J-1. One letter, one number. To many they mean nothing, but to me they meant my legal entry into the United States. They would become the first of many numbers and letters that would become representative of who I am in this country.
It was early 2003. I had recently graduated college in England and had spent a year and a half traveling the world. Six amazing weeks backpacking in South Africa were followed by living and working in Sydney, Australia. (Side note: As British nationals under 30 years old, we can easily get a one-year work visa for Australia by simply applying.)
The last leg of my jaunt around the globe brought me to visit a relative in the tiny seaside town of Cambria on the central coast of California. I immediately fell in love with the climate, the golden sandy beaches, and the people. I decided California suited me, and I stayed.
Luckily, my relative had his own business and offered me a job. I was thrilled. Reality bit when we started looking into the process of getting a visa to allow me to not only stay stateside, but also one that allowed me to work.
There are a bewildering number of “immigration attorneys” out there offering immigration advice. They all promise the earth and say things like, “Oh yeah, getting you a green card will be no problem.”
Getting someone a green card is quite possibly one of the hardest and most expensive things to do in America. A green card ISN’T citizenship, but it’s the next best thing and they don’t hand them out willy nilly to anyone who completes a form.
The first rung of the ladder for me was a J-1, otherwise known as a student work visa. It was valid for 18 months, allowed me to work, and crucially had an option to transfer to the next visa afterward.
I had to fill out pages of paperwork, return to the UK, visit the U.S. embassy in London for an interview, pay fees to both my attorney and the U.S. government, and upon being granted the visa, return to the U.S. The approximate cost for all this, including airfare, was around $8,000 and took about four months.
One important thing to mention is that from the moment I was granted my J-1 visa, I was assigned a Social Security number. Having your own social security number is key to many aspects of life in America. I could open a bank account, apply for a driver’s license, and get credit. In effect, a Social Security number gives you a way to prove your legitimacy as a human being within American society.
Not long after returning to the U.S. and starting work, it was made apparent that even with nearly the full 18 months left on my visa, it was never too soon to start applying for the next visa — in my case, an H1-B, a specialty business visa.
Unlike the J-1, the H1-B is designed for companies that are struggling to find qualified Americans to do a specific job within their business. Along with the sponsoring the applicant, the business must not only advertise their job to Americans but must also prove there is no one better in the country to do that job than their applicant. The applicant must also have a degree or equivalent work experience in their respective field. An H1-B lasts for approximately four years, can be extended, and again crucially allows the applicant to transfer onto the next visa. Hopefully the all-elusive green card. Like the J-1, an H1-B does not provide an opportunity to apply for citizenship.
I jumped through all the hoops, changed attorneys, paid the new attorney and government more fees, and after approximately six months and $6,000, got the H-1B.
Things were going well; I was legal and working. I was now living in San Luis Obispo, making a life for myself: I had a great group of friends, a girlfriend, hobbies, and considered America and California my home.
In late 2006, things changed drastically. The company I was working for wasn’t doing well, and the business owner’s marriage was on the rocks. The economic downturn was starting to bite and I could see the writing on the wall. Realizing the business would sooner or later fold, I did something I considered to be quintessentially American: I bought my own business. It took me nine months to close escrow and because of my peculiar immigration status (I wasn’t eligible for an SBA loan as a non-American) my bank had to fanangle some sort of deal to get me the loan.
In my mind, I had done the best thing I thought I could for myself by becoming self-sufficient. I owned my own business and things would be on my terms — or so I thought. I called my immigration attorney to tell him of the changes and to simply transfer my existing H-1B visa from the old, now defunct business to that of my own new company.
“I’m sorry, Gareth. It just doesn’t work like that,” he told me. “You can’t simply transfer a visa like that. As soon as the old business closed, you should have moved back to England.”
I was in total shock and disbelief. Here I was with a nearly $250,000 bank loan and a newly acquired business — and no legal way to remain in the U.S. I was 28 and had been living, working, and paying taxes in the U.S. for almost five years.
According to my attorney, I had two choices. Pack up my entire life and move back to England, a country to which I had no real ties except family, or remain in the U.S. illegally, technically without status.
To me, it wasn’t a choice. I stayed and vowed to fight for the life I had created for myself in America.
At first, I was very scared. Every time I saw a cop, got a speeding ticket, or went to an airport, I was worried I would get arrested and deported. But life went on. I continued to pay my bank loan, rent, credit cards, and taxes. I never once got a letter in the mail from immigration asking where I was, what I was doing, or whether I was still here.
I still had my Social Security number and my driver’s license, so to those around me I was simply that English guy that owned his own business. I have no doubt my white privilege allowed me to exist seemingly under the radar, hiding in plain sight.
Periodically, I would check in with my attorney and we would brainstorm potential solutions. We tried for an E-2 investment visa, but when asked to provide more evidence we didn’t have, we abandoned that plan (another $1,000 spent). Marriage often came up as an idea, but the old romantic in me refused to consider it. Marriage should be for love and nothing else. So life continued. I would listen intently anytime immigration reform was mentioned politically and was hopeful after the election of President Obama. But as we all know, nothing came of that.
Nearly 10 years later, I had grown increasingly frustrated. I was trapped in what seemed like an absurd situation. I couldn’t quit my job as it was the only way I could make money without getting questions asked or having to fill out paperwork requesting details I couldn’t provide. I couldn’t leave the country, and if I did I’d likely not be allowed back in.
Finally, a light appeared. That light came in the guise of a journalist named Jose Antonio Vargas, himself an undocumented immigrant brought to the U.S. as a young boy. Vargas “came out” and started changing the narrative surrounding undocumented people in the U.S. Suddenly, I no longer felt alone. I felt a sea change happening, and a movement starting. I felt more confident, that the time was right for me, an educated white guy from England to also come out.
Then an even more amazing thing happened. I met an American girl and fell in love. They say, “When you know, you know.” A few weeks ago, we got married, for love. Many people assumed I instantly became an American the day we got married so I wrote a blog post explaining nothing could be further from the truth.
The truth is I do now have an option to adjust my status and to become legal — hopefully. It has cost me another $4,000 to both my lawyer and the U.S. government, and my wife must provide many details of both her financial life and her private life as part of the process. I sold my business and feel finally able to cast off the shackles of my undocumented life. I still can’t legally work or travel, but I hope these things will be fixed within the next few months.
I am one of the lucky ones. Marrying an American is not the instant fix many think it is, and for some, it’s no fix at all. There are millions of others out there, themselves with stories like mine. They are business owners, members of the community, and often your neighbors. I will stand with them and will continue to advocate for change and reform in the hope we can all one day be considered Americans.
This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.