Too talented to immigrate?

Today during our walk-in services we met with a talented young woman from Poland who would like to become a Permanent Resident of the United States. The problem is that, in some sense, she is too talented to immigrate.

This particular woman first came to the United States as an exchange visitor and attended the second half of high school here. She then obtained F-1 and J visas to complete her undergraduate and master’s degree studies. She is now working on an H-1B visa for a program that helps place international students and she earns about $45,000 per year.

In theory, she could get in line for an employment-based immigrant visa classification, which is a system that functions somewhat similarly to the family preference system for family-based immigration. But part of that process involves having an employer file an I-140 and a Department of Labor Certification, which requires that the foreign employee be paid at a level on par with the prevailing wage in that industry for employees with comparable skills.

The problem is that the prevailing wage for this woman’s skillset has been calculated to be over $90,000, twice what she is being paid.  Because of this, the conversation about an employment-based Permanent Residence is a virtual non-starter. There are other, more arcane paths (e.g. L or E visas) to Permanent Residence, but they rely on exploiting loopholes and further delaying the stability and clarity that this young woman seeks.

Despite her talents, her vision for a better world, and her long-term attachment to this country, this young woman is likely to either leave the United States and take her talents elsewhere or remain in an in-between immigration status (she is contemplating a new F-1 visa to complete a Ph.D.) until she meets and marries a U.S. citizen man. She has no immediate family in the United States, so marriage is her only realistic entry to the family-based system.

This is yet another example of why the immigration system — including the legal immigration system — needs reform. Prevailing wage rules are not without merit, but we have to find better ways to retain the talented people who we attract to this country. It seems that the worst thing we can do — both to these folks and to ourselves as a collective — is to invest resources in educating them, creating professional and emotional attachments to this country, and then providing no realistic opportunities for them to share their talents with us.

It cannot be overstated that our system of authorized immigration is as ripe for reform as is the flow of unauthorized immigration. The hope is that as more people become aware of the twin shortcomings of these systems we can find the political space to reform them both.

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