Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The story of Yoda and how you can help

No, I haven't morphed into a Star Wars fanatic.
(Though I did once date one. When the films came back into the theatres, he sat in the front row of the cinema, with his wookie action figure in tow. True story.)

Instead, I am referring to one of my oldest bloggie buddies-- Yoda, who writes at And Nothing Else Matters.

Yoda, who, in addition to being delightfully funny and smarmy, is also ridiculously intelligent. This is why you could more accurately refer to him as Dr. Yoda, as he received his computer science and engineering PhD in 2007 from an American university. After becoming Dr. Yoda, he moved to New York, where he started working for a prestigious company. He also met a lovely lady while he was there, who he moved in with last year.

Sounds like he may have the dream life, right? Unfortunately, there's been a hitch.

Yoda is from India, and since going to visit his family there in December, he has been unable to return to the U.S. Not because he is being deported or doesn't have the paperwork-- but, rather, because he works in a high tech field, and is therefore a potential security risk. On top of that, he was told that it would only be a matter of week-- yet has now been stuck waiting for 3 months to go home, with not a single update on his status. No monetary compensation, no information, nothing. And it turns out he is one of countless people who is going through this ordeal.

When Yoda came to do his PhD work in 2002, there were few problems getting his student Visa. After he was hired at his post-PhD workplace, he was approved for a H1B petition issued by US Customs and Immigrations, which allows him to remain in the US for three years, and is extendable to six years. The plan is, for most people in his place, to complete the paperwork for a Green Card during this period, and he was able to work and pay taxes in the US with this approval.

However, once someone with an H1B leaves the U.S., they require an actual Visa stamp to re-enter, which is administered by the Department of State. When he went to his interview in order to obtain this stamp, Yoda was informed by the security officer that everything checked out, and his visa has been approved. However, the Department of State is asking those employed in "high tech" backgrounds to undergo an extra background check, which involved sending in his CV and a questionnaire about the nature of his research. He was told it will only take a couple of weeks (interestingly enough, which is also what the Department of State representative for Visa services told Congress last year).

Three months later, it is evident that this isn't the case. He has not received a single update on the status of his security check. In fact, the rules explicitly state that updates are not to be given. Rather, those undergoing the check just have to wait until it has officially been passed, without any indication as how they are supposed to plan their lives back in the U.S., where they are officially taxpayers and workers in some of the most important high tech fields. The one thing he does find out, though, is that he is hardly the exception-- he has encountered numerous people sitting in the same bureaucratic limbo as himself. 

These are people who the U.S. government is happy to take taxes and tuition fees from. They are also more than okay with having them do some of incredibly important work on behalf of this nation that is supposedly opening its doors to them. These are people who have followed the rules to a tee. And, now, here they are, stranded, with no word as to when their lives as normal are allowed to resume. Many of them have families back in the U.S. who are anxiously awaiting their return. They have jobs that they have to hope will wait an indeterminate amount of time for their return, which is questionable at best given the current economic crisis. They have mortgages, bills, loans, and no money coming in. If they are lucky, they have family to stay with while they are waiting.

Yoda has been doing his best to do his work remotely, from India, and narrowly survived a round of layoffs-- lucky, considering he is not there to fight his case. He, like many of these people in limbo, would lose his right to be in the U.S., period, would his employer been tired of waiting, and laid him off. His own research is at a standstill, which puts him far behind in a rapidly progressing field. His girlfriend, who was expecting to merely spend the holidays apart, has been faced with nearly four months away from him. Thankfully, she has been able to come to India for a visit now, since it has become clear that Yoda may not be returning anytime soon.

And so he waits.

When talking to Yoda about this piece, he said there was three things that him and those working to draw attention to this issue wanted to emphasize:

#1- These people have already lived in the U.S. for 6 or more years, and have been approved by the U.S. to stay for another six years. When exactly did they become an urgent security risk?

#2- If these folks were such a security risk, why was no check completed on them when they were applying for their work permits? Why could this check have not been completed, at least in part, while they were going about their regular lives in the U.S.?

#3- How are any scientists or high tech professionals supposed to want to come to the U.S. if leaving the country is so treacherous for them? How are they supposed to plan their lives without any transparency in this process? 

Want more info?

And, more importantly, what can you do?

For one, to show your support, you can join the Facebook group dedicated to publicizing this issue, entitled 21g/ Visa Mantis/ Technology Alert List or TAL check

You can also send a copy of this petition to anyone who could plausibly be of help-- local politicians, news media, etc.

But, most crucially, you can write to the people who have a role in making these decisions-- both the House Committee on Science and Technology and your congressperson.



Katelin said...

okay that is just crazy how they can do that to someone. sheesh. i really hope he gets to come back.

Yoda said...

It is surreal to be commenting on such a post about me.

I want to thank Princess Pointful for this post.

A request to all readers - If you have any friends in grad schools who are from outside the US ... please send them these links. They need to be aware of the updated procedures.

S'Mat said...

that's fucked up. strange to think of borders as selectively semi-permeable, and i'm sure the states' policy will be increasingly so. i really cannot see how security has anything to do with this, more just the application of extortion. if yoda (hi man) were an unskilled laborer, he'd be allowed in to work a low-paying shitty job with a similar threat (in effect) hanging over him. i guess the idea is that within the monolithic government, one will eventually lose hope at getting the stamp and just accept the conditions at default.
ultimately, he should get his company to push for him. it's in their interests as sponsor to do so.
and speaking of companies, isn't it strange how american based transnationals are never taken to task for this, even though technically they represent the highest potential for the breaching of security (and basically do that for a living, else they'd not be transnational).
this is all so infuriatingly stupid. i feel for you man!

ps. word verification: 'mideaste'

Therapeutic Ramblings said...

Welcome to bureaucracy...there are few places that do it better than the US of A.