Sometimes the Immigration System Works: For Instance, Anya the EB-1A

By David North, March 29, 2017

My colleagues and I typically write about what is wrong with the immigration system, and what changes are needed. That's perfectly appropriate because much needs to be done.

But sometimes the system works well, and it is appropriate to report that, too.

I was not looking for exemplars of this kind when I met Anya (not her real name). As I do every spring, I was volunteering to help graduate students at a major D.C.-area university with their income tax returns, and she was next in line.

Anya is from the Balkans. She has been in the U.S. for half a dozen years and is a Ph.D. candidate in public health – her dissertation is on communications techniques to be used to convince patients to actually take the drugs prescribed for them, a very useful subject.

As we turned to her Form 1040 I opened my eyes a little further; as a Ph.D. candidate, and one not in the IT field, she had earned more than $60,000 in 2016, a remarkable number, meaning that funders must have thought very well of her. I asked her about her immigration status and learned that she was about to move from the usual F-1 visa, for foreign students, to green card status.

"And how are you getting the green card?" I asked, thinking that she probably had married an American.

"I have been approved for an EB-1 visa" she replied, masking her achievement by giving me an answer in immigration bureaucratese.

Anya, still a year away from her American Ph.D., had secured one of those rare visas set aside for Nobel Prize winners and other "aliens of extraordinary ability." It is the creme de la crème sub-category within the EB-1 (employment based) segment of the immigration categories; it is not to be confused with the other subcategories within EB-1 ("outstanding professors and researchers" and "multinational manager or executive") or the lesser EB-2 preference for "aliens of exceptional ability." Of the more than one million green cards issued in 2015, only 4,351 were in her sub-category, sometimes known as EB-1A.

I told her that I was in the immigration field and had never met an "extraordinary ability" person before, and she said that she had not either.

In response to another question she said that she "kept applying for things that I thought I qualified for" and held her thumb and her finger about two inches apart to indicate all the documents she had filed in support of her EB-1 visa.

Anya's income tax question related to the murky ways that universities sometimes handle the tax details regarding fellowships, which she, following a question of mine, and using a cell phone, solved for herself while still at the table.

Among Anya's immigration distinctions: only one out of 250 to 300 immigrants a year arrives or adjusts with a principal EB-1 visa; she is entering alone, not bringing along a bunch of others with her; she is completely outside of the chain migration business – no family member or employer filed for her; and she is totally self-supporting. The solemn grey lady on what I still think of as Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor would have smiled when Anya arrived, except she came on a jet plane.

Anya, it should be noted, is noteworthy because she is not the typical immigrant, but there are some people like here in the million that arrive or adjust annually.