My husband and I started our journey in the US in 2009 as university students. We were both on F-1 visas. Our goal at the time wasn’t necessarily to immigrate to the US. We wanted to attend university in the US, but if things didn’t work out, we could just move back to our home country, Suriname.
I attended undergraduate school, then did my masters at my undergrad institution. Partially because I couldn’t find a full-time job, and partially because I was interested in doing research. And of course, the F-1 visa is time-sensitive. In order to work, you need to apply for OPT, and you only have 60 days to find a job when the OPT clock starts running. After getting my masters, I did my PhD in mechanical engineering. My husband graduated with a bachelors in psychology, but couldn’t find a job in time before his OPT clock ran out. He then changed his status to F-2.
I graduated with my PhD and did a postdoc at a national lab, where I used my OPT status to obtain work authorization. After about a year, they helped me obtain an H1B visa. My husband then changed his status from F-2 to H4. At that time, I also met a postdoc colleague who graciously helped me start my immigration process.
That was in 2021. We finally got the greencards in March of 2023. I wanted to highlight some things we learned while going through the entire process.
Find a competent immigration lawyer⌗
We chose WeGreened, which is one of the biggest immigration law firms in the US. There are others too, so get some recommendations from friends who are going through the same process. Typically, immigration lawyers provide free consultations to see which type of immigration visa you should go for, depending on your profile. As a Surinamese citizen with a PhD, our easiest path to immigration would be EB2-NIW. I did not have enough citations to really go for the EB1, and there was no need since at the time, EB2-NIW was current for the rest of the world.
Keep all your paperwork⌗
Make sure you have all of your I-20s, change of status documents, work permits, and anything related to your visa status. You will need all of it when you submit paperwork to USCIS. If you lost any I-20s, contact your international student center for a copy of it. Keep all of your old passports that contain US visas. If you have a spouse that will immigrate based on your status, keep copies of any leases you have together, bank statements for joint bank accounts, take photos of you together with friends and family, and so forth.
We had a lot of I-20s, work permits, change of status documents, and visas throughout our 13 years in the US as international students (and later as employees on OPT). We had to make copies of all these documents and submit it to USCIS as part of our I-140 application process, and later our 485 process.
You will also need birth certificates with translations, if they are not in English. Ours was in Dutch. Luckily, there was a Dutch postdoc who helped me translate the document and signed a letter certifying the dutch translation. So, you really don’t need a professional translator to translate the documents. Someone you know that is well-versed in the language should be good enough.
Once you’ve gathered all the necessary documents, check and double check again. Make sure you’ve signed everywhere that needs your signature.
Once your I-140 is approved, you need to turn in a medical form that is signed by a civil surgeon. The easiest way to find a civil surgeon near you is using https://www.uscis.gov/tools/find-a-civil-surgeon. Once you find someone, you can call them to see what they charge for the I-693 form.
The cheapest way to get this examination and the form done is to make sure you have all the necessary vaccinations before your appointment with the civil surgeon. You are likely able to get the vaccinations done through your insurance for free, as long as you ask them to do so for preventative measures. Typically, your doctor will order some labs to see if you have immunity against the viruses that you need vaccines for. If the lab tests determine you’re not immune, then they will order the vaccines for you. Once you’ve been vaccinated, bring these records with you to the civil surgeon.
We unluckily got two RFE notices during the 485 process, one for each of us. For my husband, they wanted to make sure he was here legally, and wanted records of our relationship. Even though we sent them all the documents regarding our marriage and his legal status, they requested them again. It was really annoying, but we provided these docs again. We also included pictures of us with friends and family over the years, tax documents, bank statements, and retirement statements showing that he was the beneficiary for my 401k and IRA.
Since I changed jobs during the I-140 and I-485 process, they wanted evidence that I was still working in the area that I petitioned with in my I-140 documents. This meant showing them an employment letter detailing my work responsibilities, an updated Google Scholar profile, copies of abstracts that were submitted after I submitted the I-140, and copies of abstracts for future publications. I published some first-author papers during my postdoc, so I included those. Since my current job doesn’t require any publications, I relied on publications that I have with co-authors.
Luckily, they approved our I-485 after obtaining the RFE materials within the 60 day timeline.
This whole process really tested our patience. Patience for obtaining documents from our home country, which is notoriously slow to provide any official documents. Patience for the lawyers, since they probably were handling multiple cases and didn’t always respond in a timely manner. Patience for the USCIS agents, since they’re so backlogged that even the EB2-NIW has retrogressed for the rest of the world. Patience for saving up the money needed for the immigration process as it cost us more than 10k in lawyer and USCIS fees, not to mention money for mailing such large packages to USCIS.
I honestly don’t know how we would have done this if I did a postdoc in academia. It was possible since we had a pretty good salary in the national labs, but postdocs in academia, even in the Bay Area, probably get an average $60k salary. This is laughably low, especially for the Bay Area, where 1 bedroom apartments cost $2400 or more.
Immigrating to any country isn’t easy. It was relatively fast for us as citizens from a rather small and unknown country. In contrast, citizens from India and China experience decade-long backlogs, while they face uncertainty in their work status. It is incredibly difficult to think about establishing your life in a country where your future is so uncertain. You start to think whether it makes sense to invest in your 401k, IRA, or even buy a house, when it is so easy to get fired from a job and have to leave the country in 60 days or less if you’re unable to find another job. I empathize with everyone who is going through this process.