The Not-So-Glamorous Reality of An Expat in the United States

As a foreign national who has lived in the United States for almost five years, my American friends often greet me with a blank expression when I complain about mundane career and job-seeking issues as a foreigner that they perhaps take for granted. To be foreign in the United States is to have an edge about you, which a lot of Americans crave to set them apart from the pack. But behind the scenes, it proves to be far more stressful then most people can imagine.

When you arrive in the United States for university, you’re filled with exhilaration about being in the land of the free, where all your dreams can come true! However, you slowly realize that in order to stay in America once you graduate, you need to find an employer that will A) employ you and B) sponsor you (take responsibility for your presence within America through means of a work visa.)

When I arrived in the United States to begin my education at Bard College, I assumed that when I finished it would be smooth sailing. As a woman who always had the next five years planned, it came as a huge reality check when I moved to Washington, D.C., to intern at a nonprofit. I would go above and beyond, even though I wasn’t getting paid, in hopes that I would be offered a job at the end of summer. My manager at the time was extremely pleased with my work, but knowing of my foreign status, pulled me aside and told me they didn’t have the funding to employ anyone else — let alone sponsor a recent university grad.

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This is the daunting reality that foreigners face once we graduate and the countdown to our student visa expiration date begins. The dreaded day of graduation approaches and you realize that you no longer have the lovely blanket of your university bearing the burden of your presence within the United States. After you graduate, most international students who want to stay in the country apply for the Optional Practical Training (OPT), which adds a year on your visa. However, you must find a job or internship applicable to your field of study within three months or you must bid the land of the free goodbye.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that when you apply for a job and you have to say you need work authorization, nine times out of 10 your application will be rejected. Often, foreigners without a connection don’t stand a chance. Why would an employer invest $5,000 in some random foreigner over an American with the same skill set?

It is hard enough to find a job as an American with an undergraduate degree, but if you’re foreign? Girl, bye.

Once you have the OPT you can work for the year. However, prior to its expiration date, you must harass your employer to submit the H-1B application within three months of getting the job offer. AKA, you have to prove yourself as phenomenal so your company wants you to stick around and pay an extra $5,000 to sponsor your ass. This H-1B business also isn’t a sure shot; it’s a lottery, and if you win, you’ll get a green card. But in the meantime, your name is floating around in some magical box waiting to be picked while you whistle away, delighted to have work authorization.

With the H-1B visa, you can stick around for up to six years; you have to leave for a year if you choose to renew. There is a hierarchy to this system depending on the level of academic degree you have. As you progress in the degrees (and probably student debt, which you had to apply through about two million random channels in your home country) you also are entered into different levels of the lottery where you have a better chance of the golden snitch of foreigner’s dreams, commonly known as a work visa.

But also in the meantime, you need to find somewhere to live. If you live in New York City, be prepared to produce every single form of ID, university transcript and letter of recommendation from all of your friends and family to state that you will not run out on the rent. After you’ve found all of these easy and simple things, you then have to dig up granny’s inheritance money to provide six months of rent in advance so your grumpy landlord believes that you’ll stick around for the whole year. Either that or find a nice American who make 50 times the annual rent to act as your guarantor. This person also has to provide bank statements and pay stubs showing that they’re willing to do this for you and that they themselves are very rich. On the off chance that you do run away to the circus, they’ve got your back.

Needless to say this process is by no means cheap, so the foreigners who do have the time, energy and funds for this are all kinds of fortunate.

If you can pass all of these steps — finding a job and a home, and working your booty off for the next six years — you may just earn a green card because the government has decided you’re a nice, tenacious woman who would make a great asset to the America. Or... you could always scam a citizen into marrying you, because who would want to do all of this?

Tamara Wong-Azaiez is earning her master's degree in international/global studies at New York University.

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