Enroll at Dordt. Graduate four years later. Get a job. Get married.
This four-step process looks familiar to some, but grossly overlooks the grueling process other college graduates face. Specifically, international college students.
David Lee, Dordt University Global Studies Program Specialist, graduated from Dordt after spending most of his life growing up in East Asia. Lee entered the U.S. after high school with an F-1 student visa, but from there the process only grew more difficult.
Lee’s parents were missionaries. Soon after he was born in South Korea his family moved to be professors in Mongolia. When Lee turned seven, his family came to the U.S. under an F-1 visa so his father could study seminary in California. An F-1 allows its holder to remain in a country until the date of their graduation, plus 60 days after. Once Lee’s father graduated, the family moved back to Mongolia.
Lee attended high school in the Philippines, where Dordt’s former Dean for Global Education Curtis Taylor recruited him to join the men’s soccer team.
“For me it was very formative and it was very life changing,” Lee said. “Freshman year I struggled a little bit, thought about transferring out, but then I decided that I’d give it another try … and that’s when things turned around for me. I really enjoyed the rest of my experience here.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Lee also came to the U.S. with a F-1 visa, majoring in business marketing and HHP exercise science sports management. Unlike his father, Lee stayed in the U.S. after graduation.
Before a student’s F-1 visa expires, he or she has the option to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT). This means an international student can work for a career that directly ties to their earned degree and can be paid off-campus. For most students, OPT expires after one year from the date of their graduation. The one exception is for STEM graduates, who have options to a three-year OPT.
Lee moved to California for his one year of OPT. When that OPT expired, his company decided they wanted to keep Lee on staff and sponsored his H-1B visa. These work visas are to help American employers “who cannot otherwise obtain needed business skills and abilities from the U.S. workforce by authorizing temporary employment,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
For an employer to give an international applicant an H-1B the company has to declare there is no one in the U.S. workforce who can do the job as well as that applicant can. They are “authorizing temporary employment” until a U.S. citizen comes along that can do that job to such standards.
H-1B visas provide three-year job security, but no guarantee afterwards. A visa holder also cannot leave that company without forgoing their H-1B.
So far in FY 2023, there have been 483,927 H-1B registrations with only 127,600 registrations selected, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services electronic registration process. That means 356,327 individuals in Lee’s situation were told they could not legally stay and work in the U.S.
When Lee’s three years were coming to an end, he had to consider next steps. That’s when he and his serious girlfriend talked about marriage.
Lee proposed to his wife September 2020, but because he would soon lose legal status in the U.S., they sped up their wedding to that November two months later.
“We had our small ceremony at the new Shelter House in Children’s Park,” Lee said. “Maybe 50 people total. Once we had our wedding, we submitted all our [green card] applications, and then later on we had our reception in April.”
With learning how to be married, the Lees had to decide where their new homebase would be. Lee’s job opportunity in California offered a high salary, room for competitive workplace opportunity, and had many immigrants who were going through the same green card process like the Lees.
But Lee and his wife stayed in Sioux Center.
Omaha’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Center, the closest one to Sioux Center, played a large role in this decision.
Each territory has its own USCIS Center. And with each USCIS Center comes completely different expectations.
“The waiting line for you to receive your priority date, which means that the immigration services have received your application and have started working on it,” Lee said, “the waiting line is a lot shorter [here].”
Along with speed, Lee and his wife chose to go through the green card process in Sioux Center over California because of the personnel.
“The immigration officers are a lot more friendly here,” Lee said. “And that makes a big difference.”
Lee used the agency Boundless, which is a non-traditional law firm well-experienced in fiancé K-1 visas and marriage-based green cards.
But Sioux Center didn’t come without faults. The reason for California’s long green card processes was because there were so many more applicants, meaning more immigrants.
“I know people who have gone through personal attorneys, it’s a much more hefty fee,” Lee said. “You have to pay a lot more out of your own pocket, and also it really depends on your personal lawyer. And I will say the lawyers around here aren’t as experienced when it comes to immigration, obviously because there’s not as much diversity here.”
Lee had a rare experience in that it only took him six months to receive a green card. It actually arrived before his I765 work permit, which allows applicants to make an income while they wait for their green card.
For six months Lee lived with no green card and no work permit. Lee’s wife was the breadwinner.
“I made lunch for her and did the dishes,” Lee said.
Now a green card holder and Dordt employee, Lee is thankful for how “everything panned out so well.” He wouldn’t have changed a thing about his and his wife’s approach and recommends to others in similar situations that they should have all personal documents scanned and accessible from their phones and use Boundless.
Dordt graduate Ray Badudu is currently using Boundless to apply for a marriage-based green card, agreeing that the company has so far made his immigration journey much easier. Before attending Dordt alongside his three siblings, Badudu lived in Indonesia until he was 18 years old. Like Lee, he wanted to stay in the U.S. post-graduation.
Badudu had an OPT with Centerpoint church as a Worship Director. Knowing how sought after H-1B’s were, Badudu applied for a R-1 through Centerpoint. This visa is practically the same as a H-1B, except it has a religious requirement and only lasts two and a half years rather than three.
Nothing went wrong for Badudu, until it went very wrong. His OPT ran out of time, and no R-1 visa had yet come in the mail. Although Badudu was engaged to his American wife, he had no legal reasoning for living in the U.S.
“I didn’t know if it would be okay for me to be in the country because I’m in process for another one,” Badudu said. “And since it was blurry, I wasn’t sure, the one thing I was sure of is if you overstay your visa past the allotted amount of days … there’s a chance you can get banned from the country for like three years. And I’m like well that’s not happening, I’m not going to take my chances. If I’m going to bum around I guess I’ll just bum around at my parent’s. It just takes me flying halfway across the globe.”
Badudu spent six months of his engaged life in Indonesia, which “felt like an eternity,” while his fiancé finished her degree at Dordt in the U.S.
Finally, Badudu’s R-1 arrived at Centerpoint church, his sponsor, who then shipped the flimsy piece of paper across international waters. Only then could Badudu approach the American Embassy and book a ticket back to the U.S.
Now married and working full time at Centerpoint, Badudu remains covered by his R-1 visa, and is in the process of applying for a marriage-based green card.
But not all international students come from across oceans. Graphic Designer at Dordt Emma Deines married her American husband June 2022. Deines grew up in Alberta, Canada, before coming to Dordt on her F-1. She started working in the advancement office at Dordt on her OPT when she graduated last year, but Dordt sponsored Deines to receive her H-1B, which she currently has.
“I feel like a lot of people tell you that like, ‘Oh if you’re Canadian it’s so much easier,’” Deines said. “But it’s still a very complicated process … maybe they are more willing to let Canadian people in, but we still go through the same process and it is a lot of paperwork.”
Standard marriage-based visa applications cost $1760 if living in the U.S., not including any sort of attorney or professional help in filing, which can reach up to $6000 more, according to Immigration Help.org.
Although Deines does not need a green card to remain in the U.S. currently, she wants to start the process soon.
“Not that we’re planning on having kids anytime soon,” Deines said, “but if that were to happen I could choose to not work, rather than if my only way that I’m allowed to stay in the States is by continuing to work this job.”
Enroll at Dordt. Graduate four years later. Get a job. Get married.
This four-step process was an impossible reality for Lee, Badudu, and Deines.
“I don’t know if I would feel comfortable trying to figure it out on my own,” Deines said. “’Cause I feel like there’s so much room to do it wrong. And it’s not the cheapest thing in the world. [Especially] if you pay all that money and then it’s like, ‘You forgot to sign on this page.’”