Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thousand Word Thursday

Bumper sticker in Prattville, Alabama.

Apparently your Creator prefers 17th century aristocratic English over all other languages.

Thou shouldest take heed, lest He smite thee.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Art of Negotiation

Having been in the timber and land business for a while, I've come to recognize that people have their own unique negotiation styles. There are a number of self-help style books on the subject, and I confess to having read a few of them in my younger days. But I believe experience is the great teacher, and I confess that I have learned more from watching and listening to some of the masters operate.

I think I've seen or dealt with just about every style.

There's the "win-lose" style, the person who won't be satisfied unless he thinks he's beat you in the deal. Every negotiation is a game with this guy, and it's a game he intends to win.

There's the "engineer/accountant" style, the person who asks so many questions that you'll give in just to get out of the interrogation. This type takes forever to make a decision.

Then there's the "I'm helpless" style, which is usually employed by the shrewdest of negotiators. This person feigns ignorance, often just to see what you know or what you might divulge.

There are also a number of acts that go with the styles. I've seen millionaires who drive around in old cars and simple clothes, looking like they didn't have two nickels to rub together. I've seen other guys driving Hummers and wearing the latest LL Bean fashion that couldn't get approved for a loan at a pawn shop.

One of my favorite stories of a master negotiator came from a friend of mine who had a morning appointment to discuss the price he would pay for a landowner's timber. The landowner, who lives near Auburn and is somewhat of a celebrity (if you live in Alabama you would know his name), asked him to come by his farmhouse at eight a.m. to discuss prices and close the deal.

When my friend knocked, the landowner answered the door naked. Said he'd just got out of bed. Invited my friend to have a seat on the couch while he got some coffee. My friend obliged, thinking the guy would get dressed and be ready to talk business in a few minutes.

Instead, the man fixed his coffee and sat down next to him. Still naked. He said, "O.K., what kind of prices do you have for me."

My friend stuttered and stammered for a few minutes, then finally said "Coach, you are going to have to go put some clothes on before we talk anymore."

Guess who came out on top in that deal.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Green Card

Nolvia and Terry began their new life together as husband and wife. Nolvia would now be eligible for U.S. residency (Green Card) by virtue of their union. They began the paperwork immediately, as Terry was scheduled to head off to boot camp for the National Guard (he is also a full-time student). Since Nolvia's immigration status was still classified under a work permit, the paperwork had to be filed in accordance with a procedure that is termed "adjustment of status" (AOS).

I must mention here that Terry's mother Rhonda helped the young couple fill out the paperwork and fulfill all the requirements of the process. Without her bulldog tenacity, they probably would not have had a chance. Rhonda is a social worker with the D.H.R., so she has regular dealings with government bureaucracy. She told me she thought she'd "seen it all", but the ordeal she was about to go through was "the most nerve-racking and frustrating thing she had ever experienced."

This process began in May of 2009.

First, there were the forms. Over six different ones, some for Terry, some for Nolvia, some completed jointly. I invite you, dear reader, to look up some of these forms online. I am a life-long U.S. citizen with two university degrees, and I find the instructions to be extremely difficult to understand. As Rhonda says, they were as "clear as mud." It took over ten hours to complete this phase of the process.

Then came supporting documents:
  • Birth certificates (Nolvia's had to be translated to English);Photo I.D. cards
  • An affidavit of support from Terry, stating that he would support Nolvia financially
  • An affidavit of support from Terry's parents stating that they would support the couple if necessary (since Terry was a student and Guardsman)
  • Three years of tax returns for Terry, Nolvia, and Terry's parents
  • Several letters of reference stating that their marriage was legitimate; and
  • A medical exam for Nolvia, which could only be conducted by a specific Civil Surgeon in Birmingham, Alabama.
The fee for the application and supporting paperwork totaled about $1,300.

Meanwhile, Nolvia attempted to renew her Alabama Driver's License. She was denied because she was in bureaucratic limbo, between the Work Permit and the Green Card.

The next step was an interview with Immigration in Atlanta. This came in September of 2009. This was another difficulty, since Terry was still in Guard training (seems the Army frowns on "days off" during boot camp). Rhonda made a personal appeal to Terry's First Sergeant, who was kind enough to write a letter explaining why Terry could not attend the interview.

The interview went well, and Nolvia was assured that she would be approved pending another physical exam. Her T.B. test showed "positive" for the disease. We were not completely surprised by this, as she had received a "false positive" T.B. test result when she had been tested for her student visa. This required another trip to the Civil Surgeon in Birmingham. The re-test confirmed that she was healthy. The information was sent to Immigration in Atlanta by certified mail. It was the final hurdle, and success seemed imminent. Postal receipts indicate that the document arrived on September 15, 2009.

Nolvia patiently waited. No word.

In November, she called Immigration. She was told "everything is fine, your paperwork is still being processed."

In December, Terry completed his military training and returned home. Still no word. Rhonda suggested they make another appointment with Immigration in Atlanta, with Terry in attendance.

On January 7, 2010, Nolvia and Terry went to Atlanta for this appointment. They met a different officer than Nolvia had met the first visit. They were told that everything was in order, and approval would be forthcoming. The meeting lasted less than five minutes.

Three more months went by with no word from Immigration

On April 23, Nolvia recieved a voice mail on her cell phone (while she was at work) from a different Immigration officer. The message was that Immigration had not received her updated medical information (T.B. test) as requested and her application would be denied if he did not hear from her by 5:00 p.m. She immediately called Rhonda. Rhonda called Immigration and with the proof that the medical information had been sent. The officer said, "Oh well, this is not the first time paperwork has been lost. Have the Civil Surgeon fax me the document at this fax number by five o'clock today and I won't deny her application."

Rhonda called the Civil Surgeon office. They agreed to fax the document. A little later she called the Immigration officer. "Nope, still haven't gotten it."

She dialed the Civil Surgeon's office. "We've been trying to fax it, but it won't go through."

Back to Immigration. "Oh, sometimes that fax machine doesn't work. Let me give you another number."

Back to the Civil Surgeon. "O.K., we'll try again." Rhonda, "I'll hold." "O.K., it went through."

Back to Immigration. "O.K. It looks to be in order and I'll approve the case."

On May 13. Nolvia received an email from Immigration stating that the Green Card was "in process." Five days later she received a letter that stated her "Green Card should be arriving within two weeks."

The letter began "Welcome to the United States."

Welcome, indeed.

A full year of uncertainty, several thousand dollars, mountains of documents, multiple trips to Birmingham and Atlanta, and countless phone calls. A network of financial support and friends assisting. And still almost voided by an idiot bureaucracy.

And you wonder why immigrants don't go through the "proper channels."

Go figure.

Friday, June 18, 2010

An Immigrant's Story (Part III)

Nolvia's first job as a surgical technician went great. She soon adjusted to life alone in a new city. She initially lived in an extended stay hotel, but was later able to find an apartment close to her job. Transportation continued to be a problem, but the city transit system and rides from coworkers allowed her to fulfill her obligations. I must again point out that all of this required a network of friends and patrons who contributed financially to help her succeed. I can't see how an immigrant without such a support base could have ever made it to that point.

She applied for an extension of her work permit. This time, we asked for no congressional help, since she had applied months ahead of the expiration date of the original permit. In hindsight, that was my mistake. The original permit expired in May, and the hospital would no longer allow her to work. She was assured that she could resume her job when the permit arrived, if the position was still available. The permit eventually arrived, but the job was long gone by then. She moved back to Auburn and began to prepare for her wedding.

Nolvia and Terry were married that summer. Terry, a full-time student, had also joined the National Guard, and he left for boot camp soon after the wedding. Nolvia filled out job applications and waited.

Since she was married to a U.S. citizen, she would be eligible to apply for a "green card" (U.S. resident status). We all thought that this would be a straight forward process that would end the uncertainty of her status as an immigrant. We were actually about to get an education in U.S. government bureaucracy and incompetence.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Thousand Word Thursday

Click to enlarge.
A home in Guiamaca, Honduras. Photo by William.

Monday, June 14, 2010

An Immigrant's Story (Part II)

As Nolvia neared graduation from community college, we began to explore opportunities for her to gain practical work experience in her job field. We learned that she would be eligible for a temporary work permit under the student visa since her degree was in a "high demand" occupation. She would only have a few months before her student visa expired (remember, you must be a full-time student to retain a valid student visa).

So Nolvia tried to apply for the work permit a few months before graduation. Not allowed. Seems you must actually have degree and job offer in hand before making application. So we waited.

Graduation went as planned. It was a proud moment for all of us. Nolvia's brother even flew in from Missouri, where he too was attending university. She became the first of her family to receive a college degree.

She applied for the permit. She had a job offer from a hospital in Montgomery, AL, pending the permit. We all waited. She still couldn't work any job during the interval, because she was still here under the student visa.

Several weeks went by. We discovered a website that tracked applications and permit status. We discovered there was a huge backlog of applications. It looked like it might take months for her application to reach the top of the stack. Meanwhile, the meter was running on the student visa.

I decided to get political. I know the local bigwig in the Republican Party for this area. I called, explained the situation, and asked for his influence with our congressman. He made a phone call.

Several more weeks went by. The Internet site showed little progress in Nolvia's application status. I called again. I was given the congressman's phone number.

I was able to talk with a congressional aide. She was polite as I explained the situation. She agreed to talk with the congressman again. She suggested that I should understand that these immigration issues were politically "sensitive", especially since 9/11. I kept my composure. I resisted the urge to point out that it was not a group of immigrant Honduran orphans who flew planes into buildings on that fateful day. Instead, I encouraged her to get the congressman to step up to the plate and use his influence.

About two months later Nolvia received her permit. Four months had gone by. The first thing I noticed was that they had made the permit retroactive to her graduation date. A one year permit was effectively reduced to eight months by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. I suggested that she submit an application for an extension immediately.

Thankfully, the job was still open. Nolvia's first legal employment in the U.S. was about to begin. We moved her to Montgomery, about 70 miles away, where she would live alone for the first time.

And there was something else going on in the background of this story. Nolvia was in love. She and a fine young man had met in college and had been dating for two years. I was not surprised when she called to tell me about the engagement ring.

A new chapter in the immigration saga was about to begin. I'll tell you about it next time.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Immigrant's Story

I have written two posts concerning the problem of illegal immigration. My contention has been that this is a problem caused by politicians on both sides of the border who are unwilling to address the issue for political reasons. I have offered two possible solutions: secure the borders (by fence, wall, or whatever structure necessary) and reform the work permit(VISA) process.

I have noted that the number of work permits issued each year is seriously out of touch with the reality of the jobs apparently available. I further contend that the U.S. visa system is flawed and riddled with bureaucratic incompetence. It is my belief that this is one reason so many immigrants choose to bypass the legal route (at great peril to themselves).

I have promised an example--someone who has done everything the "right" way.

I will resist the urge to tell you her life story, because someday I hope that it will be written in a book that you will want to read. Not because I intend to write it, but because it is such a remarkable and inspiring story of one Honduran's journey from humble beginnings to a life in the U.S.

I will also admit upfront that that I am biased in this particular case. I love this girl like she was my own daughter. She is one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest human beings that I have ever known.

Nolvia came to the U.S. on a student visa from an orphanage in Honduras. She was twenty years old when she arrived to complete her high school education. She enrolled in a small private school as a tenth-grader. Knowing little English, her first year or two was a struggle--learning a new language and culture "on the fly" is not an easy thing to do. If not for her hard work and determination, as well as untold hours of extra tutoring from her host family, she probably would not have succeeded. But succeed she did, completing her degree with good grades and as a class favorite at the school.

You should understand that the student visa is open-ended and renewable as long as the student is enrolled in an approved educational institution full-time. In fact, this is how this type of visa is monitored and regulated. The Department of Homeland Security tracts the immigrant through the educational institution, who must monitor and report the student's status each semester. In this respect, I believe the student visa is one of the best administrated programs the U.S. operates.

But the program also has some serious flaws. The biggest is that the immigrant student cannot WORK outside of the educational facility they attend. There were three years of high school in Nolvia's case without the opportunity for her to legally work. This put the financial burden completely on her host family for all her expenses: transportation, medical care, clothing, food, etc. How many young, promising immigrants have the opportunity to find North American families willing to take on that level of commitment?

College was the next step. Nolvia's grades were good enough, but her ACT scores were not high enough to enter a major university. This was a language issue, as most of the immigrant students I have known have a similar problem with American standardized tests (especially multiple choice, where the nuances of English often make all the difference in selecting the right answer).

Community college became her only option. This is where the Red Head and me enter her story, as we live about a mile from the local junior college. We gladly agreed that she could live with us during this next phase of her education. The proximity to the school was important, because at some point in the student visa process her previous host family had been told that she was not eligible for an Alabama driver's license under the student visa program. This was untrue (file this under bureaucratic incompetence). We would later find out this error just before her college graduation, after two families had driven her everywhere she needed to go for five years.

She enrolled in the community college. We hoped she would be able to defer some of her college and living expenses by working part-time there. After she was unable to secure a job on her own, her high school sponsor attempted to intervene on her behalf with the community college president. He was told "Yes, there are jobs here, but these jobs are for our kids." So she remained unable to help support herself financially.

On a side note, this college president was later convicted of embezzling from the Alabama Community College System. It is my sincere hope she has a Hispanic cellmate with a intense prejudice against Caucasians.

As with high school, language problems were the only real issue. Nolvia endured, however, and completed a two year degree as a surgical technician. This degree allows her to work in hospital operating rooms as an assistant to a surgeon.

As she neared graduation, we began to explore opportunities for practical work experience.

This is the point in the story where U.S. bureaucracy hit the fan.

I'll tell you about it next time.

Thousand Word Thursday

The girls of New Orleans and Honduras.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Immigration (Part II)

In my last post I discussed my opinions on illegal immigration. I want to add a few more thoughts on the political causes of the problem.

My contention is that this a problem created by politicians on both sides of the border. The U.S. side gets cheap labor. The south side gets all those lovely U.S. dollars that are sent back home to support families left behind. It's a win-win situation for governments, but a lose-lose proposition for the people who are being used.

So if you are the average American looking for someone to blame, blame Washington D.C.--not Hispanics.

The news media frequently reports that there are probably between ten and twelve million illegal aliens in the U.S. Let's be conservative and go with the ten million figure.

Now all of these people aren't working. Some are wives that are unable to work, and some are children. Let's be conservative again, and say there are five million of these people employed illegally. And you better believe most are employed, or they would go back home. Contrary to what you might have heard or read, there is no "welfare" program for people who must live incognito. How could they apply? They would be deported.

Why don't these people "do it the right way?" Why risk rape, robbery, death, and other perils illegally crossing the border when you can fill out a little paperwork and get a work permit?

Here's why. We have estimated above that five million are able to find work. Yet the U.S. only issues 65,000 permits (H1-B, the most common)a year. I believe that we have made a slight error in our calculation of supply and demand.

The work permit application process is complicated, convoluted, and riddled with incompetence.

Next time I'll tell you the story of someone who did it the right way and let you be the judge.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Immigration (Part I)

I have something to say about the Immigration issue. It's a hot topic, and I might as well put my two cents worth in the mix. You know, "freedom of speech" and all that stuff. I might as well use it while it's still available here in the good Ol' U.S.A.

I would wager that most readers of this blog would guess that I am sympathetic to the cause of illegal aliens in the U.S. because of my many trips to Honduras and all my Hispanic friends. That would be correct--to a point. But only to a point. It is true that I am sympathetic to illegal aliens as people--as human beings caught in a difficult situation.

I see illegal immigration as a problem created by politicians on both sides of borders, but primarily on this side. I believe Hispanic immigrants are being used as pawns on a chessboard to further personal and Party political agendas. And it stinks to high heaven. It is wrong any way you want to look at it.

To quote a President from long ago "Let me make this perfectly clear": I believe the United States is a sovereign nation with the right (and obligation) to secure her borders. Her borders are not secure. Not on the South, and not on the North. These are dangerous times and the country has many enemies. The U.S. should restrict and monitor who is allowed into the country, like every other developed nation on earth.

I also believe that Arizona is a sovereign State within the U.S. with a right to secure her borders. I'm not sure that they are going about it the right way, but I don't live there so I really don't have a legitimate right to object. I believe Arizona's measures are a frustrated response to the lack of leadership from the Federal government in dealing with what should be a federal issue.

Illegal immigration has been ongoing now for over twenty years. Bush I did nothing. Clinton did nothing. Bush II did nothing. Obama has done nothing. All these presidents, all these congressmen and woman, all these senators, during all these years--did NOTHING.

I believe there are two reasons nothing is done.

First and foremost, politicians are too busy trying to retain and strengthen their power. Politicians in he U.S function by pointing fingers and pitting one group against another as standard operating procedure. Right against Left. Black against white. White against Hispanic. Rich against poor. Worker against corporation. Urban against rural. The Far Left and the Far Right vie for the hearts and minds of the majority middle. Individuals and people groups are stereotyped and used in this "game."

Second, cheap labor provided by illegals is an integral part of the U.S. economy. Immigrants are doing the jobs that North Americans will no longer do: construction, landscaping, farm labor, forestry, janitorial, etc. The U.S. has become dependent on this cheap labor. Don't kid yourself, it touches every household in some way, from the groceries you put on the table to the very house you live in.

It's quite ironic. Some of the most vocal critics of illegal immigration are reaping the benefits of their labor. This nation is attempting to be a pimp and a prostitute at the same time. You can't have it both ways.

So what can be done about this problem at this late stage of the game?

First, the U.S. could close the borders, South and North. I am not an advocate of building walls and fences, but if that's what it takes, do it. Don't give me the argument that walls don't work. They work quite well. One in Berlin was very effective for a long, long time. One in Korea works great (both of these were used for keeping people in, but that doesn't matter, does it?. "In", "out", what's the difference?). A nation who once cheered "Tear down that wall" can easily switch to "Build up that wall." President Obama could even ask for advice from "The Great Leader" Kim Jong on how to construct and maintain the wall. It would be great public relations in our new spirit of dialogue and cooperation with our avowed enemies.

"But Ray" you say, "wouldn't this be terribly expensive?" Yes it would. But it wouldn't necessarily require tax dollars. With the corporate penchant for sponsoring everything in exchange for naming rights, there is real opportunity to get a large portion of the wall paid for. Can't you just see the "Capital One Fence at El Paso", or the "Banc of America Moat at Albuquerque?"

Second (and most important), simplify the permit process and register those who want to come to the U.S. to work. Allow those who are already here an opportunity to participate in the registration process. As a part of this process, allow those who play by the rules a fair path to citizenship if they desire to live here.

The current permit system is a failure and a complete joke. All you folks who rely on Fox News and CNN to form your world view don't know the truth. Those of you who say "they ought to go through the proper channels to get a permit" don't know the process.

I know something about this personally because I have a friend who has been through it. I'll write about her experiences in my next post.