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The silent struggle

The majority of international employees on work visas are going through different degrees of hardship, often silently.

This story was originally published on the Career & Professional Development Center’s blog, Peaks & Valleys.

Every year the United States government issues hundreds of thousands of new work visas allowing non-United States citizens to work in this country. People on work visas are among us: They are our colleagues, doctors, professors and friends. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) outlines 22 types of work visas, each coming with a distinct set of strict regulations and processes around the employment of “aliens” (an official term used by USCIS referring to international workers).

While each story of a person on a work visa is unique, there is one common thing uniting them all—we rarely hear them. The struggles of people on work visas are almost never addressed in the media—they are not part of the immigrant conversations. They are not yet immigrants. Universities don’t advocate for this group—they are not members of the international student community. They are not referred to as an underprivileged group because having an opportunity to work in the United States is considered a privilege. However, the majority of international employees on work visas are going through different degrees of hardship, often silently.

The Career & Professional Development Center interviewed university staff and faculty members working in different work visa statuses in higher education across the country. Each of them was asked to share what working on a visa means to them. Below is a collection of their anonymous responses.

To me, working on a visa means…

“Being afraid. Being afraid to buy a house or a car. What if my visa is not extended, and I have to leave? Being afraid to make a family. What if I have a family with little kids, and I have to leave the country and start my life all over again?”

"Being stuck. If something goes wrong, I can’t just simply quit and find a new job or go work in Starbucks to be able to afford food and shelter before I find a new job.”

“Surviving on one income. My partner can’t legally work in the U.S.”

“Knowing that everything I accomplish can be taken away from me; not because I am not competent at what I do, but because a piece of paper determines my future and my ability to succeed.”

“Not seeing my family for years. When I left home, I promised my family that I'll visit my country to see them every year. It has been six years, and I really could go only in the first year when I was on my student visa.”

“Being deprived of opportunities I could excel in, because I'm not even eligible to apply for those, even though I'm more than qualified.”

“Full dependence on my employer. I can’t just leave if I don’t like something.”

“Only having three months to find a job after graduation. My job has to be directly relevant to my major. If I want to do something else, I have to leave the country.”

“Reapplying for my visa every time I go home. Reapplying means going through the application process again: submitting all my documents, going to the interview (often to a different city where they have an American embassy), paying all application fees, waiting for their decision. I never know what the decision is going to be and if I am going to get my visa this time. My destiny is pretty much in that one person’s hands.”

What most people without immigration limitations in the United States perceive as a basic right (seeing a family, changing careers, having an employed partner, traveling freely outside the country or leaving a job) may be off-limits to people on a work visa. After years of working and living in the United States, many of them consider this country their home. However, their daily lives are fraught with anxiety, fear and uncertainty about their future.

How can I help?

It may be tempting to think that immigration is policymakers’ business and that there is little we can do. While the majority of us do not have direct access to decision-makers who have the power to alleviate some of the stringent limitations of work visas, there are ways we can support our international colleagues in various immigration statuses.

Acknowledge their unique struggle

All international experience is valuable. However, not all experiences are equal. If you hear a colleague share their immigration story, don’t compare their journey to a study abroad trip in Spain you took your senior year in an attempt to show your understanding of their situation. As an American citizen living without immigration limitations from birth, the best thing you can do is to validate your colleague’s journey by simply acknowledging their unique experience.

Include visa status into diversity, inclusion and equity conversations.

If a person is open to sharing their story, give them space to do that. While we are seeing progress in giving a microphone to historically underprivileged groups in educational and professional settings, we are still not hearing work visa stories. International workers are one of the most marginalized populations to which society has been blind to this day. If you are in a leadership and/or DEI role, initiate conversations that would educate your organization and team members on the impact of working on a visa on your employees.

Offer support at times of crisis.

For the majority of us, the impact of new government regulations and policies will not have an immediate effect on our daily lives. This is not the case for people on work visas whose lives are at hands of politicians. Remember that your employees and colleagues may be living in constant stress due to their visa status. Whether they are able to continue working and living in the United States may fully depend on what the next administration take on immigration is. Pay attention to immigration news and offer support to your international colleagues at times of political turmoil. If you are in a leadership role, provide legal immigration support to your employees and issue organization-wide statements expressing concern and support for your work visa holders.

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