It’s a tough time to try to come to America. The president is obsessed with curtailing immigration, except when it comes to hiring workers for his golf courses. The secretary of homeland security claims asylum seekers are “gaming the system” so they can get “a better job” in the United States. And even if you can scrape together the thousands of dollars for immigration lawyers and application fees, the American visa process is still nerve-racking and opaque. Where can a wannabe new American turn?
The answer, of course, is the internet. Do a quick Google search for how to get an American visa and you’ll find forms to fill out, lawyers to hire, processes to fear. But you’ll also find a world of unofficial US visa forums—pages and pages of questions and answers about every possible immigration and work-visa problem a person could have, posted and responded to by enthusiastic amateurs all over the world. It’s a rare corner of the internet that deals with US immigration without racism or vitriol. The conversations on these forums can even be—and this is shocking—nice.
The thousands of people who post on such forums not only want to listen to one another’s immigration problems, they also want to help solve them. These interactions land somewhere between group therapy and reality check for their users, who are tangling with a system that values rich, well-educated workers from rich, stable countries above all others—above those, even, whose countries might have been a lot richer and more stable had the US itself not upended them.
Of all the websites and forums devoted to the subject—including ImmiHelp, SimpleCitizen, immigration subreddits, certain regional TripAdvisor forums—none is more devoted than VisaJourney, “Your US Immigration Community.” VisaJourney is a no-frills, 1998-ish place: no fancy web design, just links and message boards. A jaunty American flag squiggles out from its generic blue logo. Its forum threads are straightforward—each has a question and a string of responses—and divided into sections: family- and marriage-based visas, non-family-based visas, consulate questions, current visa holders, and “general discussion.” Users can search for posts by the native country of the poster. Border-crossing locations are reviewed and ranked by harassment level. There’s a regularly updated list of users whose applications have been approved (self-reported), and an out-of-place disclaimer at the bottom asking members to report fraud to ICE. It’s practical, meticulous, authoritative, obsessive. But most of all, it’s chatty and accessible, which US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the American immigration authority, is not.
On VJ, as its enthusiasts call it, the work-visa threads are proof that all the Trumps in the world cannot discourage non-Americans from wanting to contribute to the US economy. People post questions about how long it will take for this or that to be approved, or whether they should’ve already heard back, and the answers range from blunt to encouraging. Some posters have applications that are well under way, while others are only dreaming of what the future might bring: a young man in Algeria wonders whether he can get a visa to be a truck driver. (Answer: no.) Another person asks whether a Mexican stripper might be able to get a P visa for “artists, athletes, and entertainers.” (Answer: maybe!) “I love USA, wanna go there and work,” writes one user, “and I can speak English, so guys is there any advice???” (Answer: join the club.) A thread titled “Work visa….? Anxiety?” would seem to sum up the general mood, but it’s actually a hyperspecific question: Does the United States award visas to people with anxiety disorders on their medical records? (Answer: yes!)
What’s most striking about VJ is not the number of users with questions, but the number of those who take the time to answer. These people are not lawyers. They did not go to school for this. And still, many have contributed thousands of posts, using their own experience of the system to respond to visa queries from people all over the world. Some don’t even have pending cases anymore themselves—which means bureaucracy can, in fact, become a hobby. The most popular threads in the work-visa section consist entirely of members sharing timelines for when they submitted applications and the dates on which they heard back. USCIS does post processing times on its own website, but for the people of VJ, those dates are unreliable—they might as well be fake news. Somehow it’s more comforting to get direct advice from a stranger online, even if that stranger calls themselves TokenFreak87 or i_love_my_wife.
For a forum that’s supposedly about paperwork, VJ is a surprisingly intimate space. As such, it and other boards like it end up being a mood barometer of the people most affected by the United States’ wanton immigration policies. In February 2016, when so much of the Democratic establishment was readying itself for the second coming of the Clinton administration, a VJ member from Egypt posted: “I am Muslim and I will go to United States to live with my family there after some days … My question is about the situation of green card holders if Mr. Donald Trump is to be the president of US. What will happen to us?!”
“Banning Muslims from entering the US can never happen,” responded a member from Lebanon. “Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Chill.”
One year later, Trump was president. On January 29, 2017, nine days after the inauguration, an Iranian visa holder boarded an airplane to meet her fiancé in the United States. “Everything was normal till in Istanbul they called my name [and said], ‘You are not allowed to board this flight,’” she writes in a post. “You have no idea what I felt that time and I was so frustrated and I started to cry … I don’t know why the visa is not valid when they issued it?? … I don’t know why some people use their power to bother others like this …” The Muslim travel ban had just been enacted.
Not all the posters on VJ see the United States as a utopia; for many, coming here is a necessary evil that will advance them in their careers, reunite them with their families, or get them out of a bad situation. Through every alphabet-soup posting of visa types and forms and timelines runs a hot slick of fear and a low hum of longing, underscoring that what unites most of the people posting is not just that they aren’t American—it’s that they have to leave another home behind. In the Philippines section of the region-specific forums, one of the longest threads, at nearly 800 posts, does not deal with visas at all. It’s simply called, “Where’s your hometown?” VJ users may be called foreign in America, but everyone is a local somewhere.
I’m not American, either. When I decided to move to this country seven years ago, forums like VisaJourney are what helped me do it. I didn’t have the money for a lawyer, nor did I have a company to sponsor me for a work visa. But without knowing what I was doing at all, I was able to cobble together the answers I found from strangers online, choose which visa to apply for, fill out all the forms, and, unbelievably, immigrate.
I’m a native English speaker from the Western world, so it was easier for me to move here than it would’ve been for just about anyone else. Yet it was still frustrating, mystifying, and expensive. And, frankly, my life outside America was just fine. But it was the time of the first Obama administration! This country looked like it was really getting better; it seemed like the place to be. And to the citizens of the world who congregate on VJ, it somehow, amazingly, still is.