Lately, some colleagues have asked me whether the new immigration policies will impact me and my family adversely. You see, they know I’m on an H-1B visa.

Usually I just respond with a vague “¯\_(ツ)_/¯ we’ll see.” As a legal immigrant in an increasingly anti-immigrant nation, I prefer to stay away from politics. Firstly, it’s too personal and you never know who you’ll offend. Also, as in most political discussions, people will leave with the same opinions they came in with, so what’s the point?

But given recent events, I feel a strong need to speak up about this. Recently, the Verge published an in-depth look at the H-1B visa system, which I shared with some folks. It’s very informative and balanced, and I highly recommend you read it. But it still leaves out that personal touch of lived experience.

And since it’s my goal to find a common thread of humanity in all this, I’ve tried to tell the story in terms of a common experience we’ve all shared: modern air travel.

1. The process robs you of dignity

If you’ve traveled by air in the last 10 years, you know the meaning of “slowly stripping away our normal human dignities.” TSA pat-downs, shrinking seats, coffin-sized bathrooms, rude flight attendants, add-on fees for everything… it makes you so frustrated that you wish you could yell at someone.

Worst Airline Travel Indignities

Being on an H-1B is like that. Companies refuse to consider you for jobs you’re easily qualified for. Immigration officials are unfailingly rude every time you come back from an international trip. Every 3 years there’s the dreaded question of “will the USCIS renew my visa?” If your employer lets you go, you have 30 days to find a new employer willing to sponsor your visa, or leave. Changing careers? Forget about it. Your spouse’s career if they came in as a dependent? Forget about it.

2. Corporations are the only ones profiting from all this

Those of you who are angry at immigrants: look, I get it. You are a person of skill, integrity and dignity who loyally served a corporation for years. But then they fired you. And used your pension and severance as leverage to make you sign gag orders and train your low-cost replacements.

So… the villains in this story were the immigrants? The ones who “would reportedly be getting less than half the salary of those they were replacing, and few if any health and retirement benefits.” - those were the ones that screwed you over? I beg to differ.

This is one of the key things the Verge article gets right:

In the current system, Costa believes that “US workers are getting screwed and migrant workers who come here are getting screwed as well.”

Remember the JetBlue CEO who got fired for being too customer-focused? If they can do that to the CEO, did you really expect to be treated better? To quote my favorite article on the subject:

A corporation is not a living creature. It is a legal fiction, and it exists for one purpose only: to make profit. If you assist in this goal in the long term, your ongoing association with the organization is facilitated. If you detract from it consistently, you will be cut.

3. You’re in a system ruled by oligopolies

ol·i·gop·o·ly (noun): a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers.

Airline customers are robbed of choice because the big four have no competition. As I write this, the big four airlines are raking in record profits while also making life miserable for customers.

The top 10 companies hiring H-1Bs are all offshoring firms. Overall they receive 30-50% of all visas issued each year (40,000 out of 85,000 in 2013.) The top 25 firms (including IBM, Microsoft, Accenture etc.) get about 75% of all visas issued. This monopoly effectively shuts out smaller firms, who don’t want to lose the visa lottery after hiring and training an immigrant employee for 6-12 months. It also shuts out a lot of highly-skilled immigrants - instead bringing in those low-cost players that drive down wages for everyone.

4. And this creates a really unhealthy power dynamic

Remember David Dao? Or the mother forced off the plane in tears? Or the passenger threatened with handcuffs if he didn’t vacate his seat for someone more important? Or this one? I’ll stop now.

In all these cases the airlines didn’t do anything illegal… but morally, these are monstrous acts. It just goes to show you how much the law is skewed against the individual.

Similar stories of exploitation abound in the world of legal immigration (I won’t even get into the horrors that illegal immigrants have to survive.)

On the one hand, there’s the immigrant’s story. Overwork, wage exploitation, sexual harassment… so many ways for unscrupulous companies, middlemen and bosses to take advantage of the victim’s search for a better life. Read this experience - it’s pretty typical for a brand new H1B worker. Or this thread on Hacker News.

Then there’s the story of the displaced American worker. Can’t blame him for feeling like his country is abandoning him for those damn immigrants.

So what happens when people lack options and get frustated? They turn on each other of course:

5. The passengers are engaged in endless class warfare

As Dorothy Boyd said to her kid in Jerry Maguire: “First Class is the problem. It used to be a better meal. Now it’s a better life.” I wonder what she’d say today, with first class, business, economy plus, economy minus, …

Jerry Maguire - First Class is the problem

The categories for green card classifications are similarly random and frustrating. Not only do they determine how long you’ll wait in line, but also how you get treated along the way.

Green Card category Airline equivalent Translation
EB-1A First Class “Welcome! Can I offer you a scotch and a back rub?”
EB-1B Business Class “Thank you for paying extra. Here’s a nice meal and reclining seats.”
EB-1C Economy Plus “Because things weren’t bad enough for the folks behind you, here’s another random category!”
EB-2 Economy “Shut up and don’t complain. You’re getting there eventually, aren’t you?”
EB-3 Basic Economy Cattle class, aka “Hey, you there in First Class! Better keep paying for your luxury seats if you don’t want to be treated like these sad saps!”

Sidebar: there are 2 special categories called EB-4 (“you get a seat because you are employed by the airline”) and EB-5 Investor (“you get the whole plane, because you know someone on the board of directors”) but those aren’t open to the normal public.

The farther down you are, the more you envy the ones above. Folks in premium economy look wistfully at business class. The aisle seat passenger says “thank heavens I’m not sitting in a middle seat,” who in turn says “at least I’m not stuck next to the toilets in the last row.”

And so it is with the green card process. Look at these recent petitions on filed by “the employment based legal immigrant community”. Essentially the petitioners are asking the government to get rid of some of the folks ahead of them in line, so that they can get their green cards. A brilliant demonstration of crab mentality.

It’s cathartic to get angry at your fellow passengers, but the ultimate blame lies with the system.

6. Certain countries have it much worse than others

Flying to USA from these 6 countries? Forget it.

Immigrating from India or China? There’s a 15+ year wait for Indians, and a 4-year wait for Chinese immigrants on H-1Bs to become permanent residents. Forget it.

7. Flight options are severely limited

Ever tried to change a flight because life happened, and got hit by ridiculous fees? This experience may sound familiar to you:

Airline Inflexibility

Why can’t a modern business be flexible enough to be win-win for its customers? Instead, it’s a $388 fee, thank you very much.

Ditto with trying to change careers or even getting a raise while on an H-1B:

H-1B Inflexibility

These days, the rules are so restrictive that an H-1B worker can’t even travel to a different city for a long-term project without having to file a legal amendment with the government. What year are we living in?

8. Some might ask: why not try other options?

Because let’s face it, the alternatives aren’t as good. You could take the bus, train or car, but airlines are the biggest game in town.

Ditto for skilled workers looking to immigrate. You could try places like Australia, Canada, Europe or Singapore… but let’s face it, the United States is still the biggest game in town.

Besides, Australia, UK, France etc. aren’t exactly welcoming strangers right now. The anti-globalization backlash is spreading. As Dan Carlin said on a recent show, it’s not always a racist thing. It’s a human thing.

9. Sometimes you wish you’d just stayed home

Honestly, I ask myself that all the time. Why not go back to India and stop being treated like an unwelcome guest?

Maybe it’s just inertia. All my family is in India, my childhood friends are back there… but I’ve been here ten years. I’ve settled into this lifestyle. I’ve traded a better quality of life for a better standard of living.

It reminds me of a Chris Rock joke from a highly underrated movie:

You don’t mess with the Zohan taxi scene

Zohan - Taxi scene

Driver: What brings ya ‘ere?

Zohan: I have a dream.

Driver (nodding knowingly): I had a dream too.

Zohan: What dream you have?

Driver: My dream was to come to America, and make enough money to send for me brothers and sisters, so we could all enjoy freedom together!

Zohan: This is good dream.

Driver: Oh yes.

Zohan: Did dream come true?

Driver: Nooo maan! Me brothers and sisters were hacked to death. But I love the Chinese food here! It’s incredible!

10. The journey is not to be enjoyed; it is to be endured in the hopes that the destination is worth it.

Who likes airline travel? Nobody. But we do it because the destination matters.

Who likes being an immigrant for 15-20 years knowing they could be sent back anytime? Nobody. But we do it for the children. In the grand scheme of things, their future matters more than our present. And that’s all there is to it, really.