My greencard's approved! 🥳
Okay fine, 3 out of 4 forms are approved. This shit takes forever. 😅 I now have a temporary 2 year quasi greencard until the permanent residence form gets approved.
This is the story of how I sponsored my own greencard. Maybe it helps you or a friend.
My path is unconventional because I optimized for 2 things:
- Own your destiny
- No wage slavery
Or as my friend described it:
You should've seen the immigration lawyer's face when I mentioned my girlfriend is American and I don't want to use the marriage path 😂
Having that in my back pocket added confidence.
April 2022 update: The full greencard arrived in the mail! 🥳
The tl;dr path
2013 – living between SFBA and Slovenia, digital nomad style on a business visa
2015 – get O-1 visa sponsored by an early stage startup
2018 – O-1 visa sponsored by my own Swizec LLC
2021 – NIW EB-2 greencard justified by Swizec LLC
A few months and years between visas padded with processing times. You can't leave the country, but you can stay while bureaucracy churns. ✌️
The O-1 is an extraordinary ability visa and the EB-2 is an exceptional ability greencard. The NIW – national interest waiver – makes it self-sponsorable and reduces paperwork.
Because I didn't graduate college, becoming exceptional was easier than winning the H1B lottery. Coming from a small country with a nascent tech field helps. Easier to argue that you've reached the top.
PS: late 2014 is when I met The Girl two months before going back to Slovenia
How immigration usually works
There's two common paths for immigration: marriage and getting sponsored by a company.
Marriage is easy. You meet an American, fall in love, and they sponsor your greencard. They're on the hook for you. Your spouse signs a document saying they'll pay your living expenses and make sure you don't become a burden to the state.
If the relationship falls apart, you have 10 days to leave the country unless you stay married. 😬
Sponsored by a company can take many forms. L-1 transfer visas are common for large internationals. H1B is great if you can stomach the lottery. 60% of these applications aren't even looked at. E-2 investor visas are popular for founders with funding.
The dark underbelly of employer sponsored visas are immigration mills that import people en masse and sell them as contractors to BigTech. The work is distinctly unfun, undervalued, and if you don't like it – tough. Get fired or quit and you have 10 days to leave the country or find a new sponsor.
You can use my H1B salary data visualization to see these engineers are undervalued. Even if you look at the latest H1B data from 2021. Software engineer in San Francisco averages around $120k, which sounds like a lot until you move here.
PS: Google has more contractors than employees, many via immigration mills
The hook with being sponsored
Biggest problem is that you're trapped. Anything goes wrong, your immigration status is on the hook.
Imagine getting into a deal-breaking disagreement with your spouse or your boss and suddenly you have 10 days to leave the country. Even if it's been your home for years 😬
You probably won't.
But it hangs over you like the sword of Damocles. How much are you really going to push back on bad decisions and fight for what's right, if immigration is on the line?
To quote a former manager with a background in employer sponsored visas: "Dude don't be stupid. Put your head down, do the work, and stop sticking out!"
Hell no. 😤
Last I heard, your employer can apply for a greencard after 5 years on a visa. You can then become independent after a grace period with the sponsoring employer. 6 months is typical.
Not sure how independence works with spousal immigration. Ideally you'll never want it :)
And if you're sponsored by a startup that fails ... immigration don't care. Good bye.
PS: a good boss will feel trapped, same as you, if you're underperforming and they don't want to mess with your status
Criteria that make you exceptional
Criteria for an O-1 visa and an EB-1 or EB-2 are similar. You have to prove exceptional achievement in your field of endeavor. Top 5%.
The EB-1 is almost impossible. You need international awards, published works in major publications, appearances in major media, ...
The O-1 and EB-2 are the same but less. Achievable with hard work trending in the right direction.
You seek to fulfill as many of these as you can:
- Prizes or awards in your field
- Membership in associations
- Published media about you
- Judging others's work
- Original contributions
- Employment in a critical capacity
- High renumeration
You can knock these off faster than you realize. All of it helps your career 💪
The mechanics of pulling this off
Hire a lawyer. They'll take your 20 pages of evidence and turn it into a 600+ page application that spins the tale of your heroic journey trending ever upwards. Every sentence and paragraph supported by hard evidence.
I used Legalpad. They specialize in these exceptional visas and greencards for entrepreneur-shaped people.
When USCIS requested additional evidence for my National Interest Waiver, just the cover letter was 11 pages. 😅
Watching good lawyers at work is beautiful.
USCIS says "Okay Swizec is exceptional and important to Swizec LLC, which needs him in USA. But how does any of this help our national interests?"
The lawyers go "Hey Swiz, where national interest?"
You find 12 links about America's desperate need for senior software engineers, lawyers say okay thanks, and reply to USCIS with a 200 page document. 🤩
How to be exceptional
The trick is how you define your field of endeavor. Not too broad, not too narrow.
You'll never argue that you're the best software engineer in the world. That's too broad. You can be the best at your company, but that's too narrow.
For the NIW EB-2, we defined my field of endeavor purely based on Swizec LLC – "experienced software engineer in the fullstack web app space with a focus on high growth startups teaching engineers the mindsets, skills, and tactics of being a true senior engineer".
Narrow, but broad with high impact.
Try coming up with that field without a lawyer! This is where they shine.
You talk to a team of lawyers about what you're doing, what your plans are, and what you've achieved in the past. Any details you think might help. Then the lawyers come back with:
- Your field of endeavor
- A story that weaves through your achievements
- A list of things you still need to achieve
That list helps a lot.
"Hey you're weak on conference talks" – okay let's apply to every conference. "Hey you're weak on judging" – okay let's find a friend who runs a conference or hackathon and volunteer to select talks or judge apps. "Hey you're weak on publications" – okay let's pitch articles to every website and magazine. "Hey you're weak on contributions" – okay let's write a book. "Hey you're weak on memberships" – okay let's join a professional association like IEEE. "Hey you're weak on ..." – whatever it is, you go out and make it happen.
All that helps you make friends who are visible and achievementous in the community. That's important because you'll need to ask them for reference letters. Reference letters are crucial.
Lawyers draft the letter, your very amazing super successful friend signs. This may be the only time GitHub stars count for something in the real world. 😛
What was Swizec's evidence?
I don't remember all my evidence and reading the application fills me with impostor syndrome. No way I'm as good as that guy 🤣
If you google: swizec, I hope it paints a picture of someone who's earned this.
Broadly speaking: I've been writing on swizec.com for 10+ years, been featured in a few major publications, guested on many podcasts, published several books, contributed a few popular-ish open source libraries, participated in early stages of successful companies, been in a startup accelerator, made it to Seedcamp finals, picked talks for conferences, ran a popular meetup, gave talks all over, had a few big clients, and made friends who've achieved lots and agreed to say I'm cool 🙏
Totally. Wish I'd started sooner! Like in 2011 when a VC said "Okay we'll lead your round" and I chickened out back to Slovenia thanks to a scarcity mindset around money.
PS: as tradition dictates, reading this far gets you a free beer next time we meet 🍻
PPS: yes, this process was expensive. I don't even wanna know
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