Working While Foreign
An Ongoing Journey
In early December 2022, I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition over breakfast, a ritual of mine for 15 years since moving to the United States to pursue graduate school. A segment caught my ear: ominous layoffs in big tech suddenly imperiled the legal residency of affected foreign workers on H-1B status.
The story was too familiar. In 2020–21, I had faced exactly the same situation as a tenure-track faculty member in history at a small university, but there had been little mainstream media coverage of this issue. A historian of modern China born and raised in China and trained in the United States, I have been forced to navigate my job searches as a foreign national mostly on my own. I hope sharing my personal experiences here can be a first step in raising awareness about the compounded challenges of seeking employment and maintaining immigration status for noncitizen historians.
I came to the United States in 2007 for a PhD in education, but I gradually found my passion for history instead. I started anew as a doctoral student in modern Chinese history at another university in 2011 and completed my degree in six years. In spring 2017, I accepted a lecturer position in the United States over a postdoctoral fellowship overseas, fearing that it would be difficult to return under the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies. Thanks to my first university job, my visa category changed from F-1 for students to H-1B for professional workers without my having to enter the lottery mandated for those in the private sector. One year later, I accepted a tenure-track job across the country. Teaching East Asian and world history in a small school would at least be a stable job, or so I thought.
Stability is often believed to be a perk of an academic job, but for those on H-1B, the employer’s sponsorship of legal permanent residency (also known as a green card) is an indispensable yet precarious component. Though my first job was not tenure track, the university actually filed the first paperwork of my green card petition in the beginning of my second semester. A few weeks later, I was offered the tenure-track job. I hardly had time to celebrate my professional advancement before learning that changing jobs while on H-1B had serious implications for my immigration status.
Born and raised in China and trained in the United States, I have been forced to navigate my job searches as a foreign national mostly on my own.
First, the petition filed by my first job would not be portable, meaning that I had to start the process all over again at my next job. As reasonable as this sounds, it puts some immigrants at additional disadvantage. Generally speaking, a foreign national with an advanced degree and their employer need to file three steps of paperwork with different US government agencies before they can receive a green card. Each step involves considerable filing fees and attorney fees and takes from months to years to process, all without the guarantee of approval. Because of the limited annual quota for such green cards, additional criteria restrict the filing of the final-step paperwork. It depends on the preference category, the priority date (when the government receives the employer’s filing of the first-step paperwork), and the foreign national’s country of birth—only seven percent of one year’s quota can come from any one country. Those who happen to be born in India and China, the world’s two most populous countries, are usually stuck in limbo for years unless they are married to someone born in other countries. In my case, losing the petition by my first employer meant that my spot in an already depressingly long line would be pushed back to a future unknown date.
Moreover, an H-1B holder has 60 days between jobs to sort out their legal status, or they risk overstaying the visa. The grace period was a new benefit that took effect in the last days of the Obama administration. But the faculty contract that runs alongside the academic year usually has a gap of more than 60 days in summer, and I was unable to negotiate flexible contract dates with either university. As a result, I had to cancel a conference trip to China scheduled in mid-May right after the spring semester and void the nonrefundable ticket. I had agreed to participate before knowing my career change. Instead, I packed up my belongings, drove to a friend’s place along the way to my next job to drop them off, and flew back to China before the end of the grace period to apply for an H-1B visa tied to my new employer. That visa allowed me to come back to the United States in early August 2018, and I then drove across several states to start my new job.
I thought having a tenure-track job would entail a smoother path to a green card. Although I heard about possibilities of self-petitioning, I never seriously considered those options. The university promised to sponsor my green card in the offer letter, and there was indeed some action from its retained law firm in the first semester. But things quickly stalled. As I pleaded with my department chair and dean throughout 2019 to talk to the provost about my predicament, news of the coronavirus started to trickle in. The university went fully remote in late March 2020, and rumors of faculty layoffs soon swirled.
During the lockdown, I realized that I could no longer rely on my employer to sponsor my permanent residency. That summer, I started doing homework about self-petitioning while continuing my scholarly writing. I paid a small law firm out of pocket and worked with an immigration attorney with a BA in the humanities. I compiled a large packet of relevant documents, and went back and forth many times with professional contacts to review and finalize a particular genre of recommendation letters drafted by the attorney and me. On October 5, 2020, the government received the petition filed by my attorney as a “national interest waiver” case. It was fortunately approved almost a year later, which made the date of receipt, my priority date, not tied to any employer. I finally had my place in line, though I still need to wait for my turn to submit the final-step paperwork for the green card. As of March 2023, those born in China in my preference category are only able to do that if their priority date was June 8, 2019, or earlier. For those born in India, the cutoff was October 8, 2011. The monthly updated priority date does not simply inch forward; it often stalls months on end and even backslides.
A few weeks after filing, and right after the 2020 election, the university informed me and a dozen or so other junior faculty that it would not renew our contracts beyond spring 2021. The university never filed any immigration paperwork on my behalf. Rather than feeling bitter, I had to focus on solving the entangled problems of finding a job during the pandemic and maintaining my status, as the 60-day rule would kick in once my contract ended. In the remainder of that academic year, I sent out almost 100 applications for university faculty positions, postdocs, and private high school teaching jobs. Former professors and colleagues also kindly offered leads on other possibilities. But they did not know that many jobs would not sponsor or qualify for the H-1B status. In spring 2021, I was offered an instructor position once again across the country, which would sponsor my H-1B. Only after it was approved by the government in early summer did I tell my parents that I would move across the United States again to pursue “a better career opportunity.” Despite the 20 percent pay cut and long-distance move, I was grateful to be able to stay in the country where I had spent the majority of my adulthood.
The university never filed any immigration paperwork on my behalf.
As my scramble for jobs gradually settled, the Chronicle of Higher Education fortuitously published a series titled “Forced Out,” stories of those who lost jobs in higher education during the pandemic. None of those featured, however, had to juggle job loss and immigration status. In the same issue, the only coverage about international actors in American higher education was the financial implications of the dwindling enrollment of international students, many from China. The series introduction solicited more stories from readers, and I wrote back to offer my own. What I got was just a message from a junior editor who promised to forward my story to the senior editors.
Shortly before moving for the instructor position, I applied for my current job in New York without much expectation. Yet their initial interview email came as I drove to Montana. Eventually I was offered the job but had to face the uncertainty of the transfer of my H-1B, which was finally approved five months after I started working in October 2021. In anticipation of international travel for work, I decided to apply for a new H-1B visa in Canada in October 2022. It was impossible to get it done in the United States, and there were still many restrictions on returning to China. As I could not know in advance how long the visa application would take, I only got a one-way ticket to Ottawa to be on the safe side.
Despite all such inconveniences, I learned a lot from the unexpected turns in my career. As I had taken the risk of leaving the education PhD program for history a decade earlier, I took another one in 2021 on an at-will position that could make a bigger impact on the ecology of social scientific research. In the meantime, I won the bragging right of moving across the United States twice in a year.
Yanqiu Zheng is a program officer of the China and Global South Project at the Social Science Research Council. He tweets @ZYQHistorian.
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