How Did I Get Here?   2 comments

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

from “Once in a Lifetime” –  Talking Heads (1984)

It was not supposed to happen like this.

Paul and I long planned on someday leaving Minnesota for Vancouver, British Columbia once he found a job there.  We would not go unless he could move “home” with job in hand on our timetable.

December 7, 1941 (the anniversary of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into WWII) is the day that will live in infamy in the hearts and minds of Americans.  Friday, November 12, 2010 is another day that will live in mine.

Paul and I planned that night to link up with an acquaintance from my childhood in Wisconsin who was flying home to Las Vegas from London via Minneapolis.  Joe and I attended the same schools for six years, yet never actually spoke to each other, not even a passing hello in a hallway.  Over 30 years later, we communicated more on Facebook than we ever did in real life.  Joe had a four-hour layover; I thought seeing us might be more interesting for him than trying to find Larry Craig’s men’s room stall.

My plan for the day was simple:  After dealing with a few emails, I would get my nails done.  Paul and I would drive out to Minneapolis/St. Paul International (MSP) armed with a cell phone to hunt down a guy I hadn’t seen in 35 years.  Pretty simple.

Working from home as he usually did, Paul just had to make a phone call to his employer’s headquarters on the East Coast, and I would be off.

Immediately after Paul began talking, I realized this was no ordinary call.  As his voice cracked, my hands began to tremble.

Call it one of its many euphemisms:  workforce reduction, laid off, made redundant, right-sizing, cost-cutting, whatever.  After 11 years with the company (and 14 working at one of their desks), Paul’s job was gone, discarded on the ash heap of so many others before him.  He was dead to them, his name never to be spoken again.

It mattered not to them that Paul’s work had been stellar, that the company’s clients were more than satisfied with his work product, nor that he was a “go-to” person for several individuals having varying, often high levels of responsibility.  His reviews were always well above average, his turnaround time quick and he was well-respected by his peers inside and outside the company.  He was ‘Mr. Dependable’ who knew the system better than anyone there.  Other people’s jobs were about to become much harder.

Nor did it matter than their handling of the situation was not according to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) guidelines.  Paul, who worked for over a decade on a “temporary NAFTA” (TN) work visa, was in a giant heap of trouble. His now former employer didn’t care.  Within a blink of an eye and through no fault of his own, he became in the eyes of the INS (and many Americans) an “undocumented” person the very moment he lost his job.  Although his foreign citizenship was well-known within the company, nobody there bothered to check his immigration status before his release.

Here’s how it works: a nonresident citizen of a foreign country (someone who doesn’t have the “green card”) cannot legally work in the United States without being sponsored by their employer under one of about 40 or so different types of temporary visas entitling them to “guest worker” status.  Lose the job for any reason, lose the status.   Revocation becomes effective literally the day the job is lost.

Translation:  A worker on an employer-sponsored visa lives at the mercy of the employer.  He/she may be discharged for any or no reason.  Unlike American citizens and permanent residents, visa employees cannot collect unemployment, nor even seek another job.  The law regards them as temporary workers who it is expected will pack up and return to their home country immediately.

The INS encourages employers planning to release their sponsored foreign nationals to give them a three-week ‘heads up’ warning that layoffs are looming so that the employees can apply in advance for a change in status from work visa to guest (vacation) visa.  Compliance on the employer’s part is completely voluntary, with the possible exception of firms firing workers sponsored under  the H1B professional class.  Those firms could face future H1B quota reductions and be required to pay moving expenses to former employees forced to move back to their home country.  The sponsored workers, on the other hand, are required to follow INS laws and regulations to the letter to maintain their legal right to live and work in the U.S.

The INS has no local offices to which a suddenly discharged worker can deliver a ‘change of status request’ form.  Applicants must send them by mail or Fed Ex to an office in Fort Worth, Texas.

Losing a job is like dealing with death.  It’s the same gamut of emotions as described by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, “On Death and Dying”:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

When it comes suddenly, it is emotionally and physically paralyzing.

The INS thinks people can just calmly download that form, neatly and accurately complete it and jet it off to the nearest Fed Ex drop for next day delivery to Fort Worth.  What are they thinking?  Are they thinking?

We went through all the  stages described by Dr. Kübler-Ross that day despite assurances that Paul’s termination was strictly a cost-cutting move.  He would receive two weeks severance for every year served.  Bargaining was a losing proposition.  The firm flatly refused to pay moving expenses back to Canada.  After being reminded of his TN status, they reluctantly allowed him a one hour’ free telephone consultation with the company’s immigration lawyer to discuss compliance with INS rules – on the following Monday.

Nothing else could be done.  Our lives were now tattered and in shambles.

My nails didn’t get done that day.  I wanted to crawl under a rock.

Joe, my acquaintance, very much wanted to meet the legendary Paul that night.  I offered to cancel, but Paul thought it best I go.  Given the circumstances, I told Paul he didn’t have to accompany me if he didn’t feel up to it.  I understood.

Paul wanted to get away out of the house to a place in which he couldn’t dwell on it.  The two of us left early for MSP, parked in the cell phone lot and watched planes fly in and out, trying to guess which one was Joe’s.

Somehow, we found Joe, plucked him away to a nearby hotel bar for a snack and tried to muddle through without letting on the disaster that just befell us.  We were ever grateful to Joe for his great company and a short respite from our sorrows.

The stage was set for how I got here.


Posted July 15, 2011 by noslenca9300 in Immigration, Unemployment

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2 responses to “How Did I Get Here?

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  1. I cannot believe what has happened and all that the two of you have gone through. Your explanations of the law are insightful and help understand the situation better. No unemployment? Now thats totally unfair. And the idea that the day he lost his job is the day he looses all hope of staying in our “great” country. If only the government realized what they lost instead, Paul is a valuable asset to the USA. Continue this blog Cheryl, I want to read it very much. I’m so sorry for your circumstances. Good thing Joe came into town for a short quick visit, but one that helped get you out and give you a moment of release. Maxine

    • I’ve heard that some states allow foreign nationals on work visas to collect unemployment. Because we were still covered under Paul’s severance package when we left for Canada, looking into Minnesota’s rules was not a priority.

      The right to collect unemployment is only one of the privileges you and I take for granted that is not extended to employees on sponsored work visas. They cannot form a company to turn a hobby into a business. They can’t change jobs without being sponsored for a work visa by their new employer. They cannot take college or continuing education classes for credit. They cannot take a second job to make ends meet.

      What happened to Paul is not unusual. Hundreds, perhaps thousands like him are sent back every year. The U.S. visa system reaches for the two extremes in the types of people it attracts. The vast majority are highly educated white collar professionals, many of whom speak English fluently. At the other end and far less numerous are lowly-paid agricultural workers – the ones who work the fields so you and I can put food on our plates. Blue collar occupations are generally not eligible, but occasionally, workers with a highly unusual skill are allowed to live and work in the States. The most pertinent example are stonemasons and bricklayers hired to restore centuries-old buildings. Most Americans in these two occupations outside of the Northeast don’t know how to mix the grouts necessary to restore brick and stone structures using hand-formed materials. The majority are from northern Europe.

      Caps on work visas are low; competition to get one is keen. Corporate America and the INS know a new crew eagerly waits to board the train, especially for the H1B visa (the only one providing a pathway permanent residency and eventual U.S. Citizenship). The low caps within visa classes authorized by Congress are due to political pressures brought forth by “Keep American Jobs” boosters. Congress gets around it by authorizing yet another visa category.

      Americans often say they want legal immigrants who are deserving: highly educated people fluent in English who, regardless of race or creed, are comfortable with American and Western culture. Yet these are the ones, who like Paul, end up tossed out like yesterday’s garbage with nowhere else to go when companies eliminate their jobs.

      Americans wonder why ‘border jumping’ was so prevalent before the 2008 economic crash. Harsh rules and lack of blue collar visas have, IMO, a lot to do with that. Some undocumented workers find it easier to melt into a community of immigrants and take a chance on their abilities to evade the INS. Even if a new blue collar visa class were created, some would probably opt to come without documentation rather than live a life of indentured servitude under the existing employer sponsorship system.

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