Immigration snafu leaves Richland High School graduate in legal limbo

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 20, 2013 

Robert Leam still lives at his parents' Richland home, unemployable, even at a fast-food restaurant.

The 18-year-old Richland High graduate kept a 3.9 grade-point average and studied advanced physics on his own time.

But he can't go to college. He can't join the Navy. He can't get a job.

He doesn't have a green card.

Though he's in the U.S. legally, a lawyer's paperwork error four years ago left the teen's future in limbo.

"He was just an excellent young man trying to work within our system, which is broken," said one of his teachers, Larry Brooks.

Robert was 5 when his family moved from Great Britain to the U.S.

His dad, Julian, took a job with Bechtel National to work on the Hanford vitrification plant being built to convert radioactive waste into a more stable glass form.

He came to the U.S. on an H1 work visa. His wife, Elaine, and their kids Robert and Martha, now 16, have H4 visas, allowing them to live in the country but not get jobs.

Eight years ago, the Leams decided they wanted to stay in the U.S. and eventually become citizens. They started the process for the first step, becoming permanent residents.

They knew their applications could take three to six years, and they thought they'd allowed enough time before Robert and Martha graduated from high school and wanted to head to college or find a job.

"We love it here," Elaine Leam said. "It's what the children know as home."

Four years into the process, they learned one of their attorneys had made a mistake by filing paperwork late. They either could file a petition to correct the problem or start over.

They were told it would take about the same amount of time, so to be safe, they pursued both avenues.

Four years later, they're still waiting.

Robert was set to graduate in spring 2011, and that's when the lack of a green card began to be a problem.

"When I was 16, my friends could get work, but I couldn't," he said.

He was a top student, but his parents worked with the school district to delay his graduation for a full year to keep him busy.

Robert took automotive technology classes at Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick during that year and he studied advanced physics on his own.

"I've saved my parents a lot of money (on car repairs)," he said.

Brooks, his automotive instructor, said Robert came into his class with little understanding of the vehicles, but he excelled.

"He came for the challenge; he just wanted to experience it," Brooks said.

A year came and went, and Robert still didn't have a green card.

He can't pursue his dream of joining the Navy to become a pilot or get a job or apply for student loans to help pay for college. He's stuck.

"He's just trying to keep occupied," said Hannah Lake, a friend of Robert's who is attending Washington State University Tri-Cities.

The federal government doesn't give firm timelines for granting residency.

Applicants can check their status monthly and are given an estimated time. The latest estimate is Robert could have it in 10 months. And that's with fingers crossed.

Elaine Leam said she and her husband understand the process is lengthy and don't worry about their own green cards.

"I feel bad for the kids because we brought them here," she said.

The problem isn't as pressing for Martha, who's a junior, but she's already wanting to do what her classmates can.

"All my friends are going out and getting jobs, and I'm thinking I'd like to get a job," she said.

For now, Robert works around his parents' home and they pay his basic expenses.

"I want to spread my wings," he said.

Pasco immigration attorney Tom Roach recently tried to help the Leam family. They came to Roach about Robert's possible eligibility for a federal law that can accelerate the legalization of minor immigrants.

In mid-2012, President Obama announced that the federal government would stop deporting children brought into the country illegally.

About 1.2 million children are eligible nationwide. Around 400,000 cases have been filed, and Roach's office is handling almost 260 cases.

But Robert came to the U.S. legally, and his immigrant status isn't in question, Roach said, so he can't take advantage of it.

"It seems counterintuitive: I'm playing by the rules, but I don't qualify," Roach said.

Roach said about 65,000 people receive H1 work visas each year. Allowing their husbands, wives, sons and daughters to also find work would flood the job market.

There are signs the federal government might ease that restriction for some spouses if they are seeking permanent residency, but it wouldn't benefit children with H4 visas, he said.

Robert would qualify for in-state tuition at public universities in Washington thanks to state legislation aimed at helping foreign nationals and illegal immigrants continue their education. But his immigration status does not qualify him to seek federal student loans to help with the cost and that hurts his ability to get scholarships, particularly those from the military.

So the wait continues.

Robert has volunteered as a ski instructor at Ski Bluewood east of Walla Walla. That experience could help him get a ski instructor job in Canada, where he can more easily work because the country is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations with ties to the United Kingdom.

There's also the possibility he could return to the U.K. But the cost of living is higher, and Robert said he knows from relatives that it's difficult to find work.

"I had a cousin who took two years to get a job after four years in university," he said.

Still, that's not home.

"I feel my loyalties are here by now," he said.

Elaine Leam worries that his going back to the U.K. could complicate his application and cause more delays.

"Sending him back to England would be risky," she said.

"He's a really good kid, he works really hard, he wants to get on with his life," she said.

Roach said he is sympathetic to the family's situation but he's sure it will get resolved.

"He's going to get his green card, he's going to get his work permit," he said.

It's just a matter of when.

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