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Local agency and its Iranian employee face visa dilemma

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

President Trump is expected to issue a revised executive order that again seeks to restrict travel from seven mostly-Muslim nations. The administration's desired immigration policies are leaving one local resident, and her employers, wondering if she'll be allowed to stay in the United States when her student visa expires.

Nooshin is a native of Iran. Educated at the University at Buffalo. Upon her graduation from UB, she opted to seek a local job under Optional Practical Training, a period of time during which foreign students with F-1 student visas may gain experience that complements his or her degree.

She speaks Farsi and English fluently, studied French for two years, understands some Turkish and can read Arabic. Nooshin's multilingual abilities were just some of the traits that appealed to the administrators of Every Person Influences Children, a Buffalo-based not-for-profit human services agency where she works as a Family Services Coordinator. In fact, as her supervisors explained, they were so impressed by what she had to offer, they created a position for her.

"She just blew me out of the water," said Tara Burgess, EPIC's Director of Operations and Family Engagement, about interviewing Nooshin for a position within the agency. "Really very well spoken and more mature for her age than you would have expected."

Burgess added that Nooshin has a calm demeanor and possesses an empathy that proves most useful when dealing with some of EPIC's clients, who increasingly come from diverse backgrounds as immigrant populations grow in Buffalo.

Nooshin's student visa is set to expire soon. Her next step would be to apply for a H-1B working visa. She has indicated that she wants to stay in Buffalo. Most Iranians, she told WBFO, actually like the West and enjoy its music and movies, contrary to how they are portrayed by many media outlets. But the America they see is portrayed as big city life, such as New York City. Nooshin, meanwhile, has grown quite fond of her adopted hometown.

"I love it and I love its people," she said. "I think this is where my kind of work, at least, can be more beneficial than in bigger cities."

But even with her qualifications, there is no guarantee she'll be granted the H-1B. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services reported that for fiscal year 2017, they received more than 236,000 applications but the number of visas to be allowed is capped at 85,000. Applicants are chosen for consideration by a lottery system.

Further causing worry within EPIC is Nooshin's nationality. President Trump's revised executive order regarding travel restrictions, like the original, is expected to be challenged in court. In the meantime, the uncertainty has Nooshin and her supervisors worried about whether her Iranian citizenship would prevent her from getting a fair review.

"We have someone here who is talented, that has a unique set of skills, and brings something to the community and to EPIC's table," said Michelle Urbanczyk, the organization's president. "For us, there wasn't even a second thought, are we going to do this or not."

An official with USCIS told WBFO via email correspondence that while they may not comment on individual cases, those applications which are selected by lottery are then judged by their own merits. 

As for Nooshin's nationality, USCIS spokesperson Anita Rios Moore advised WBFO by email that the agency was conducting its business as it did before President Trump's first executive order was issued and blocked.

The process to apply for the H-1B status is $2,000. Urbanczyk says EPIC leaders are providing the money for the application. Nooshin, meanwhile, must provide the money for legal advice. She estimated it would cost her anywhere between three and six thousand dollars for those services. 

If she is denied a working visa, a situation she accepts as a possibility, EPIC would get a refund but Nooshin would not get her money back. She now has to decide whether to take a very expensive risk amidst political uncertainty. She told WBFO she has already made a considerable investment of time, emotion and money (as a non-citizen, she could not obtain student loans, and so she or her family paid for her masters studies). 

"I think America has also invested in us, too," Nooshin said. "As internationals, we're always very good students. We're very good workers. We do the best we can, really. I've never had, me or my friends, had any problem whether it was at school or their workplaces. I think that with all that investment, we feel like it's not fair that it's just 'OK, see you, goodbye.'"

Urbanczyk said EPIC does not take any political positions but is concerned that they will lose not only a cherished member of their staff but one whose skills are not easily found among the workforce. 

"We don't take a stance are we're not going to," Urbanczyk said. "But we do have a staff member here who needs our help. We're a human services agency. It just makes sense for us to go down this path."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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