Jean Barker

US Visas: “The right way is harder”

2015-09-11 10:09

Jean Barker

So I’m in a bar, whining about my visa situation. I’ve been doing this so long that I am always surprised anyone still talks to me about it. Actually, most people have stopped, but people I haven’t seen in a while are still interested.

My friend Vanessa (a gifted actress) and I have been meaning to get together for a beer since 2011, when we wrapped a film together. We finally managed it.

Vanessa, bless her, isn’t yet bored by my visa situation, so I went over it all over again for her. I have been here five years. But unlike those who came illegally, I am not eligible for permanent status. Why? Well…

I’m a legal alien

Because I came here legally, and by accepting the F1 (Student) and then the OPT (optional practical training) and now the 01 (Alien of Extraordinary ability / Artist’s) Visa, I am always promising that I know my status is temporary and will go home eventually.

But those who came here on a tourist visa, and just sorta never left, do get to stay indefinitely, and begin a path to citizenship too.

Learning this has made me question whether it’s really a good idea to do the right thing, every time, when there are so many ways to work the system. Let me count the ways:

First, there’s the marriage option. I have no quarrel with people who marry for love, when the only way to be together is to do it for a visa too. If someone I loved truly and deeply wanted me in the country badly enough to offer me their hand, I’d probably say yes. But anything else is out.

Still, I can’t count on all my fingers and toes the number of times Americans have said “Just marry someone.  Anyone! You can pay someone $500 a month to stay married to you.” And of course, I didn’t consider it. Because that would be wrong. Because I’m a good girl. 

And now, as punishment for following the rules, I have to interrupt my career, lose my apartment, sell my car in a hot rush, and fly home to stay 6-9 months in South Africa, waiting for a visa stamp in my passport. It took 2-6 months last time I checked, when I booked the ticket a few months ago. I guess the system is overloaded, admitting all the people who’re newly eligible.

“All the people”, I said bitterly, “Who broke the rules.” And that’s when Vanessa coined it:

'The Right Way is Harder'

And @ladyvanessawolf  is correct, in a way. The right way I’ve chosen is certainly harder than other ways I could have done this, if I were richer, prettier, more ruthless, or one out of three enough to be bad.  I won’t lie. I’ve been feeling pretty sorry for myself.

But really, I have very little right to.

It could be a lot harder than it’s been for me. I didn’t have to run across the border with my children. I didn’t have to travel for days on a train. I didn’t have to pay someone to pack me into a crate and ship me. I didn’t have to build a boat and row from my island across the sea to Miami.  I didn’t have to hope to be one of the 10 000 Syrian Refugees who hope to make the cut and escape certain death. I didn’t even flee my country. I actually love South Africa.

This may not be a convenient truth in the Donald Trump camp, but I think I still have it easier than the family of five sharing the studio apartment somewhere a few doors down from my place, who’re dead quiet after 21:00, like they’re scared to be discovered… or like they’re working below minimum wage jobs Americans refuse to do and really, really value their sleep.

They would never have a fair shot at going to a top five-ranked film school and applying for an alien of extraordinary ability visa after a year of work in the USA. I may have done those 18-hour days for what I have, but I don’t kid myself that privilege didn’t play a starring role in my limited success here so far.

So, while I laughed with Vanessa, and felt righteous outrage for a second there, in the bar in Hollywood, I realised on the way home that I’m whining altogether too much. If the relative hard way is the way I’ve been given to make my dreams come true, so be it. I’m sure I can find something useful to do with six to nine months in the most beautiful city on the planet (that’s you, Cape Town).

If I can’t, I don’t really deserve to live in Los Angeles and make movies, at all.  

Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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