British-born teen finally allowed to take Tri-City job

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldAugust 4, 2013 

Robert Leam gets a job

Robert Leam works for AJW Construction after a long wait to get permission to work due to Leam being a British citizen. Leam will work this job until winter then take a job as a ski instructor in Colorado then college and a possible stint with the military.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

A British national who has lived in the Tri-Cities most of his life was able to start his first job about a week ago.

Robert Leam, 19, and members of his family have only recently been granted the right to work as legal resident aliens after years of waiting and delays.

Leam's new job working with a general contractor has allowed him to move out of his parents' Richland home and into his own place in Finley. He plans to work as a ski instructor in Colorado this winter before heading off to college and then the military.

"It's just a process; we knew it was going to happen," he said. "Right now, being able to work is the big thing."

He and his family must meet criteria to become full U.S. citizens. But being able to support himself and move ahead with his life has Leam excited for the future.

"(Robert's) doing what he wants to do and his dreams can start taking shape," said his mother, Elaine Leam.

The Herald wrote about the family's struggles in December. Robert Leam was 5 when his family moved to the U.S. so his father could take a job working for Bechtel National at the Hanford site.

While legally in the country, only Robert Leam's father was authorized to hold a job. The family began the process for permanent residency soon after arriving, knowing it could take several years to complete. But a lawyer's error more than four years ago delayed the process.

That left Robert Leam unable to get a job once he graduated from Richland High School a year ago, despite having a 3.9 grade-point-average and delaying his graduation for a year. He also couldn't apply for many forms of student financial aid or join the military.

Unable to financially support himself, he lived with his parents, helping them with odd jobs and also volunteering as a ski instructor at Ski Bluewood east of Walla Walla. All the while, the possibility loomed that he would have to return to Britain and live with family, further jeopardizing his plan to remain in the United States.

The Leams said they received lots of support after people heard their story.

Robert Leam said a staffer with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., contacted him with an offer to help and Columbia Basin College also offered assistance with schooling. There also were people offering jobs and money, but he said he couldn't accept them for fear of jeopardizing his residency application.

"If I was going to be on the up and up, I had to play things right," he said.

The final steps toward residency came in recent weeks. The family was fingerprinted by federal officials in Yakima in early July. They received their work permits a little while after that, allowing them to apply for Social Security numbers, which they recently received. Their green cards should arrive in a few weeks.

Now living on his own and supporting himself, Robert Leam said he's pursuing his dreams. He plans to apply to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which has campuses in Arizona and Florida, in fall 2014 to become a Navy pilot.

It's unclear whether he'll have to be a U.S. citizen to join the ROTC program at the school, but if he can't, Robert Leam said he'll enlist.

Until then, he plans to continue working in construction until this winter, when he'll leave for Colorado. He said he's had a lot of interest from ski resorts looking for instructors for the coming season.

"This is an opportunity of a lifetime," he said.

The rest of his family is able to move forward as well. His mother said she also is looking for a job. And Martha Leam, Robert Leam's sister, will be working part time as an ice skating instructor during her senior year at Richland High.

Citizenship is the next step. That usually requires legal resident aliens to have their green cards for five years before applying. Robert Leam said his joining the military can put him on a fast track, granting him citizenship in as little as a year.

For now, though, he and his family are just relieved that they can remain a part of the country they consider home.

"I'm glad I'm finally here for good," he said.

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