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Impermanent Resident

A new novel explores the purgatory of America’s broken visa system

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews. Viking, 320 pages.

My biggest fear when I meet a fellow immigrant-in-waiting, someone like me who is on a temporary visa, is that, sooner or later, they will ask me about my upcoming visa renewal or my quest for a more permanent status in this country. And even though I hate being asked this question, I spill my guts. I will not lie; I want to ask all the same questions, the ones that come to mind in the middle of a restless, sleepless night. Maybe the reason why I dread being asked this question is because of how much I will vent, given the opportunity.

There are very few Americans who want to hear about our I-797 acronym-laced ordeal. And it is hard for a high-skilled immigrant to gain sympathy, if they even want any, when there is so much cruelty being directed towards refugees and asylum seekers. Our struggles seem like a blessing by comparison. Judging from Hinge profiles, where spontaneity is commonly conflated with booking last-minute tickets to Europe, most Americans are rarely asked to fill out any forms—how can one expect any comprehension of visa issues from such a privileged demographic? First-generation kids understand immigration issues, but, like everything our parents have ever done, they seem to discount the effort involved and ask thoughtlessly: So how long will it take? The question exudes the casual confidence of knowing that things will work out in the end. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, there is no end in sight.

All This Could Be Different, the debut novel by Sarah Thankam Mathews, introduces us to twenty-two-year-old Sneha, a new college graduate who has just moved to Milwaukee to work as a consultant. She is the typical American in her early twenties, “horny for interior design,” and inclined to spend her evenings on the apps feeling a “pale thrill” and “a vague pain” as she seeks love and companionship in a lonely new city. She moved to America from India when she was fourteen after her father got a job in an electronics company, and a friend remarks that she has “totally lost [her] old accent.” Except that she isn’t technically American. Her parents had a visa issue and “self-deported,” while she, their “greatest investment,” is left to make a life for herself. She needs to have a job in order to stay in the country, and when she finds one she feels it has “saved [her] from drowning.”

First-generation kids exude the casual confidence of knowing that things will work out in the end.

One of the achievements of Mathews’s writing is that she precisely captures the dreaded visa conversation. We can’t discuss our immigration worries with our families because often our parents are even more anxious on these matters, and we can’t talk about it with our American friends because we know they are incapable of being useful on this topic.

This Peter, he’s said anything yet about sponsoring you?

No, Papa. You will be the first person I call if he does.

Good, okay. Godwilling it will work out well. You just have to keep doing a good job for him. I’ll say a prayer. Thankfully you have the authorization for now.

Sneha’s father was screwed over by employers eager to exploit immigrants and he is understandably anxious to make sure that his daughter does not fall into the same trap. Sneha is unable to share her fears with her father and puts on a brave face because anything else would worry him even more. However, when Sneha tries to open up about her visa issues, her American friend tells her to be quiet and recommends rest:   

Can you like apply for unemployment?

I felt a tear leak from my left eye, slip down my neck.

I’m an immigrant, no. Besides, I am technically employed? I don’t know how any of this works. But if I ever get to apply for becoming a citizen, they’ll ask if you ever committed crimes or if you ever took government benefits. Not great incentive to—

Shhhh. Your eyes are so damn red. You need to rest.

Will you now or in the future require sponsorship to continue working in the United States? asks every job application. Answering with a yes often results in automatic rejection.

“Sorry, we don’t sponsor,” I was told by recruiters at the college career fair whenever I revealed that I was on a student visa. Afterward, me and other international friends would exchange notes on which companies were even accepting resumes from candidates like us.

The ordeal didn’t end when I got a job because I soon found out that my work authorization would end in two years unless I managed to get “sponsored.” Finding a company that sponsors isn’t enough because there are a limited number of visas that can be issued each year and significantly more applicants; you also have to win a literal H-1B “lottery.”  And, like some seventy percent of the applicants each year, I didn’t. The following year, at my second and final shot at the lottery before I’d be forced to leave my job and this country, I remember sitting in my apartment, mentally prepping myself for the inevitable move back to Pakistan after I discarded every aspect of my life in the States on the fly—but I also caught myself daydreaming about how I would celebrate if I did win the lottery. I imagined myself running out of the office and punching the air in the street like Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. It was around this time that I first came across Mathews’s writing and her poignant essay, “How To Get Your Green Card In America.

Mathews grew up in Oman and India, and moved to the United States at seventeen; at one point she would have been stuck in a visa limbo if her green card didn’t come in time. Mathews wrote about this experience; of making a life in America despite dreading the worst possible outcomes, of fearing every day that she will be kicked out of the United States and never let back in. What struck me the most was how she described finally getting the green card as “anticlimactic” and how “no one [around her] really seem[ed] to get” the significance of the moment. “Oh cool! That’s great!” they said.

I soon came to share her sense of anticlimax: after winning the lottery, I was required to get a new visa stamp every couple of years and find an employer willing to file for my green card. Instead of the picture-perfect ending I’d had in mind, I had embarked on a never-ending cycle of public degradation; instead of the Pursuit of Happyness, it was the Oscars slap. 

Sneha’s job isn’t glamorous—quite frankly, it sucks. She is referred to as a “resource” to her face by Susan the project manager. However, the job does come with one perk: a paid-for apartment. The downside is that Amy, the property manager from hell, lurks in the background of every moment of reprieve from the despondent work life and lonesome love life that Sneha enjoys. Sneha tiptoes around her apartment so as to not make noise and get an angry text or scream from Amy. Mathews writes, “I held the phone with both hands as though it might detonate . . . There was no response. Many minutes passed. I allowed myself to move from the middle of the kitchen.”

Sneha eventually manages to find love and make friends in the new city, but the menace of Amy follows her everywhere. One of the few things that gives Sneha a sense of security is her savings account; for the first time in her life, she has managed to save money, some of which she sends to her parents. This was partly possible because Sneha lives rent-free—even though perpetually annoyed Amy has the power, which she is always brandishing, to end this luxury. In a way, this is similar to a life lived in the United States on a temporary worker visa—with every visa renewal and every reentry into the country, we are reminded that someone has the power to end our life here. After a moment of tender friendship, when Sneha tells a new friend amid the first snow of the season, “I like you lots. I want to be your friend,” she walks back to her apartment and notices “the flick of Amy’s blinds.” After an argument that escalates all the way to Sneha’s boss’s boss, Sneha apologizes to Amy, to which she replies “Thank u for the apology. We r nice people (+ dog) This should not b so difficult. Have a nice day.

When the pandemic hit and millions of workers were laid off, those that were on H-1Bs were given sixty days to find a new job or leave the country. Many weren’t able to and had to abandon everything that they had built here. The comments on the New York Times article reporting this ordeal showed people arguing that these workers should have never been let in in the first place. Foreign and international students were kicked out of dorms and recommended to go back to their home countries. If America’s attitude towards immigrants could be personified, it would be Amy.

Sneha’s life (and the novel) changes trajectory in one coincidence-packed night: she attends a house party where she crashes a car, runs into a woman who had previously ghosted her, gets locked out of her apartment, doesn’t want to wake up Amy to let her in, and is desperately trying to find a way to get back to the party when a recent one-night stand drives by and gives her a ride. Sneha can’t find the keys but manages to find a gymnast who comes back to her apartment and propels himself into her second-floor apartment and unlocks the door for her.

Coincidence in fiction is a polarizing preference. Can this much shit happen in one night? Many authors have faced criticism for contrived plot points. In a recent discussion on Shirley Hazzard, Geoff Dyer, whose novels have very little plot, narrated that Hazzard defended the amount of coincidence in her novels by saying that real life was full of even more coincidence. Immigrant life in America is no different; unlucky coincidences and misfortune are always seeking those that are vulnerable, and Sneha’s father was one of their targets. Sneha admired him for not being an “easily cowed person” and for leaving a company that “did not treat most of their immigrant employees well” (“They don’t have to, when they control your papers,” Sneha tells a friend) to pursue his American dream of starting his own business, which was when legal troubles derailed his electronics business:

And after a while, he decided he was tired of fighting it, paying the lawyer fees. They broke him down eventually. He pled guilty, even though he wasn’t, did what he could to get a shorter sentence, he served one and a half years, and then got deported. Or self-deported. Basically he probably would have been deported, but maybe not if he had fought it, found a better lawyer. But he didn’t fight it.

He had not, my parents had not, fought for me. Stayed for me, or tried to bring me with them.

Often me and A., my best friend from college—both of us, then and now, on temporary visas that require yearly renewal—do a count of how many of our close friends still remain in the United States. Most of our closest friendships were with other international students, and even though all of them were interested in living in the United States after graduation, almost none of them could make a life here. Something or the other happened that forced them to leave.

Today when I look back at my life in America, I wonder how many coincidences needed to happen to enable me to stay here.

A. is fond of telling a story from college when a candy manufacturer flew him out to their offices in Virginia. He was hopeful they would offer him a job, but the interview was pretty much over when they asked him if he required sponsorship. They told him they didn’t normally sponsor and silently questioned who in HR had messed up and not weeded him out earlier. He returned back to our dorm with a huge box of chocolates, candies, and chewing gum—a banquet of a consolation prize. I still remember unwrapping those candies and laughing mid-sugar rush at the absurdity of our situation.

Today when I look back at my life in America, I wonder how many coincidences needed to happen to enable me to stay here. Mathews’s novel successfully captures the anxiousness, scariness, and precariousness of building a life in America as an immigrant.

Recently A. told me that he, too, will soon leave America for a more permanent life in Australia with his wife. I am terribly sad that they will be leaving but glad that they have the opportunity to start somewhere new which offers more security, safety, and sanity.

Afterward, I wondered whether the insanity of the road that I decided to embark on when I came here for college was worth the continual state of mental punishment—twelve years later, I am still tiptoeing around the question.

In her essay, Mathews describes how it felt after getting her green card:

How does it feel? It feels like you’re a pardoned turkey. You are one of the fewest few, one of those who get to keep the life they have built. Look around at your life, at the scaffolding of routine, the gray couch that you saved for, the business you’re working to start, the living room you painted that precise shade of Sherwin-Williams yellow, the faces you kiss goodnight. It is that simplest luxury: You get to not be uprooted, at any moment, from all of that.

All this should be different.