The Parallel Universe of Being a Rich Immigrant in America

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It’s the tail end of “visa season” for some of the half a million students who come to the States to study each year, and Stella Loannidou, a 28-year-old from Athens, is grateful for a lot of things—but mostly, at this very moment, for her European passport and her Ivy League school’s recent STEM accreditation.

This summer, Loannidou graduated from Columbia’s graduate school of architecture and returned to her home country, where she decompressed and visited the embassy. There she secured her F1 non-immigrant visa, which allows recent graduates of ICE-certified schools to remain in the country for a year. She was cleared to work in the U.S. on July 14 and flew back to New York the next day.

In a few years Loannidou could be an excellent candidate for immigration, in the “merit-based,” point-tallying sense. As part of its promise to to end “chain migration”—the practice of sponsoring non-nuclear family members—and cut the number of American green cards issued by half, Republican lawmakers recently introduced the RAISE Act, a scoring system that outlines their vision of an ideal immigrant to play opposite Trump’s “Mexican rapist.”


This ideal immigrant is between the ages of 26 and 30, holds a U.S. degree in a STEM field, speaks fluent English, and makes more than $155,800 a year. (She also possesses a Nobel Prize, and Olympic medal, and/or plans on inject millions of dollars into American business.) The plan, by design, would almost certainly make immigrants to the United States whiter and more wealthy.


But even with all the right merit badges—wealth, education, cultural fluency—successfully migrating and staying in the United States depends a lot on who you know. Not to mention how your home country has been framed amid the weird alchemy of the global economy and homegrown bias.

“I believe [the administration’s] intent is to cut back on Latin and Asian migration,” says Bill Hing, of the Immigration Legal Resource Center in San Francisco—an attempt to privilege wealthy, Western-educated white immigrants. “But the thing they don’t understand is that there are a lot of people from Western Europe that aren’t that interested.” The modern visa system, he says, “doesn’t account for the age we live in,” where those with means prefer a transient statelessness, hopping from one country and set of papers to another.


In migration, as with anything else in this country, most roads can be smoothed with cash. For the global elite, who shop the world for the best schools and business opportunities, there’s the “golden ticket” visa—a favorite of the Kushners’, though not of the Government Accountability Office—which exchanges visas for $1 million investments. (Since 2014 the program has had backlog of more than 20,000 applicants.) For the less grotesquely well-off white-collar entries, the benefits are less directly transactional, but they’re still there.

Loannidou says she feels “a little isolated” from the current U.S. immigration debate. She’s conscious that while she’s concerned about being kicked out of her adopted home, for her “it’s not a life-or-death thing.” She preferred to meet in person because she’s worried about her English, but when I tell her she probably speaks the language better than I do, she laughs and tells me politely that I might be right: She threw herself into the study of the language as a pre-teen. Short and soft-spoken, Loannidou wants to work on large-scale civic projects here in New York and her professional contacts are in the city. But she, like other foreign nationals here with advanced degrees, is concerned about finding a company to sponsor her extended stay.


As the second child of a Greek engineer, it was never a question that Loannidou would study outside her home country, even before the economy crashed. “Part of it is this post-colony syndrome,” she says. “It’s like, you studied abroad, we trust you now.” Her sister, a Fulbright scholar, studied at Stanford before moving to Switzerland. The family is fairly well-connected, she says, a member of a shrinking middle class in her home country. She considers herself part of the “last [Greek] generation to get to live like this,” with the access and savings to migrate where she wishes.


After this year, thanks to the STEM accreditation, Loannidou can apply for an additional two-year extension on her visa, as long as her employer is accredited, too. But she’s finding that only a handful of employers make the cut: “Even when they try to make [the immigration process] easier, corporations always facilitate it.” They’re places with the resources to sponsor visas and, in some cases, green cards, but not too much to offer in terms of creative satisfaction. National Grid is one, as is King and King, a Syracuse firm, the oldest in New York State.

Google, for instance, spends $4.5 million on immigration administration every year, dispatching a “global mobility team” of lawyers to make various headaches go away. They also have a well-documented history of taking advantage of their powerful position in the immigration process: As administrators told a researcher at the University of California-Davis, the advantage of sponsoring foreign workers is that “the company can’t prevent the departure of Americans, but the “foreign workers are stuck.”


But Loannidou doesn’t want to work for a company like Google, even if she could. So she’s looking for a way around the strict employment mandates. Recently she’s heard rumors from other international kids that if you “make friends” with a company’s HR department they might even apply for the accreditation on your behalf. For white-collar workers, even in the best of circumstances, making friends is an integral part of a hassle-free stay in the United States, further eased by cultural fluency, money for lawyers, and cash to travel across borders.

For example, the O-1 visa, the “extraordinary achievement” working paper, requires 12 letters of recommendation and is an extended exercise in bureaucratic self-branding: “It depends on how you frame your career,” says a 33-year-old Korean designer who managed to acquire one recently. Proving your artistic skills put you in the top 5 percent is a hurdle best suited for a paid professional, so lawyers will ask for a flat fee of somewhere around $5,000.


“There’s an unspoken understanding you have to cheat here and there” with how much and in what capacity you’re allowed to work, says another visa-holder who’s been a writer in the States for 10 years. And, as Hing notes, even knowing about certain visas requires access to information that’s largely dependent on social class.


Iimay Ho, executive director of Resource Generation, which mobilizes young people with wealth, is more interested in how the U.S. decides who has access to this information, and who’s allowed to assimilate. “It all ties back to how immigration is used to control the flow of labor,” she says. It’s not about individual people or their resources. Immigration policies and their implementation don’t “come out of the good of people’s’ hearts,” she says.

She’s seen how the global economy—and America’s role in it—shapes who’s considered a desirable immigrant. “I try to look at the history and policies that show why one group of people accumulates wealth over others.”


For example: Her parents, the kinds of Chinese immigrants who would have been barred from the country until the turn of the 20th century, came to America from China to flee persecution in the ‘70s. While they certainly faced discrimination, they weren’t barred from mortgages or loans the way the black community in her native North Carolina was. Her parents, who work in insurance, were able to communicate with Chinese nationals bringing their wealth to the States, became desirable in many high-yield businesses like real estate.

“The rise of growing wealth accumulation in China impacted my family’s financial circumstances,” she says.


And so did the ways in which her parents were racialized, Ho says, as “model immigrants” considered useful to the American community in ways that others weren’t. As Hing points out, even with wealth to migrate, your country of origin depends on how carefully your papers may be scrutinized—you’re more likely to face problems coming from Mexico than Japan, especially nowadays.

Ana Sarabia would know. The Texas-born real estate agent lived in Mexico City in her twenties and made a robust business out of helping wealthy Mexicans come to the states, helping them find doctors and good schools in addition to selling them massive houses. Most came on short-term investor visas, she says, but she’s lost $12 million in business in the last years, since Mexican nationals have taken their business elsewhere or been unable to renew their visas.


“Everything went to shit after Trump’s rhetoric,” she said. Where her business used to be 80 percent Mexican nationals seeking to migrate, now she’s been forced to change her business plan. “At the end of the day, the people who have money are going anywhere else,” she says.

Meanwhile, Loannidou is still looking for a job; she is allowed, under provision of her visa, to be unemployed for 90 days. And she feels somewhat isolated from the “life or death” immigration debate, though she’s worried about her friends from the Middle East. After all, “I can go elsewhere if I have to,” she says. “I’m kind of waiting to see how things develop.”

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.

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