An American Dreamer’s Sad Awakening

One man’s personal journey through the American immigration process has an unhappy ending—for him and for America.

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Kristi Barrows, deputy director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Texas Service Center, stands by crates of files that are waiting to be processed by adjudicators in Dallas, June 16, 2009. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)
Kristi Barrows, deputy director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Texas Service Center, stands by crates of files that are waiting to be processed by adjudicators in Dallas, June 16, 2009. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

Under a scorching Texas sun, Andrew Haryono proudly chanted “The Eyes of Texas.” It was 2001, and Haryono was graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, where he had earned postgraduate and bachelor’s degrees in accounting from one of the best finance programs in this country. And so, as Haryono thought at that moment, he stood on the portico of his American Dream.

Haryono was born in Indonesia and came to America to study. His ultimate goal was to become a U.S. citizen; armed with his new degrees, he set his course to achieve that goal. Under stringent U.S. immigration laws, his graduation day also marked the end of his international student visa, starting a countdown clock for one year of optional postdegree career training.

In other words, if he wanted to stay in the United States, Haryono had to find a job and begin the byzantine process of applying for permanent residence and earning a green card. Thanks largely to his degrees and stellar academic record, Haryono cleared the first hurdle, landing a job with a Texas-based information-technology firm called Electronic Data Systems Corporation, or EDS.

Since international students are not allowed to work while enrolled in college, Haryono had no previous work experience; he was thrilled to get his first job in the United States and was determined to prove his value at EDS. Haryono’s bosses noticed his hard work almost immediately and pledged to sponsor his application for an H1B visa, which would allow him to stay in the country as a temporary worker for up to six years. Still, Haryono’s goal—to earn a green card and become a U.S. citizen—remained.

After about a year and a half at EDS’s office in Austin, Haryono noticed an opportunity in the San Francisco Bay Area—a career-advancing role with the company that could also get him his green card. With a generous salary increase and relocation allowance, he moved to the Bay Area, and after he settled on the West Coast, the green-card process began.

After two years of continued hard work on the West Coast, Haryono’s bosses made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. EDS had won an outsourcing contract with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in Herndon, Virginia, and they wanted their star employee to serve as the lead analyst. How could Haryono turn that down?

But this golden opportunity was enveloped in a dark cloud. Under immigration policy, a green-card application is both job and geography specific, which meant that if Haryono relocated from California to Virginia, the entire process would have to begin again—Haryono would be back to square one.

EDS’s human resources managers thought Haryono’s expertise and degrees made him an ideal candidate and promised to expedite his green-card process. Previously, his green-card process had been filed under the more general employment-based category, which took up to five years to complete. Now, EDS’s managers told him, the green-card application would be filed under a more specialized occupational category that could take half as much time to complete. As a result, Haryono accepted the job and moved to Virginia.

About 12 months later, his green-card application in Virginia hit yet another bump in the road. No one at EDS knew that the job Haryono had agreed to do was sensitive enough to require a national-security clearance—one that he couldn’t obtain. Once this became apparent, EDS officials took immediate action to preserve the valued contract. Haryono lost his coveted position, but EDS offered him a pair of alternatives—a job in the Chicago office or one in Singapore.

If Haryono moved to Chicago, the green-card issue would start over again. As much as he cherished living in the United States, Haryono was extremely frustrated by the lengthy and winding route to become a citizen. Although he wanted a life in America, it seemed that America didn’t want him. So Haryono accepted the job in Singapore.

Seven years after his permanent return to Asia, Haryono has returned to visit the United States. He is currently employed as a finance professional with PT Rajawali Corp., a Jakarta-based regional investment-management company, and is on a six-week assignment in the United States for his employer. Part of that job is being spent at the Center for American Progress, where he is observing how public policies are made.

His return has brought back a flood of bittersweet memories. “I remember vividly the decade I spent in the U.S.—living as an American, attending college football games, eating junk food. Those were among the best memories and a defining part of my life,” he told me.

But Haryono remains sad that he couldn’t make this country his home, especially as he studies the slow and grinding issues at the heart of our ongoing immigration reform efforts. He told me that the U.S. system seems to work against the interests of our nation.

“I can best describe the difference between the U.S.’s and Singapore’s immigration stances as the difference between night and day,” Haryono said. “[In Singapore,] I received an employment-based visa on the same day of application. After three months under the Singapore employment-based visa, the government sent me a letter that said I had become eligible to become a permanent resident. I had arrived in Singapore as a foreigner in July 2006, and by December 2006 I was already a lawful Singapore permanent resident.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Singapore officials are so welcoming to foreign workers such as Haryono. By embracing skilled immigrants with necessary talents, the country’s economy has grown enormously over the past 10 years, making it one of the world’s leaders in gross domestic product, or GDP, per capita. Specifically, World Bank figures reveal that Singapore’s GDP per capita grew 128 percent, from $22,690 in 2003 to $51,709 in 2012. Comparably, U.S. GDP per capita grew 31 percent, from $38,225 to $49,965, during the same time period.

Haryono plans to return home and set up Indonesia’s first public policy think tank. Once again, he’s come to the United States to learn, but this time, he will take what he finds and apply it overseas. Although he would prefer to be in the United States, his talents cannot be harnessed here.

“I have learned that American people are among the most welcoming people I’ve encountered anywhere,” he said. “And I continue to cherish American values of freedom, self-sufficiency, and hard work, which translate well across the globe. Now all that is lacking in this most marvelous country is for its immigration policy [to] catch up with the rest of the American people and the world.”

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)