SEATTLE -- As crowds of illegal immigrants march through America's streets, I peer down at the protesters from my office here 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 the free-market Discovery Institute, I have paid the U.S. government nearly $20,000 in visa and application fees. Of the money I've earned I have spent 90 percent of it in this country. I have volunteered nearly 2,000 hours with local non-profits.
If you are a native-born American, you probably have no idea how U.S. visas work or how difficult they are to acquire. Briefly, a non-immigrant visitor's visa operates as follows:
Let's say you decide that you want to visit the U.S. to see a relative for a few weeks or speak at a conference. First, apply for a B visa (B1 = Business visitor, B2 = tourist, B1/2 = business and pleasure). After filling out numerous forms and paying a $100 non-refundable, cash-only fee to the U.S. government, you sit for a visa interview. A one-year visitor's visa costs $100 cash (atop that first $100). A two-year visa costs $200 cash. Don't forget to have your fingerprints taken. If you don't pass your interview, you get rejected and go home, leaving the first $100 behind in Uncle Sam's hands. U.S. consular employees need not give a reason for rejecting you.
The B visa, the cheapest and most basic, forbids you to work. When you get into J-1, F, L, L1, E1, E2, EB-1, E-3, TN1, H2-B, H1-B (the one I carry), etc., fees can climb as high as Mt. Rainier. To demonstrate this process' bureaucratic insanity, consider the visa application procedures a foreigner must undergo to work legally in the U.S.
Start with basic expenses, payable to the U.S. government in cash or check only:
*Consular visa processing fee -- $105.
*I-129 filing fee -- $190.
*Fraud Prevention and Detection fee -- $500.
*American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act fee -- $750 per applicant for employers with up to 24 foreign workers, $1,500 thereafter.
*Premium processing (for a response within two weeks) -- $1,000.
Before all this occurs, the employer has to endure a very complicated verification process and receive official approval to hire a foreigner. However, this can happen only after additional cash fees are paid and an examination performed that could rival an IRS audit.
Now, add half a year of waiting and paperwork, enormous attorneys fees (it is nearly impossible to satisfy these requirements without costly professional legal assistance), a 3-inch stack of documents, and constant miscommunication among the Labor Certification Administration, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Department of Homeland Security. Each of these agencies has its own set of regulations that contradict the others' and confuse applicants and their lawyers alike.
To limit the Discovery Institute's legal fees, I started reading The Federal Register daily at 6 a.m., to see if some new regulations had obviated a dozen hours of legal work performed days earlier.
When all the applications are filed and fees paid, an invitation for an interview arrives by mail. My interview was in Vancouver, British Columbia -- the nearest U.S. Consulate. If I were rejected, I packed up all my belongings so I could return to Russia to undergo another interview at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Fortunately, I didn't fail my interview. However, while preparing for it, a Canadian thief broke into my car and stole my laptop, camera and all my clothes.
After I paid yet another $200 cash fee and spent about three hours in Soviet-style lines, I received my visa. Relieved, I headed south to Seattle. At the border, the U.S. Customs officer saw my car's Washington state license plates and jokingly asked the question he had to pose: "What is the purpose of your visit to the United States of America?"
I answered, "Hmmm...to go home!" Then I paid one more $15 cash fee for his precious time and hard work.
So, here I am: a law-abiding worker in the United States of America. But, I am no resident alien. If I lose my job, I have 72 hours to pack up, forget about my bills, car, rent, friends and lifestyle, and fly back to Moscow.
THIS ALL MAY SEEM 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 the U.S.A. I pay federal, Medicare, and Social Security taxes, although I cannot vote or use any of the system's benefits. I volunteer at summer camps and churches, because my visa doesn't prohibit it -- though some visas do!
I am not whining. I am happy to live in America and pay taxes and appreciate being a part of such a big and powerful nation. I enjoy composing music, volunteering, skiing, swimming, and the rest. I lack the right to vote, but I love liberty and 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, driving Washington State Highway 20 through the Cascades, and buying Mexican dinners for $5.75.
If I were in Russia, I couldn't afford to ski. It costs $3,000 per trip, and you have to fly to Austria, versus spending $40 and driving two hours from Seattle to Mt. Baker. I wouldn't have the time to produce music. Even if I did, it's more expensive to do so in Russia since you have to fly to London or Los Angeles to master quality recordings. Besides, Russians rarely buy legal, non-pirated CDs. In Russia, I wouldn't spend time with kids or donate my spare time to the community. Volunteering raises only one question from Russians: "You're doing what? For free?!"
I have worked hard to be here, and I enjoy living in America and contributing as much as I can to this great country. I think it is unfair for others to work off the books, evade income taxes, and then scream in the streets for new laws so that they can come to America illegally and leapfrog patient applicants like me in the citizenship line. I can't even understand why illegal aliens protest. Doesn't the word "illegal" mean "prohibited" or "bad"? I support securing U.S. borders and making it easier for people to enter and work in America according to the law.
I'm no one special. My parents are in Moscow, and they didn't help me get here. For anyone who dreams of becoming an American legally, there is always a way.
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