Foreign-born Biomedical Researcher in the United States, a Tale of Woe

It has been more than two years since I wrote about a tale of woe, the sad reality of being a non-immigrant biomedical researcher in the US. I chronicled the travails of my wife, who – even with a STEM PhD from a top-tier medical school in New York – was facing the murky uncertainties associated with doing science on a visa in the US. That uneasy disquietude still continues to haunt her; even though her Green Card application has been submitted, nothing is certain until she actually gets it in her hand – and we have no clue when that is going to happen.

Ordinarily we try not to think about this. However, the realities associated with this process – and the memories – came flooding back today upon reading a feature-length article in ASBMB Today – titled Science on a visa – written by Dr. Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, the chief science correspondent for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Interweaving her own experience with that of a few others, she brought out the many different aspects and stages of the arduous and time-consuming process acquiring and maintaining legal status for engaging in biomedical research in the US. Raj appears to have been one of more fortunate ones; her transition from visa-green card to citizenship took all of 16 years. My wife and I have been 13 years, going-on 14, in the US, doing the work that we do – my field being immunology and my wife’s cell biology. I have received my Green Card about a year ago, and my wife’s is not likely forthcoming anytime soon.

The Green Card process in the US is complex, yes, as is perhaps expected. But a large part of that complexity exists because there appears to be no standardization anywhere in the process – nothing like, for example, the point system used by Canada – and the system is at the mercy of a large amount of subjectivity, on part of both the Federal agencies and the institutions which engage the foreign-born researchers. Immigration-related fora on the internet abound, often run by immigration law firms, and horror stories of various kinds permeate through the streets and back-alleys therein. I have my own, but that is perhaps for another day.

For today, let me recount an experience of mine, spine-chilling at the time it happened, but somewhat amusing, I have to admit, in retrospect.

Raj has mentioned in her feature how Indian citizens (which I am) holding a J-1 (non-immigrant) visa are subject to the Two-Year Residency requirement, in which “Indian citizens trained in any area of science, engineering technology or math must return to India for at least two years when their J-1 statuses end.” To be honest, the J-1 visa is a pain, especially for travel. Let me quote what Raj shared from another Indian-origin scientist:

Bansal points out another J-1 drawback: J-1 visas are not always given out for the full five years for which they can be issued. The duration of a J-1 may depend on the amount of available funding from, for instance, a research grant.

A postdoctoral fellow can apply for an extension on an initial J-1 visa. If successful, the fellow gets a revised DS-2019 document, which is a certificate of eligibility for J-1 status, with new dates. The document allows the J-1 holder to stay legally in the U.S.

But even the revised DS-2019 can cause headaches, particularly when it comes to international travel for scientific conferences and going back home to visit family, says Bansal. If a postdoctoral fellow needs to go abroad, he or she must make arrangements during the journey to get a new J-1 visa stamp to re-enter the U.S.

And for India, the prospect of getting a new J-1 stamp in the passport always brings in a sense of gloomy foreboding, because it essentially means another round of ‘comprehensive background check’ by the system which can take anything from 1-3 months or even more (as happened with my colleague) before the visa stamp is granted, leading to a loss of time whose impact is immeasurable in terms of lost resources. The visa fee payment, of course, is required afresh every time. It is even more painful for those who have spent the preceding 5-7 years in the US on an F-1 (student) visa, which has relatively fewer restrictions for travel, only to get clamped down under the J-1 rules once they shift to the J-1 visa for performing post-doctoral research work.

The 2Y Residency requirement (administratively referred to as the Section 212(e) of the Immigration and Nationality Act) is perhaps a necessary evil (with likely political ramifications whose importance sadly eludes me), but its sole purpose in practice seems to be the creation of unnecessary hassle for the J-1 visa holders – because frankly, most such researchers, especially those trained in biomedical sciences, do not come in to the US to be educated or to engage in research work without a long term career plan to do good work and contribute meaningfully to science. And yet, the 2Y Requirement kicks in before anything can be done after the J-1 period is over; yes, even before moving on to the ‘guest worker’ H-1B visa or a Green Card.

Thankfully, J-1 visa holders are allowed to apply for a “waiver” from this requirement, which entails acquiring a no-objection certificate from the individual’s home-country government; based on the certificate, the country’s US embassy sends a letter to the Department of Homeland Security of the US government, and at their discretion, DHS will issue the waiver – which would allow the individual to apply for a different visa or Green Card. This process is reasonably straightforward, for the most past, albeit time-consuming and labor-intensive in an old British bureaucracy sort of way. Therein lies the fun part.

Pew Research Study
SOURCE: Pew Research Fact Tank; 5 facts about Indian Americans,
by Drew DeSilver, 2014 (Accessed 11/4/2015)

For India, the process starts at the local Indian consulate/embassy at a major city, New York City, Washington DC, and so forth. During my time, I had to gather the paper form from the consulate; now, thankfully, the digital revolution has happened, and the form can be downloaded from the embassy website. But perhaps I spoke too soon about the digital revolution. Because the form of several pages has to be printed (photocopied in my time) in quadruplicate, and then… Each copy has to be filled in original using a black pen, signed, attached to photocopies of important documents (all self-certified, or ‘attested’, to be a true copy; so four sets of copies in all), and then taken to the embassy where they would check everything over the course of several days and put an embassy stamp on the forms. Only then are the forms ready to be dispatched (along with self-addressed envelopes with enough postage for a transcontinental mail) to three different addresses in India (the embassy keeps the fourth one) – the education department of the person’s home state, the Ministry of Human Resources Development of the Government of India, and for some reason that is unknown to me, the specific Passport Office in India from where the person’s Indian passport was originally issued. Each of these three offices needs to provide a No-Obligation to Return to India (a.k.a. NORI) certification for the process to move forward.

I sent everything off, and I was rather pleasantly surprised when in just two months’ time, every official-looking (in an Indian sense) brown paper envelopes arrived from my home state’s education department and the HRD Ministry bearing the NORI letters and stating that copies of the same letter have already been sent to the embassy. Despite the notoriety of their bureaucracies, these government offices worked smoothly to help me, and I was awash with a sense of gratitude and relief. “Capital!” I thought jubilantly, “Only one more from the Passport Office of the city I called home for 8 years… Shouldn’t be too much trouble.”

Eight months later, I was still waiting and time was running out. Now panicking, I bought myself a plane ticket, took leave off work, and rushed to the city where the Passport Office was located. In my time, the outside of the Passport Office used to be like the Stock Market during business hours, thick with applicants with friends and family, police, legit passport agents, travel agents, lawyers, and oh, yes, touts and loan sharks seeking to make a quick buck. I managed to zoom fast all of them, and to my credit, actually managed to locate the office, three floors up, and the officer who would handle my NORI certificate case. (My still-valid ID card from my previous job in the city’s premier hospital may have smoothed my way a little bit on the way up.)

I sat down in front of the soft-spoken officer, and started to describe my situation breathlessly. Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned my head to take a breath and caught a glimpse of my own application sitting at the top of a pile of papers on his desk. Eight months on. I wasn’t thinking anything – I was just relieved to find that my application wasn’t missing after all, and told him so, asking for his help to expedite the process. He seemed happy at my relief, and then he told him he would help me out, but I ought to do something to help him, too. I clasped his palms, and thanked him profusely, saying that if he or someone he knew ever needed medical treatment, I’d arrange for the best care at my former hospital. I wasn’t lying; at that time, I still had friends amongst doctors and administrators in that institution. He looked a little perplexed; he extricated his palms, and said he would need a signature on my document from his immediate superior, and that it would be ready in three weeks.

In retrospect, I was an unmitigated idiot, a fool with no sense of the world. That officer was clearly expecting a bribe, and I didn’t even understand it, since I never had the experience of being asked to bribe or actually bribing anyone. If I had greased his palm, the drama that unfolded subsequently could well have been avoided. Well, hindsight is 20/20 (or 6/6, if you are metrically inclined). I found out later that the superior, whose signature was necessary, sat in the next cubicle from him – separated by a doorway with a curtain, and that the guy was sitting there right at that time I was talking – and that it doesn’t have to take eight months to get a single signature.

Anyway, the officer at the Passport Office was true to his words. I mean, he had said ‘three weeks’, and he made the signed NORI document available not a single day before 21 days. And it so happened that on that 21st day, my Virgin Atlantic flight was leaving from that city en route to JFK via Heathrow, and there was no way in hell I could collect that document myself and still reach the airport in time to make the flight. So I had requested a friend of mine, my junior from my PhD lab, to do me a tremendous favor by collecting the NORI certificate from that office in the morning on my behalf (it required me to give her an authorization letter), and bringing it to me to the airport. I didn’t want to risk losing that all important document in mail (which is not unheard of).

Of course, Murphy’s Law was in full action that day. My friend had to wait for the officer to arrive at the office, and then she got stuck in city traffic – and consequently, managed to reach the airport after I had completed security check (I couldn’t wait any longer) and gone into the gate. I didn’t have a reliable way of communicating with my friend outside; my US cellphone was non-operational in India. I managed to locate a public phone, and called my friend’s cell to learn that she was waiting, with the document, right outside the entry point to security – but I had no way of reaching her.

It was at that time a wonderful thing happened. I caught a rare and amazing glimpse of humanity. There was a young woman amongst the Virgin Atlantic ground crew at the gate, whom I approached and explained my situation – saying that I needed the document and I couldn’t get out. Bless that woman’s heart and soul, she took my friend’s mobile number, walked out to the security gate, called my friend, retrieved the document and came up into the aircraft to give it to me. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t speak, and – for shame! – I even forgot to ask her name. Upon my return to the US, I did write a commendation letter to Virgin Atlantic customer service mentioning the invaluable help this person rendered me and giving the specific date and time, but it would have been nice to be able to name the unknown person I shall forever be grateful to.

At the embassy, it turned out that they never eventually received the official copy of that NORI document directly from the Passport Office, but they were gracious enough to accept a photocopy of the letter that I brought over. In due course, they sent over the support letter to DHS, leading to the waiver (containing the following text on official stationary) that I finally received and used for applying my H-1B visa.

The United States Information Agency, based upon a “No Objection” statement from the government of your nationality, has recommended that you and any members of your immediate family be granted a waiver of the two-year foreign residence requirement of Section 212 (e) of The Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended. This recommendation only refers to the two-year foreign residence obligation which was incurred by virtue of your current or prior nonimmigrant status as a J-1 Exchange Alien.

Accordingly, upon consideration of the evidence of record, and on the basis of the favorable recommendation of the United States Information Agency, you, and any members of your immediate family who have become subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement solely based on their relationship to you, are hereby granted a waiver of the two-year foreign residence requirement of Section 212 (e) of the Act.

2 Comments

  1. Nice story telling. The bit at the air-port was kind of nail biting. Can find quite a bit of identity with my personal story as well :-). Keep it up.

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