When Foreign-Born Artists Make the U.S. Their Home, a.k.a. Common Immigration Misconceptions

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Here's something a little different.  A few months ago, I was asked by the Rhode Island School of Design Alumni Office to contribute a short legal column for the upcoming Spring/Summer issue of RISD XYZ, the school's alumni magazine.  This particular issue focuses on how art and design can function as a way to communicate across cultural and ethnic barriers.

I balked at the idea at first.  I don't know squat about international law so I wasn't sure that I could contribute anything worthwhile (learning American law is difficult enough).  But after a little back and forth with the editor of the magazine, it was suggested that I draft a column discussing some common immigration issues that are routinely faced by members of RISD's sizable international student body.  It's not unusual for students to come to RISD with the goal of making the U.S. their permanent home, so even though immigration law is not my area of specialty, I decided to write the column to give them a little boost when navigating this elaborate area of American policy.  Coming from a family of immigrants, I do actually know a little something about the trials and tribulations that accompany the path toward citizenship (but don't worry, I do have some actual immigration law training).

Then I decided that this isn't an issue faced only by RISD students; every year thousands of foreign-born students come to American universities with the hope that America will become their permanent residence.  So why not put it on my blog?  For that reason, I've reprinted below the un-edited version of what will appear in the magazine.  As always, this is a cursory overview of an immensely convoluted topic.  If you're seeking citizenship in the United States, seek out an attorney who specializes in immigration law.  This is one area where you can't afford to skimp.

*****

Making The U.S. Your (Legal) Home [the title may change when the magazine goes to press]

By Greg Kanaan '02 FAV

RISD is well known as the top art school in the world, so it’s no surprise that students are drawn here from every nook and cranny of the globe.  Twenty-five percent of the student body is made up of international students representing fifty-four separate countries.  Upon graduation, many of those students will choose to stay in the United States to make their living… a difficult prospect to say the least.  As the son of an immigrant, I can tell you first hand how arduous the immigration process is (my cousin is currently going through the years-long process right now).  It doesn’t help matters that the Immigration and Nationality Act, the law governing U.S. immigration policy, is one of the most incomprehensible and byzantine laws ever written.

 That’s why I’ve singled out the three most common mistakes I’ve seen RISD alums make when trying to obtain legal residence in the U.S.  Avoid these and your path towards citizenship will become just a tad easier.

 1. Thinking student visas count towards a green card.

Nope, they don’t.  Everyone knows that it takes years to get a green card - anywhere from five to twenty-three depending on your particular circumstances and nationality (those coming from Mexico have a longer wait than most other nationalities, as you might imagine).  I once met a man who gained citizenship after twenty-nine years of residency, some of which were spent here as an undocumented worker.  Unfortunately, the student visa you got allowing you to attend RISD doesn’t count because it’s considered an M1 temporary “non-immigrant visa,” which is issued under the assumption that you’ll return to your country of origin when it expires - i.e. when you graduate.  The citizenship clock doesn’t start running until after you leave school, which means that the four years you spent in the U.S. don't count towards citizenship.

 2. Assuming that freelancing counts toward an employment-based visa.

Unless you have a parent, sibling, or spouse who is a citizen or Legal Permanent Resident and is willing to sponsor you for a family-based visa, your best hope for citizenship is through full-time employment.  Freelance work, no matter how frequent, will not get you a visa.  You need an actual legal employer, and the employer has to jump through some pretty significant hoops to get you.  They must A) advertise the job to American citizens, and B) prove that you’re qualified for the job, and that no American citizen was as willing, able, or qualified as you are for the job.  Basically, you have to be the best candidate they’re ever likely to see, and that's a tough burden to overcome.

 3. Leaving out important information in the application process.

We all make mistakes. But don’t lie about those mistakes during the application process... especially if those lies can be rebutted by the public record.  The ICE officers (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) who are tasked with looking into your case are tenacious and thorough; if you lied or withheld information, they will find out eventually.  This means that if you have a DUI or anything else you think might compromise your chance at citizenship (such as prior immigration violations), admit to them right away.  You probably won’t get squashed for driving under the influence, but you’ll DEFINITELY be denied citizenship if you’re caught lying about it.

These pointers are just the tip of the iceberg.  As I mentioned above, the Immigration and Nationality Act is extremely dense and very difficult to wade through, even for those trained in its intricacies.  So if you really are planning on emigrating, please do yourself a favor and seek out a licensed immigration attorney to help you get through it.  One wrong step could mean years lost in a process that isn't designed to be helpful to you.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA