How the US Immigration process affected three MVHS Students’ lives
Her mom was always on time to pick her up after school. So when the dark gray Toyota Camry finally pulled into the lot 40 minutes later than usual, she was ready to yell at her mom. But seeing her mom’s tear-streaked face when she got in the car turned her anger into anxiety. Her mom said three words that would change everything for senior Haemin Jeong.
“It got denied.”
On Sept. 14, 2017, Jeong found out that her visa expired, meaning she would have to leave the United States before she could graduate from MVHS.
In 2007, when Jeong was in second grade, she moved from Korea to Michigan because her dad’s company offered him the opportunity to earn a Master of Business Administration
(MBA) degree, allowing him to study at the University of Michigan. They stayed briefly as Jeong’s father finished his studies. Only a year later, she found herself moving back to Korea.
When she was in eighth grade, Jeong moved to the U.S. again, ready to enroll at MVHS. This time, her dad had an H-1B visa because his company relocated him to the U.S.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, “the H-1B program allows companies in the United States to temporarily employ foreign workers in occupations that require the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher in the specific specialty, or its equivalent.”
A U.S. company can relocate foreign workers to the U.S. as long as the job is highly specialized. The program requires that the worker (in this case, Jeong’s father) at least have a bachelor’s degree.
According to family immigration lawyer Hemanth Habbu, Jeong and her family were on H-4 visas, which means they were dependent family members of her father’s H-1B visa. H-4 visas allow spouses and children of H1-B workers to come to the U.S.
Habbu explained how H-1B visas allow for immigrants to stay in the U.S. for a maximum of six years, but in three year increments. This meant that when Jeong came to MVHS, she knew she would have to move back to Korea before she could graduate.
“I knew that I had to leave eventually,” Jeong said. “But then it somehow got extended so I thought I was able to graduate.”
Her sophomore year, Jeong’s father moved back to Korea for his job. But her visa was unexpectedly extended until the end of her junior year. With the good news, Jeong’s mother requested to change their visa status so that Jeong could graduate at MVHS. They waited for months to hear back.
But on that Thursday in September, her family finally received the final verdict –– they would have to leave.
“I didn’t actually think that it would actually happen,” Jeong said. “I was really bummed out and I didn’t know what to do.”
That night, Jeong made two posts to her Facebook wall to inform her peers that she would be leaving before graduation. From the letter she and her mother received, Jeong was originally under the impression that she would have to leave the country in less than two weeks. However, after clarifications with her lawyer, she realized she had until the end of 2017 to leave.
“I was super emotional because originally I thought I would stay for a week or so after getting the results so I was like ‘ok bye!’” Jeong said.
On December 15, Jeong’s friends threw her a surprise party. Under the impression that they were stopping by Memorial Park before heading to San Francisco with her friends, Jeong walked from the parking lot towards the Quinlan Community Center, arms linked with her friend, senior Michelle Chen. But when Jeong and Chen reached the picnic tables, they saw familiar faces turn around and shout of “Surprise!” At that moment, Jeong realized what was happening and she was brought to tears.
“I was so shook, I couldn’t believe it was real,” Jeong said. “I was so thankful for all my amazing friends and I thought, ‘what did I do to deserve them.’”
More than 20 close friends showed up, and a couple others dropped in to say goodbye.
Realizing that she was taking many things for granted, Jeong tried to cherish each minute of her time left, hanging out with current and old friends and trying harder in classes.
“I did things that I would only be able to do in Cupertino, like getting boba and going to Mainstreet,” Jeong said. “I also did the most tourist-y things like visiting San Francisco so I wouldn’t regret it when I go back.”
On Dec. 23, 2017, Jeong had to say goodbye to all her friends, MVHS and her life in the U.S. A few close friends drove Jeong to the airport. Chen described the car ride as fairly normal as they were all trying not to think about Jeong’s departure. But as the Christmas songs came on the radio, the cheerful melodies became bittersweet since they knew they couldn’t celebrate together. Finally, when they got to the airport, Jeong and her friends all broke down in tears, as the reality finally hit them.
“I remember I started just bawling when [Jeong] got to the front of the line to check in her luggage because I was watching her walk away from behind and it became very real to me that I wouldn’t see her again for a long, long time,” Chen said.
Similar to Jeong, another MVHS student’s dad is also on an H-1B visa, but his family is applying for an employment-based green card instead. For purposes of maintaining his anonymity during his green card application process, we will refer to this student as Dexter.
His family is attempting to receive an employment-based green card, which is a permit that allows immigrants to live and work permanently in the U.S for the purposes of employment. The other type of green card is a family-based green card, which is given when U.S. citizens attempt to make their foreign relatives permanent residents of the U.S.
In the ninth grade, Dexter moved to the U.S. from India. Almost immediately, his father started the process of applying for green cards. Though his family was concerned about the possibility of moving back to India, his father’s company was extremely efficient in completing the forms and pushing the application through the process.
“It’s not something that I’m particularly concerned about because our processing has been moving along very fast compared to everyone else,” Dexter said. “I’ve had friends who have been here for years and they haven’t entered the initial stages whereas ours started early last year and we are in, I believe, the final stages.”
According to Habbu, a big part of the green card application process for H-1B workers depends on the efficiency of the worker’s company’s Human Resources department.
“[I see it] happen all the time. The employee wants to apply for the green card quickly, [but] the HR department, for whatever reason, doesn’t work as fast,” Habbu said. “But to be fair, it [could] also [be] true that the employee did not provide the information that is needed.”
The employment-based green card application process is long and complicated, involving three main steps and depending on the applicant’s country of origin, can take anywhere from six months to many years, according to Habbu. The first step is filing the Program Electronic Review Management (PERM) application, which requires that the company attempt to recruit U.S. workers before hiring foreign workers. The next step is called the I-140 application, which is when the employer has to prove that they can afford to pay the employee the wage for the job. According to Habbu, at this point, the major part of application is over. The last step is the I-485 application for the adjustment of status, which is simply changing one’s status from an H-1B visa to a permanent resident status. If successful, the applicant can obtain a green card and also bring his or her spouse and children with them.
Dexter is still in what he calls the “waiting game” as his green card application is still in the “in processing” portion of the process. His H-4 visa expires in September, meaning if the green card application is not processed by that point, similar to Jeong, Dexter will have to move out of the country. However, Dexter explains that he is not too worried.
Dexter is just one of many MVHS students who are in this “waiting game.” According to FUSHD, ___ % of MVHS students are not citizens and __% are on H-1B visas.
Junior Vishnu Akundi is part of the few MVHS students who are not citizens. He was in fifth grade when he moved to the U.S. Three months ago, on February 20, Akundi moved out of the country, to Canada.
Akundi always knew there was a chance that he would have to leave, but hoped that his family’s green card application would pass.
It wasn’t until one day in March of 2017 during Akundi’s sophomore year that he found out he would be leaving. His mom picked him up from school, which he found odd as he usually walked home. When he got inside the car, he found a box of pizza waiting for him. That’s when he noticed something was not right. As they were driving home, Akundi’s mom broke the news to him — their visa would expire before their green card application was processed. In short, he would have to leave the country.
“When I came [to MVHS] ... I assimilated pretty quickly especially because I had the [American] accent. I wasn’t the awkward indian kid,” Akundi said. “But the thought of going back never really struck me.”
Akundi first moved to the U.S. when he was in kindergarten, but only stayed for a year. His family moved back to India, only to return the U.S. in 2012 when Akundi was in fifth grade. Similar to Jeong, Akundi and his family were all on an H-4 visas, with his father on the H-1B visa.
“We knew that [our visa] would last six to seven years tops,” Akundi said. “We were hoping that as soon as we got here, we could apply for a green card.”
They applied for a green card in 2012 and for six years, their application had been “in processing.” But their visa expired in March 2018. This essentially means that Akundi’s family did not technically get denied from having a green card, but according to Akundi, there was no chance of them getting the green card before the visa expired.
“We knew the process was slow but we never thought it was [this] slow,” Akundi said.
But throughout these six years, this issue was not always on his mind. In fact, it rarely was.
“Every once in a while, when we’re having dinner, I [would] ask ‘how’s the green card application looking?’” Akundi said. “It didn’t really affect us during our daily lives. Even after I found out [our visa was expiring], I feel like going to school and if I kept myself busy, I wouldn’t have to think about it.”
Akundi’s father worked with his company’s HR department to push the application through. But his dad switched jobs twice, which Akundi believes may have further slowed down the process.
“[Our green card application is] just ‘in processing’ technically but it’s not happening,” Akundi said. “Our issue is very bureaucratic. It’s more about the company than it is about the government … It’s just their HR department, it’s pretty slow.”
When he first found out that he would have to move, his family assumed that the would have to go back to their home country India, which was an overwhelming possibility for Akundi as the Indian educational system is drastically different from that in the U.S.
However, he found out that he didn’t have to deal with the stress of catching up to other students in India because four months before their visa expiration date, Akundi’s dad colleague informed him that they could move to Ontario, Canada. And according to Akundi, this was a much better option.
“We are technically being forced out of the country and so we chose Canada because it’s the closest thing possible,” Akundi said. “We’re still going to be close to everybody in the U.S. … and we have family there too, so it’s not going to be completely new ... The education system is very similar, in fact I’ll be a few classes ahead, so I’ll fit in really nicely there.”
As the deadline for his family to move got closer, Akundi had to decide whether or not he should stay for his junior year.
“My parents thought it would be better if we stayed for [first] semester [in junior year] and moved out in 2018 instead,” Akundi said. “So it was just for my education that we stayed back.”
In his last months in the U.S., Akundi spent time making memories with his close friends, just as Jeong did. Two weeks before he moved, his friends threw him a goodbye party at California Pizza Kitchen.
“[The party] was really nice of them … I feel like it made it worse in some aspects because I [saw that I] would be losing [all my friends],” Akundi said. “Obviously, I can keep in touch with all of you guys but it will never be the same. I feel like on that night I realized, ‘I’m going to miss these people.’”
Along with enjoying the rest of his time, Akundi dedicated himself to studying and working hard in all of his classes. Even in his last week in the U.S., Akundi spent every night completing homework and taking tests, despite the fact that he knew none of that would not count when he moved to Canada.
“I don’t want to screw up my grades, no matter what. I’m known to be a very try-hard type of person and I’m not going to give that up,” Akundi said. “[This was] probably the most stable part of my life so far because we move so much. And so I have gotten used to this whole system.”
The “system” Akundi referred to is the U.S. educational system, which according to both Jeong and Akundi, is extremely different from their home countries.
Both Jeong and Akundi’s families chose to live in America because of the importance they placed on education. According to Jeong, the difference between the education system in the U.S. compared to that of Korea is large. In America, she describes, there’s more involvement with school spirit and community, allowing students to bond over things besides academics.
Before Jeong moved to the U.S., the only impression she had of American high schools came from movies.
“I genuinely thought that high school was going to be like ‘High School Musical,’” Jeong said. “I expected people to be more yappy, or like I thought there would be more cliques … but I guess that wasn’t the case … As part of leadership, I was able to see the ‘behind the scenes’ of the events and I just like America so much better. There’s just so many more activities to do or ways to be involved at school.”
Dexter also notices the difference in education, explaining how it was really difficult to transition from the education system in his home country to that of the U.S. especially because it was hard to align the curriculum from his home country to the MVHS classes.
“They have fewer subjects [in the U.S.] ... but you go really in depth,” Dexter said.”[In my home country], we used to have all the three science [classes every year], so we had physics, chemistry and biology that we did every year. It was just really branched out there and over here, you’re really focused on one thing.”
Now that neither Jeong nor Akundi are living in the U.S., the cost of attending college in U.S. as an international student is too high for either of them to consider. One of the main aspects that Akundi’s family liked about Canada is the high quality Canadian universities.
“We started looking into colleges [in Canada],” Akundi said. “Once you leave the U.S., it doesn’t matter if you’re applying from India or if you’re applying form Canada. I mean tuition-wise at least because for us, we’re not the richest family around. So we do care about how much college costs … And even if I go to Canada, you have to be a citizen there so I can’t apply to scholarships there either so we have to look for colleges with cheap tuitions.”
As of now, Akundi has been living in Canada for three months. And those three months have not been easy: Moving from India to the bay area was not too much of a culture shock for Akundi as there is a significant Indian population at MVHS, but this move was quite different for Akundi because for the first time, he was a minority.
“Obviously, since I’m an Indian person, [the bay area] was very unique. There was a lot of people who were just like me who are from similar cultures and they speak the same language, that kind of thing,” Akundi said.
Another difficult factor of this process was the fact that he moved in the middle of his junior year, which made adjusting to classes much more complicated. A lot of the classes that he was taking at MVHS were not offered at his new school, Abbey Park High School. Akundi had to put in extra effort to keep up with the curriculum in order to prepare for his AP exams, which ended up helping him feel less lonely.
“The past two months or so, I’ve had to study for AP’s and my SAT Math, so I have been preoccupied so I didn’t really feel lonely,” Akundi said, “And I found another student who’s also taking a bunch of AP’s and stuff so we usually study together so he’s one friend I’ve made.”
However, in terms of school, Akundi feels that he was much more challenged at MVHS.
“I feel like any school compared to MVHS is going to be much easier,” Akundi said. “The school I’m going is supposed to be the best public school in Ontario… Even though that’s the case, it’s just nowhere near the level of rigor at MVHS.”
As Akundi is just starting his transition to Canada, Jeong has already been in Korea for more than four months. There were many things in Korea that took some time to get accustomed to, especially, she says, wearing uniforms and makeup styles.
Jeong spends most of her days studying. She attends school from 9am and leaves early to go to a Korean college entrance exam prep class from 4 to 10 p.m. With school and the prep class taking up most of her time, Jeong is unable to spend a lot of time with friends and participate in extracurricular activities.
But as days went by, Jeong felt herself a little more situated and happy. She caught up with old friends and made new ones when she started at Gwanggyo High School.
“There is no doubt I hella miss Monta Vista,” Jeong said. “I was really depressed for the first week. But now I’m just telling myself to suck it up and live life because it’s really hard for me … I mean, there’s no way I can go back to Monta Vista so I just have to adjust to the new environment.”