is my immigrant story.