I opened my mailbox one afternoon to find a letter for which I had waiting and dreading. It read: “The record states that you completed your studies on July 7. You applied for a work permit on Sept. 9. The law requires for international students to submit
applications for post-graduate employment 60 days prior to their last day of class. You missed the deadline, so your application is denied.”
My heart beat faster than a speeding bullet. After graduating from Temple in August, (where I am now a graduate student) I wanted to take a year off from school to work, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) rejected my work permit application. Basically, I had just lost my status as an international student and was about to take a leap into the dark.
I take full responsibility for the months I was out of status, instead of taking the time to carefully read the immigration guidelines available at Temple’s Office of International Services, I chose to follow my own misguided judgment. The officials at Temple’s Office of International Services have always welcomed and encouraged foreign students to come for any help and advice they may need. They have always been committed to preventing students from making mistakes that would land them in situations such as mine and I deeply regret not having taken full advantage of that.
A Kaplan course and a GRE test later, I mailed my scores and applications to several area graduate schools. By God’s grace and the School of Communications and Theater’s graduate committee’s consideration, I was accepted into Temple’s Master of Journalism program.
But uncertainty hung over my status. One university official advised that it would be more prudent to return to my country, obtain a new student visa and return to the United States before school began last fall. The other option would be to hope for reinstatement through a sympathetic immigration officer, something that was not guaranteed. So in late June 2003, I returned to the Republic of Cameroon, West Africa.
When I met with a representative at the American Embassy there the next month, the atmosphere was serene. “I need to know why you were out of status for almost a year,” she asked with a straight face. I explained what happened to me as best as I could. She required evidence of both my Kaplan courses and Temple enrollment.
Sooner than I thought, my appointment at the Embassy came up. My documents had been reviewed by then, and I found out that it was a good idea I had taken that Kaplan course. I would be receiving a new student visa, but there was still the fact my passport once was out of status. All I could do is hope for the best; I could still be sent back at the airport.
I stood up, shook her hand, and thanked her sincerely. Taking my passport and the new visa in it, I wondered if there was any point for me to be happy when the chance I may be denied entry to the United States existed. All I could do was pray and plead with God to intervene. On August 14, 2003, I left for the United States.
Arriving in Philadelphia the next afternoon, I stood in line at immigration and waited my turn. Thankfully, my immigration office opened my passport, examined it carefully and let me in. In my heart, I thanked God because I didn’t know what to expect.
That is because I returned after the Sept. 11, 2001, events. Before them, an international student could to gain a prospective employer’s empathy after graduation, if he or she possessed the necessary skills. Many times, employers were more willing to issue work permits to potential employees. But things have changed; it is rare to find an employer who would look at a foreign citizen the same upon finding out they lack permanent residency.
The dynamics of on-campus employment changed as well. I worked on Main Campus for three years and getting on payroll was not difficult previously. But last semester, I did not receive my first paycheck after a month and was increasingly frustrated. Forms and paper work I had never had to deal with before had to be filled out.
Immigration law forbids international students from off-campus employment without INS authorization. Violation equals deportation. A few years ago, an international student who graduated from an American university without a job could take a chance at a car wash place, or as a cabbie. But it is not the same anymore.
Memories of that letter continue to haunt me. If I ever apply for another post-employment authorization, I have to make sure not to miss the deadline this time and be on schedule to apply to another graduate program. And I must make up my mind whether to return to my home country for good.
Jackai M. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.