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After 'Homeland,' one woman still wades through the paper work

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2012 - WeiJen Chua, featured in the second part of the Nine Network’s “Homeland: Immigration in America,” is now WeiJen Yankelevich.

That’s going to be the easiest change in this story. 

Otherwise, just like in hour two, which focuses on immigration and jobs, Yankelevich still doesn’t have an H1B visa which would allow her to stay in the country and work.

“At the moment, I am using my OPT (optional practical training), which is an extension to my F1 (student) visa, to start working.”

Yankelevich came to Washington University in 2005 to get her doctorate in immunology. She graduated in May and will soon move to Washington, D.C., to work at the FDA. She’ll also be joining her new husband, whom she met in school. Yankelevich’s husband is a U.S. citizen, but because they’ve been apart for the last year as she finished school and he began to work in Washington, they’ve been advised not to apply for a change of status through their marriage. The FDA doesn’t apply for H1Bs for their employees, Yankelevich says, but rather another category, called J1, which is a visitor exchange program.

So, she has six to eight months until they try the J1 route, and if that doesn’t work, she’ll have to stop working altogether. 

Yankelevich will eventually have a path to citizenship through her husband, but many immigrants educated here don’t have the same options. Because of the way H1B visas work, employers must do all the work to get the visa, while the student or prospective employee waits.

“I was surprised how much an employer has to own it,” says producer Anne-Marie Berger. “The burden falls on the employer, including the cost, which isn’t cheap, and the labor to file the paperwork and the time.”

The cost, says Jalesia McQueen Gadberry, a lawyer, is between $750 and $1,500 a case just for the fees to the government, not counting lawyer fees. It usually takes six months for a single application. 

In reporting for the documentary, Berger found that many large employers such as the Mercy hospital system had streamlined the process for getting H1B workers through and the cost wasn’t prohibitive. But for entrepreneurs, especially local incubators for technology and engineering, the process was too much of a struggle. 

And because of the time and money to bring in the world’s best and brightest, many leave St. Louis or never make it here in the first place, McQueen Gadbery says. 

In the past few months, a new task force has formed to attract and keep more immigrants, who have been found to be high-earners and therefore taxpayers in St. Louis, though they’re still just a sliver of the population. 

The city can roll out the welcome mat, but the system itself may be the problem, McQueen Gadberry says.

“It’s the system, it’s immigration laws and the way they’re imposed. There is no reason in my mind why the government can tell us who we can hire and who we can’t hire. That boggles my mind. It doesn’t make any economic sense or business sense,” she says. “But somehow, in immigration it makes sense to them.”

Immigration is complicated, and Yankelevich knew that the paper work would be, too, when she first began her studies. Before she was married, leaving and taking the expertise she gained at Washington University with her back home to Taiwan was an option, but it’s not anymore. 

Plus, she says, the U.S. is the best place for her field.

“That’s why so many people try very hard to stay,” she says. “If you want to do cutting-edge research, this is where you want to be.”

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