Rhitu Chatterjee was working at her first science writing job in 2009 when, along with thousands of Americans who were victims of the global economic downturn, she was laid off suddenly. Like the scores of workers who saw their jobs vanish that season, Chatterjee was shocked, and worried. But as an Indian citizen and a foreign worker in the United States, she had another concern: Her job was linked to her ability to stay in the country. And the loss meant she had to leave the U.S. soon.
“It was hands down one of the most stressful times in my life in the United States,” Chatterjee says.
Confronted with complex immigration law, she had to figure out how long she would be able to stay in the country. She was close to signing a new lease before she lost her job—but that season, everybody was cutting jobs. “My only option really, at the time, was to move back.” Expecting to move to India and freelance from there, with her things in storage, she stayed at friends’ homes, while frantically connecting with editors.
“I remember just feeling completely alone and just kind of hopeless and confused and overwhelmed,” Chatterjee says. Her friends at home didn’t understand what she was going through; neither did her American colleagues. But as she was making plans to leave the country, she got a call from an editor who had previously interviewed her for a job. This time, he wanted to hire her, and quickly—did she want to move to Boston?
Chatterjee’s close call is a scenario many immigrant science writers brace for when they begin working in the United States. Foreign journalists who move to the U.S. as students find themselves trying to break into a competitive industry while simultaneously navigating the complex rules and extra hurdles of the country’s immigration system.
This journey can be a difficult one. Science writers from five countries described their experiences to The Open Notebook, and some said their status as foreign citizens limited which jobs they took and defined their early careers. Their paths were often expensive, emotionally taxing, and risky: A single layoff, an uncooperative employer, or just a turn of bad visa luck could force them to leave the country, as well as the career and networks they built.
Some of the science writers we spoke with were able to leap from challenge to challenge, ultimately securing visas or green cards that enabled them to work as science writers in the U.S. Others with goals to build careers in the U.S. ultimately returned home, either temporarily or permanently.
The options available to a foreign science writer depend on a variety of factors, including who their employer is, where they have been published and which awards they’ve won, and what nationality they are. “Each person is different,” says Licelle Cobrador, an immigration attorney in New York who files visa applications for about five people in media every month.
The writers we spoke with noted that building relationships with editors and networking with other foreign reporters helped their visa application process. Speaking to a good immigration attorney early on is key, some said. But they acknowledged that where one winds up often comes down to professional or personal resources—and luck.
A Job, Not the Job
Like many foreign journalists, Chatterjee began her first job hunt while still in university. She started putting feelers out during the waning months of a graduate program in journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia, in 2006.
Chatterjee needed a job offer, but she also needed her potential employer to apply for an H-1B visa—the most common type of temporary work visa for foreign nationals to work legally in the U.S. Regulations indicate that employers make and pay for these applications, and costs can range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on various factors, including how many foreign employees a company hires. Individuals cannot apply on their own.
“With a very quick scan of the landscape, I knew that most newsrooms were not going to fund my H-1B,” Chatterjee says. So, instead of chasing her dream job in public radio, Chatterjee took a job in the news department of the American Chemical Society, a science organization that had foreign scientists as members.
Chatterjee’s experience is not unique. Though media outlets frequently state commitments to diversity, many are wary of taking on the expense and paperwork to hire foreign workers. So, early jobs for immigrant science journalists are largely determined by whether a potential employer is willing to sponsor their visa.
Also, Cobrador says, companies can be wary of making H-1B applications because hiring foreign workers opens them up to audits and inspections from the Department of Labor. The legal fees and filing fees vary vastly depending on the number of people the company hires, but “being averse to an audit or scrutiny from the government—that’s more of the concern,” she says.
Gloria Dickie, a Canadian citizen, moved to the U.S. in 2013 to get a graduate degree in journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. By the end of that program, she’d decided she wanted to be an environmental journalist, and wanted to work as a freelancer in the U.S. But the traditional H-1B path didn’t allow people to work as independent contractors, and she couldn’t find any other way to make it work.
About a year after college, with her student visa due to expire soon, Dickie applied for “TN” status as a last resort. That work permit is granted to Canadian and Mexican citizens in the U.S., but it does not allow applicants to work in journalism. So she began work as a technical writer for an environmental-education group until she could find a way to do what she loved. “I was hoping I could apply for another job, or figure it out,” Dickie says.
Like Chatterjee, Dickie decided that it was prudent to settle for the best opportunity that let her stay in the country. The dream job could wait.
Charting an Alternate Path
Applying for an H-1B visa is not only expensive and time-consuming. It’s also subject to the whims of chance. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency that assesses visas, has capped the number of available H-1B visas to 85,000 each year since 2006. (Universities, nonprofit research organizations, and government research organizations are a few kinds of employers exempt from this cap.)
Applications are registered beginning April 1, and if the cap is reached within five business days, applications are processed by a computer-generated lottery. In 2018, over 190,000 H-1B applications were submitted in this category—so more than half were rejected. This means that despite a job offer and a cooperative employer, an application may still not be approved to work in the country. And if approved, visas don’t typically become active until the following October.
Wary of these limitations of the H-1B, some journalists opt to avoid that path altogether.
Citizens from a handful of countries with trade agreements with the U.S. have alternatives: unique work visas that are often less onerous for employers. For example, Canadian citizens and Mexican nationals are candidates for the TN visa that Dickie got (although that excludes work in journalism); Singaporean and Chilean workers can apply for an H-1B1 visa directly from their home country; Australians can apply for an E-3 work visa that isn’t subject to the H-1B cap.
Regardless of nationality, journalists can often qualify for another category: the O-1 visa, which is awarded to individuals who, according to USCIS, have a “demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement.”
Unlike the H-1B, O-1 visa applications are not capped, can be renewed indefinitely, and are available all year. Despite these benefits, application numbers for the O-1 visa are underwhelming. In 2018, the U.S. issued just 16,904 O-1 visas, compared to 179,660 H-1B visas issued that year. One reason for these skewed statistics might be the stringent requirements for the O-1 visa.
The U.S. government lists Nobel Prize winners as examples of O-1 awardees, but a Nobel Prize is not required to qualify for this visa, says Lorcan Shannon, a New York immigration attorney. Compared to the H-1B, which requires applicants to show that they have a degree in their chosen field of work, the O-1 is “a much higher standard to achieve,” Shannon says. Even so, he says, “as a journalist, you inherently meet quite a few of the standards.”
Though media outlets frequently state commitments to diversity, many are wary of taking on the expense and paperwork to hire foreign workers. So, early jobs for immigrant science journalists are largely determined by whether a potential employer is willing to sponsor their visa.
USCIS requires applicants to meet any three of up to nine possible criteria. One asks if the applicant has been published in national and international media; another asks if an applicant has worked on a “prominent project.”
“If you wrote for a major news organization, the article itself is a project. So, you can meet those two standards quite easily,” Shannon says.
Naveena Sadasivam, a staff writer at Grist who is based in California, was keen to avoid the “soul-sucking” H-1B lottery and timeline. It was just too risky. In 2015, when the Texas Observer offered her a full-time job, she asked them to sponsor the O-1 visa.
Sadasivam, an Indian citizen, found that proving extraordinary ability required an immense amount of paperwork, especially for an early-career journalist. An application typically includes a media kit describing the reach of the outlets the applicant has published in, including traffic numbers for web outlets and sales and circulation figures for newspapers and magazines. Then there’s the applicant’s portfolio, including clips, awards, and any appearances on national television. Finally, applicants must include a raft of recommendations (Shannon recommends at least 10) from senior professionals.
“Any reference to my stories, anybody [who] tweeted or talked about my story somewhere, or if I was called on a radio program—I kept meticulous track of all that,” Sadasivam says.
Her employers drafted a three-year work plan describing her future role at the Observer, and she recalls getting about eight letters from prominent figures in the industry, attesting to her status as a well-recognized journalist.
Despite the heavy lift, she found the application process worth the effort. “Absolutely—no regrets about that,” she says.
One reason the O-1 is valuable, Cobrador notes, is that it offers media professionals the ability to freelance. Freelance writers are a group that makes up a substantial percentage of the U.S. science-journalism workforce.
That’s the route Katarina Zimmer, a science writer who is a German citizen, decided to follow. She asked a mentor to act as her agent—this is typically a U.S. citizen who vouches for the applicant. She convinced four publications to give her three-year agreements for intended employment, despite her fleeting relationship as a freelancer, and asked editors and professors for recommendations, gathering about 10 letters in total. She also talked to other foreign journalists who had O-1 visas, and based on their recommendation, hired a lawyer experienced in filing this visa type to make her case.
After over $7,000 in application and legal fees and a stressful two-week wait, Zimmer’s application was approved.
In the years after Davide Castelvecchi, an Italian citizen, graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz science communication program in 2004, he found three successive employers who were willing to sponsor his H-1B visa.
Still, Castelvecchi was racing against time. He knew that U.S. immigration law limits H-1B visas to six years. According to regulations, immigrants must apply to become permanent residents with the backing of their employer by that time—or leave the country if they can’t.
With this deadline in mind, when Castelvecchi was offered his second job, at Science News, he negotiated for both an H-1B visa and a permanent resident, or “green card,” application. “It had been my condition for joining,” he says.
But the company did not ultimately make an application on his behalf. Castelvecchi again looked for other jobs, and landed at Scientific American, where the company indicated it would make his application for permanent residency, and did so, filing under a category that required applicants to demonstrate that they had “extraordinary ability.” But the application failed, and Castelvecchi says an appeal was struck down too.
As a last resort, the company tried to secure a “foreign journalist visa” for Castelvecchi. Such I visas are granted to journalists working for organizations that have home offices outside the U.S., and Scientific American’s publisher at the time was based in Europe.
Castelvecchi flew to Canada to make his case to a visa officer at a consulate outside the U.S., as this visa application typically requires. But the officer was not convinced, Castelvecchi remembers. “The officer said, wait, you want to work as a foreign correspondent for a magazine called Scientific American—how does that make sense?” Castelvecchi’s request was rejected.
There was no time for another try. Despite Scientific American’s support and best attempts, and what Castelvecchi estimates was $20,000 in application and legal fees, he had run out his six-year clock.
When he returned to New York, he had a few weeks left to pack up his things and leave.
When contacted for comment, both, the Society for Science & the Public (the nonprofit organization that publishes Science News) and Springer Nature (publisher of Scientific American) declined to comment on personnel matters.
At the time, Castelvecchi believed he’d be back. “I planned to freelance from Italy and come back in a year or so,” he says. But that didn’t pan out either. Castelvecchi now works as a physical sciences reporter at Nature in the U.K., where he has become a permanent resident.
For anyone hoping to work long-term in the U.S., Castelvecchi recommends getting advice from an immigration attorney as early as possible. “I was going based on instinct and on what I’d learned from other people.”
The Road Home
Sometimes, like Castelvecchi, foreign journalists are forced to simply return home.
Years after finding her footing after the recession, in 2013 Chatterjee was again looking at a move back home to India. Her H-1B clock was close to running out, she hadn’t applied for a green card, and she wanted to be closer to her parents.
“I was sort of done dealing with visa issues and immigration issues. And I just kind of wanted stability,” Chatterjee says. She moved to New Delhi, working as a contributing correspondent for U.S. outlets. For the next three years, she pitched and published stories for U.S. outlets including Science, PRI’s The World, and NPR. And then she and her partner, an American citizen, decided to get married. When she moved back in 2016, it was after she had applied through her marriage to be a permanent resident. She now works as a health correspondent for NPR in Washington, DC.
Dickie also found the visa toll overwhelming, and after four and a half years in the U.S., moved back to Canada in 2017. “It was emotionally hard to turn down offers and not being able to pursue things because there was no legal avenue to do it,” she says.
The 2016 election also had a role in her decision. President Donald Trump’s campaign had been “anti-environment, anti-press, anti-immigration,” so Dickie says she wasn’t very hopeful. “What were the chances they would want more environmental journalists? And freelance environmental journalists, even less.”
Even so, Dickie still hopes to return to the U.S. one day. She fell in love with the western lands and wants to find the environmental stories waiting to be told there. “I also feel like the U.S. press industry is still the media giant,” she says.
Others have turned a home return to their advantage.
Lucina Melesio, a reporter from Mexico, arrived in the U.S. as a Fulbright fellow for a master’s degree in 2014. As an exchange student, her J-1 visa required she return to her home country for at least two years before she could get a full-time job in the U.S. under an H-1B visa.
Melesio wishes she had a little more time to train in the U.S. “It is cruel to train exchange students in the U.S. and then not have a retention plan,” she says. “The loss is both ways; this country is also losing out on diverse voices.”
But in the years since moving back to Mexico, she’s found a niche, and a new network, and works as a freelancer for outlets such as Al Jazeera and ESPN. She says it’s easier living, with comparatively better pay, than her time in New York. “It just so happens that today, I don’t want to come back.”
Meenakshi Prabhune is a science writer and journalist. She runs the educational web content at Synthego, a genome engineering company, and has also written for Biotechniques News, Science News for Students, Science Careers, and The Hindu. Follow Meenakshi on Twitter @minu_pr.