Slog For a Green Card Print E-mail
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20131231(San Diego Reader December 31, 2013) My 50th Reader Cover

I’m listening to attorney Eleanor Adams who’s been practicing immigration law locally for 25 years. By phone, she’s outlining, breathlessly, our labyrinthine federal system of percentage quotas, monthly resets, and Congressional reform proposals for the two big categories of immigrants—family-sponsored (relatives) and employment-based (workers). Immigrants are foreign-born people the majority of whom are here to work. As of 2009, they comprise 12.5 percent of the population—38 million. A little less than half of those are naturalized; the rest reside here legally or illegally.

I dare not interrupt Adams: such a seminar is like a first-semester course at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

Seventeen minutes into her monologue, I’m muzzy-brained, listening to her legalese: status, exemptions, chargeability tumble together like Cirque Soleil. Finally I find a space to enter: maybe, I say, we can take a step back and define legal and illegal. It’s the first moment of silence between us, which may be just that or a simmer, on her part, for my barging in.

“It’s very easy,” she says, “to say that this person is legal and this person is not legal—then you feel like these guys are the good guys and those guys are the bad guys.”

Adams says that when people come to her she tries to determine whether they have “potential status,” that is, they may have a legal case. Some people she helps “apply and are put into a court proceeding. Some go in or out of detention. There’s a lot who are in between. You get to stay so long as you do not fall out of status.” This limbo is your home long before you get that most prized possession, a green card, making you a permanent legal resident.

Here’s an example of limbo. A Mexican woman, a client of Adams’s, came to the U.S. as a child. After the child was a teenager, her mother, a U.S. citizen, applied for her daughter to stay permanently on the basis of hardship—she needed her daughter to care for her. The daughter received a temporary work permit or visa and was allowed to stay. But she cannot travel outside the country. If she did leave and reenter, she’d be detained and deported. Eighteen years later, the woman, whose work permit is renewed yearly, is still waiting, despite her being married to, and abandoned by, her American-born husband. Why? Adams says it’s the quotas.

Mexican nationals have one of the longest waits for dependent visas of anyone except Filipinos, some of whom have been in America and idling, legally, since 1990. For Filipinos, only now is the United States Custom and Immigration Service processing those who applied 24 years ago.

Adams says that people come to her for a consultation; they listen; they nod their heads; they seem to understand. “But then a point comes when their exasperation erupts: ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ And then I say, ‘Ah, you do understand.’”

The moment of levity is such that we both burst out laughing.

Stuck between potential status and green card. Is it true, I ask, that we can label these folk “legal” immigrants?

True, she says. There are 4.4 million on the so-called waiting list (it’s an estimate, not an actual list), with actual or potential status. Forget the 11 million illegals, whose plight, Adams notes huffily, the media and anti-immigrant politicians concentrate on far more than the plight of the legal. Though legal immigrants follow the rules, they are largely silent, fearing immigration officials will investigate their claims or send them packing. I know; I could find few who would talk about their status.

From the Philippines to Canada to America

One such who did is Kare, a nurse in her mid-thirties, who asks, her voice as thin as Bible paper, that I use no identifying details about her, beginning with her real name. (Kare spoke with me beside her lawyer, Harun Kazmi, an immigration attorney in the Kearney Mesa offices of Kazmi and Sakata. Many of the firm’s clients are in Kare’s employment-based category. Kazmi often helped explicate her case.)

A Filipina, Kare came to San Diego via Canada. Growing up, she like her fellow citizens, wanted to go abroad—because of low wages there and the high wages everywhere else. “Sixty percent of Filipinos want to come to America,” she says. After nurse training, she emigrated to Canada to work (“I thought I would like Canada but not until I felt those winters”) and became a Canadian citizen. But she always wanted to come to the U.S. To work. Not to be a citizen. To practice nursing. That was her goal.

Within two months of her November 2006 arrival, she was hired at one of San Diego’s two monster S-initialed hospital chains. She loves her job. Her boss supports her and reminds her each year to renew her temporary work permit: go out of the country and come back in at a port of entry with her job offer letter—one’s visa gold card, so to speak.

Another reason she came is that under NAFTA, Mexicans and Canadians can come to the U.S. for job interviews as part of the trade agreement. The government classifies certain jobs—nurses, software engineers, doctors, scientists—as necessary to our economy. Half of scientists and engineers who have doctorates are immigrants. We simply do not graduate enough in those highly specialized fields.

But though she was given a one-year temporary visa and earned a driver’s license, hers is not a secure position. “Every year when I renew my visa,” she says, “there’s the possibility that I’ll be denied. I might answer the questions wrong.” This, she says, made her nervous, especially the first few years before her work experience here gave her confidence.

The irony is, “the longer she extends her visa, the more it appears” to Custom and Immigration “that she’s going to be here forever,” say Kazmi. The agency starts to “red-flag” her, asking, in essence, what is her plan and why doesn’t she go back to Canada. Kare says that she intended to stay and work for five years but now wants to get a green card because “I love my job—even though it’s very stressful.”

We hear all the time about the nursing shortage. Hospitals fill the breach with nurses from other countries. Not a surprise, there’s also a high turnover in the field—the hours, the patients’ and the doctors’ demands, the emergencies—which means that Kare is needed more than ever. “In my department, U.S. nurses come in, work six months or a year, then quit.” Over-stressed, they move on to clinics where they hear things are a bit calmer. Another plus is that a shortage of nurses means the immigration renewal process for temporary, noncitizen nurses is much less of a hassle. The government recognizes the need, says Kazmi.

So after three years at the hospital, in 2010, Kare met with Kazmi to become permanently legal. Now her problem is the backlog. In her case, he estimates, six years from 2010. Kare tells me that the whole slog for her green card will take 10 years, to 2020. And that as long as her employer renews her visa and the government doesn’t renegotiate her “chargeability.” A fine example of doublespeak, chargeability means the degree to which your nationality is over- or underrepresented in the system. You’re charged though you’ve done nothing. Some nationalities (Filipino in her case) are vastly “oversubscribed,” Custom and Immigration’s word, while Cubans and certain Africans have slots perennially open. The country order from shortest to longest waits is China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Kazmi says that five years ago the nursing shortage was so severe that the government was processing applications to move from temporary to permanent immediately. Those days ended, but “there’s always the hope that they’ll speed up the process again.”

This is one of the most quixotic elements about legal immigration: one’s floatation in the backlog. Typically one is bundled by education level—highly skilled, skilled, unskilled—and there’s seldom preferences extended to critical professions. Moreover, Custom and Immigration can push the backlog back to open up another category—say Iraqi refugees in 2002 after the Iraq War began. The bureaucratese for pushing the legal immigrant back down the line is “retrogress a cut-off date.”

Kare gets frustrated. She just came back from Europe, going through a port of entry in Philadelphia. “They weren’t familiar with my TN [NAFTA] visa, so they looked at me, they looked at my card, my passport, they called someone over.” It’s often a committee decision to allow her in, even though they can check her status is legal on a computer.

Kazmi explains the risk differently. He says that when Kare first came here, she said it would be temporary—work for several years and go back. That went on her record. Now he’s filed for her to be permanent because the hospital has offered her a permanent job—work here indefinitely. And not go back. That, too, went on her record. So immigration officials see this “change of heart” and “it works against her,” especially at ports of entry.

He says that officials could detain her at the border and despite her job offer and despite her stellar employment history and valid driver’s license, they could say, since you have applied for a green card, why not return to Canada and wait for it there. “That,” which he doesn’t see coming, “is the worst-case scenario.”

Finally, Kare says that her sympathies for immigrants doesn’t extend to illegals. She sees too many in her hospital environment—whether working there or as patients. “I think the U.S. should be stricter about illegals than it is.” Kazmi agrees. “I think about the lives of my clients—they go through a lot of money and time. Doing it legally. And then they hear news reports about the ‘other side.’ [Anger at illegals] is a common feeling to have. ‘Why am I bothering,’ my clients think. ‘Why?’”

The Process for Legal Immigrants Works and Doesn’t Work

The most egregious example of a broken system is the Tsarnaev case, the Boston Marathon bombers. Brothers Dzhokhar, who survived, and Tamerlan, who died, came to Boston as minor children refugees with their parents and sisters in 2007. With green cards, they joined the five-year wait to apply for citizenship. After the bombing, The New York Times reported that Tamerlan’s application for U.S. citizenship had been held up because the FBI was investigating him. He was interviewed in January 2011 because he may have had ties to Chechen terrorists. Dzhokhar’s application for citizenship was approved.

The government is not saying which crack the brothers slipped through. Immigration officials may have been monitoring terrorist ties in both. And yet even Tamerlan’s know associations was, apparently, not enough to get the F.B.I.’s full attention. It’s one thing to collect mountains of information and cross-process it among dozens of agencies. It’s another thing to search a stack of needles for the sharpest and most deadly needles.

Post-Boston, and in a non-election year, here comes Congress with immigration reform. A slew of measures are on the table, including one to fast-track investigations of suspected terrorist ties in the 4.4 million. But given sequestration, a government shutdown, and another debt-ceiling crisis—despite Band-Aid fixes—nothing with immigration is getting done.

In addition, immigrants do have rights. Bring on the ACLU who has condemned the government’s surveiling of noncitizens like the Tsarnaevs, made public in its Department of Homeland Security’s Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program for immigrant visas. In a recent report, the ACLU argues that the F.B.I. cast a too broad net over individuals, typically with “ethnic” and religious identities, it deems “national security concerns.” The watchdogs criticize the government for creating “secret exclusions,” as Jennie Pasquarella, an ACLU attorney, put it. “Before we learned about” this program, “we were seeing patterns of delays and denials, but nobody understood what was behind this.” The ACLU says it’s racism—targeting people because of their Muslim faith.

Another immigration attorney I emailed, Allan S. Lolly, added a few more qualms about reform. “If the backlog is reduced,” he writes, “the U.S. population would mushroom quickly without end. Families,” who are waiting for visas, “do not need to live in the U.S. They live in the Philippines or in other countries too. Why here?” He’s also suspicious of so many family-sponsored claims. “Why hand out too many privileges to those who are not immediate family members. A minor child, OK, but an adult child? Wait. Why is that person even in the U.S.?”

Yet another injustice, Lolly notes—and an “incentive not to change the system”—happens with “private companies” who may “benefit by keeping illegals in jail.” Plus, there’s pressure from labor unions not to reform. “If you allow too many work visas, it drives down the cost of labor.” Perhaps this is why Congress can’t revise immigration law. There’s a surfeit of interest groups, most with strong lobbies, that stand to lose if reform passes.

In California, where legal noncitizens are 10 percent of the population, the state has enacted several new laws: legal immigrants can now serve on juries and monitor voting polls while their misdemeanor crimes will not be reported to federal authorities. But, in the national debate, legal change is kneecapped by politicians, political action committees, and vocal constituents who object to a “path to citizenship” for the undocumented. Congress appears unwilling to legislate the two statuses separately and, thus, the waffling continues.

Legal Is Invisible

At the breakfast-busy University club atop Symphony Towers, Brian Johnson is spooning in and enjoying his scrambled eggs. Thirty-one, he tells me that he began practicing immigration law in 2004 as a clerk in the office of the Department of Homeland Security’s chief counsel. He discovered soon that any expertise in the Byzantine complexity of immigration law was an asset; he went from Homeland Security to private practice, filing deportation and green-card cases in Houston. Four years ago he relocated to San Diego to open the law firm, Guerra & Johnson.

He remembers what he thought of immigrants when he began lawyering. He would look at people, milling on a busy street corner, and say to himself, “That guy there; he’s a foreigner—I can tell by the way he dresses, the way he looks, the color of his skin. Now, seven years later, I look around”—at the crowded room we’re in, for example—“and there’s three people here who are illegal, three people who have green cards, and three people who just got their citizenship. I don’t know who, and I can’t tell—and you can’t tell.”

Johnson says “there’s no question” that people whose cases end up in immigration court have “violated the law. The accusations the government makes against an immigrant are almost 100 percent accurate.” They have overstayed their visas, entered illegally, and committed crimes like marriage fraud, a false claim for citizenship, a frivolous asylum request, a fake passport, the rare aggravated felony—and the government starts proceedings to remove them.

“You hire a lawyer to try and stay here.” He’ll take a person’s case if he believes “relief from removal” is possible. Time and again, Johnson has cases move from “hopeless” to a green card, molasses’s slow but finding its legs. He charges flat fees, $5000 to $10,000, and cases take an average of three to five years.

Two recent changes have helped open the logjam and unleashed volatile public reaction. President Obama directed immigration courts to use “prosecutorial discretion”; government attorneys could select who and who not to deport. In 2012, a new law, D.A.C.A., Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allowed those who came to the U.S. as children to stay without fear of deportation for two years.

I pose the slippery query: What is the line between legal and illegal?

Johnson says that people who have “claims to status through their families” are legal. “They might think they are illegal but if they were detained they’d be released because they have documents.” Even if the person has no documentation, immigration will find out they are in the system, have a case pending, and “allow them to stay.”

Illegal, he goes on, means a person who either has snuck over the border and has not made a claim for status or has violated his or her status by overstaying a visa. The standard is, “Are you in compliance with the law or are you violating the law.”

As for the 11 million illegals, he says, “it’s hard to get your mind around that number. How many of them are border crossers? How many of them are criminal immigrants? How many are overstays? How many have a few violations here or there and need to get legal counsel to have their case resolved? I don’t know what percentage that is.

Really, the odds are not in a legal immigrant’s favor unless one is highly educated or has an “extreme hardship” case. Even if the government allows in 400,000 immigrants per year—whose number and preference changes monthly based on complex percentages, the occasional political wind, and congressional representatives who go to bat for separated spouses, military cases, and asylum reviews—only one in ten of the “qualified” get permanent legal residency. Poor odds, but not impossible.

Johnson says most of the 4.4 million are safe. Even though they have restrictions—they could be deported if they violated their status via drugs or crime or if they left the country and tried to return—they do have status and their cases, by definition, are pending. Though it may sound counterintuitive, he says, it’s a good thing to be “stuck in a category.”

Why won’t Congress separate legal and illegal immigration reform?

Johnson’s answer is surprising. “It’s hard to address one without understanding the other. Let’s say your concern is border crossers. Do you want to build a wall, add officers? In my experience, everyone who crosses the border—it’s all family. It’s the father who goes back and forth.” And they’ve been doing this border run for decades. They use the mountains, not the port of entry. “Legal clients,” he says, “have the same motivation, family and work. Whether they do it legally or illegally seems to be more their personal option than what the immigration system sets up. They’re going to come either way.”

“I’m Happy”

Not all in immigration land are sitting in a stalled van on the freeway. For every ten cases in the race, one crosses the finish line. How easily we forget that for many the goal is citizenship. One reason a lot of us don’t realize the human cost of inflexible immigration laws is that Americans take their citizenship for granted. It’s automatic. Earning it? That’s another kettle of fish. In fact, there’s little comparison between the American-born and the naturalized. When I speak with new citizens or immigrants, it’s as if I’m meeting my grandfather—once a sixteen-year-old Swede, steerage-traveling to America in 1882, who went by barge down the St. Lawrence River and by train through Ontario to the Iron Range of northern Minnesota where he toiled with pick ax and wheelbarrow and dynamite charges in the open-pit mines, saving money to sponsor a brother. How little English he would have known, how dependent he was on his employer, no doubt, a snarling whip-cracker who could can him for any reason, how frightened he felt.

But how free, too, no longer to be in Sweden where military service was compulsory.

I’m reflecting on his adventure and trial when I meet Octavio, 40, an immigrant who has the patience of Job in his long haul from Mexico to Fallbrook.

We’re in the North Park immigration law offices of Barbara Strickland, a second-story set of rooms as busy as a hospital ward. I’m struck right off by the family in her ad for “family law.” A half dozen young Hispanic women, a couple of whom chase and shush a two-year-old, do office chores and make calls for Ms. Strickland, who’s been helping immigrants—a bright orange flyer on the receptionist’s desk: “Immigrate to the USA!!” “We speak Tagalog, Spanish, French”—for decades. The office lingua franca is Spanish. “Ninety percent of my clients are from Mexico,” she tells me, “so I had to learn the language.”

On a punishingly hot September day, Octavo arrives, dressed all in black: flimsy nylon shorts, snug black shoes with no socks, black T-shirt, and a dark blue cap with a sports logo and frayed bill. He wears black-bordered rectangular glasses a la Wolf Blitzer.

Having freeway-struggled from Fallbrook where he runs his own body shop, Octavio cannot repress a smile: “I’m happy,” he says, “I just got my green card.” Like an adoring son, he looks at Strickland who lowers her expression, though I catch beams of pride and satisfaction.

In 2006, Octavio came to America. Yes, he was illegal, “hiding,” in the shadows, he says, but in his mind he had potential status. He arrived because his father, a first-generation U.S. citizen from Mexico, had applied for him to come. His “papers” took too long to get to him, so he just walked across the border. (His father, a farm worker, left Querétaro, north of Mexico City, in 1986, then sent for his wife. They left Octavio and their two other sons, all teenagers, with relatives. The parents took two decades to establish residency. Sublime moment they took the oath. In the 1990s, they shuttled back and forth across the border and saw their children regularly.)

Strickland tells me that with her help Octavio was categorized F1, a son or daughter of a U.S. citizen. In 2006, his group was current, which is to say there was no wait. But not long after his arrival, the F1 numbers (roughly 23,400 of the same class got green cards in 2013) were lowered, and the category lost its currency. Octavio thought he’d get a green card “pretty quick.” He also hoped to bring his own family—a wife and two children—to America once he qualified for permanent legal residency.

In Fallbrook, he began working in his father’s body shop; family-sponsored, he obtained a work permit. With a cell phone, he talked with his family in Mexico “almost every day,” sometimes using Skype. He sent money home and saved to pay Strickland. But then, he says, months of languishing turned into years and his slot, based on the date he applied, kept getting pushed back (“retrogression”). As a result, he hasn’t seen his wife and kids in seven years.

Nor in that time has he been back to Mexico. With his work permit, he and Strickland filed for his green card, which stipulates that so long as his residency status is pending, he cannot leave the country. He dare not sneak back either when the border has become so militarized. We hear that virtually no one from Mexico is coming over, nothing like they once did, even seven years ago. Border immigration, the phrase goes, is at net zero.

I ask, once more, the infelicitous question—legal vs. illegal. Strickland says, yes, there’s a difference. But any legal clarity falls apart when “looking at the whole family. It’s not unusual where some in a family are citizens, others have green cards, and others are undocumented.” Her job, she says, is to get the undocumented documented. She does warn that if an immigration officer came in and found one of her clients undocumented, he could arrest and place that person in custody. “Subject to removal,” it’s called. “And then he or she has a problem.”

But immigration officials rarely chase “illegals.” They almost never raid a law office or detain the undocumented in a Home Depot parking lot because such immigrants may be “in extreme hardship. Even if you are here illegally, your deportation may not happen because your citizen spouse or citizen children would lose support. Or you may have a serious illness that, with removal, would go untreated.” Immigration judges have to be very careful because there’s a limit of 4000 “extreme hardship” exceptions given each year.

Octavio says he doesn’t “feel sad about,” missing his family because “I’m happy right now. I was OK waiting. It takes what it takes.” The main difference between living here than in Mexico is, “you work harder over here but you live more comfortable.”

What’s the biggest change having a green card brings? “I have a lot of responsibilities now that I am part of the society. Plus I can go back and forth to Mexico.” He’ll soon be on a plane, flying home. A reunion, at last. Ironically, the green card’s great advantage for many is to be able to leave the U.S.

Strickland says that he can petition for green cards for his children. But his daughter will soon turn 21, which means she’ll have to follow in his footsteps—slotted in the backlog. “It may take her years to get here,” Strickland says. At 21, she is no longer eligible to emigrate on her father’s new status. “That’s a real tragedy,” she says. Octavio’s son is 18, so he may get to come once he applies for a visa.

Does Octavio think of himself as an American, a Mexican, in between?

“I don’t think of myself like any of that. I am what I am.” Indeed, this may be the most salient reward of being an American: transcending the vaunted notion of American individuality. Just having that green card is enough of an identity. Again, he says, he’s happy because he can talk to me today, which he would have avoided in the past, especially since he’s one of the luckiest—he’s left the millions in line who are now waiting their turn.

            You would think America’s schools would cave under all the criticism they receive. What’s distressful is that the critique is withering from both ends. Take job and career prep. Robinson tells his audience, “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid—things you liked—on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that: ‘Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician.’” At least, not a money-making one. The reality is, however, there’s hardly any way into the arts that doesn’t involve waiting tables. What’s more, not everyone is artistic. Kids need training, especially the talent-less. Where else will they get it but in school?

            Damned either way: teach job skills, the school squanders the young’s creativity; teach creativity, graduates, sassy and fulfilled, have few marketable skills.

            Yet Robinson’s talk as well as those dogged independents in the home-schooling movement reminds us of the unteachable traits like ambition, imagination, stick-to-it-tive-ness, turns of character that may not mean a steady paycheck but are necessary to a society’s growth. Where would our culture be without those unschooled self-starters like Thomas Edison and Bill Gates? How do we think about the “education” of other rarities, all high school dropouts, like Count Basie, Marlon Brando, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosa Parks, Charlie Chaplin, Horace Greeley, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, among a trove of originals?

            The young read (probably hear) of these bootstrap pioneers, those rife with purpose, and say, why not me? Why do I have to go to college to be someone? Isn’t there another way? There is. UnCollege—as one university dropout and entrepreneur has trademarked it and is hoping to direct the faction.

            The idea is, your education is your responsibility. You can use your latent talents, your abiding passions to get where you want to go. Just remember, you must first steer clear of the one path, often de rigueur in the annals of American success, which prescribes the mountainous debt, the useless knowledge, and the entombed creativity is worth the four-year degree.




Nico D’Amico-Barbour is unsure about a lot of things but one thing he’s not is that college has none of the necessities or draws with which he needs to live now. At 22, tousled-haired with a preternatural wise face, he is gainfully employed, a dedicated autodidact, and a fair-weather college student. Five years ago, D’Amico-Barbour, enrolled at High Tech High, dropped out “for personal reasons,” he tells me over a Vegan cookie and hot tea at Filter in Hillcrest. All his High Tech friends graduated and went on to college. Not him. Eventually he passed his GED, took five classes at Mesa College, got bored, quit, and found a job, $8 an hour running a coffee shop.

            High-Tech High, however, grounded him in one thing: “That place taught me how to learn.” Still, he says, other than a few good history classes, with project-based group learning, “I never really got any real knowledge there.” Such knowledge is, for him, narrowly defined. It’s applied, and, he says, only life gives knowledge, not school.

            He admits that “friends and family struggle to understand” his decision to avoid college. They may not see how well informed he is. He listens to NPR podcasts and updates himself with news blogs daily. (At times, his conversation drifts current politics.) His passion, though, has been to work, “not to sit and listen.” He values starting his own business, studying on his own, and steering clear of homework and what he calls the “deferred gratification” of university life.

            D’Amico-Barbour boils down his counterintuitive path to a stronger longing, a desire to “experience hardships”—the daily vicissitudes of work, paying one’s way, riding the bus, and so on. He says he grew up with well-off parents, partly in Europe, where he studied Italian. But with such a tended life he seldom faced the difficulties he relishes by living on his own.

            He admits, nibbling on his cookie, that “my parents would, today, step in and help me” go to college “if that’s what I wanted to do. It’s unfortunate that I have a free education waiting for me—and millions of Americans don’t. Most Americans look forward only to crippling college debt or not being able to afford much of anything. That’s an example of what’s wrong with our system.” He says that in a sense he feels his advantages “nagging at him. I sometimes joke that I have to pay off my birth.” College would exercise that birthright, another reason to say no.

            D’Amico-Barbour calls college “a fabricated environment. It’s fake. We set up buildings, an environment with dorm rooms, for 18-year-olds. You always hear two aspects about college: the parties and the pranks, and the flipside, the learning opportunities, pulling all-nighters to learn an esoteric concept. It’s completely fabricated—it will never be experienced again.”

            Even worse, college is a “platform for enforcing the status quo.” The American class system has not changed in 250 years, he says. It’s bent on rewarding the same bluebloods with opportunities and money. The undiscussed goal, which college “perpetuates,” is privilege. Even affirmative action “just indoctrinates people of a lower class into the upper class.” College is no longer the democratically open and financially accessible institution it used to be, in the halcyon 1960s, when it was free.

            He continues. “How many people can honestly say that they’ve had an incredible, amazing, inspiring, novel-worthy life. I would argue that that most” individual accomplishments “come from adversity, from taking risks—and not from going through the steps everyone else takes. They come from selling all your possessions and moving to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language—as an example.

            “I’ve grown more character, humility, and understanding for the pain most people in this world have to go through than I ever could have experienced in high school or by going through college.”

            It’s not so much what college provides that bothers him; it’s what it forestalls. As such it’s a greater incentive for him not to go. Maybe he’ll want university later on, in his mid- to late-20s. But not now, not when in three years he’s risen to office manager at Canvass for a Cause, a gay-rights nonprofit, with 50 people working under him, “all younger than me.” He earns more than most his age. An he’s keeping his options open. He’s toying with the idea of applying to billionaire Elon Musk’s project of colonizing Mars.

            D’Amico-Barbour realizes his motivations are conflicted. On his own, he loves learning about “esoteric things” but were he to enter university he would hope his teachers focus on job skills, the relevant, the practical. Recently, he says, “I went back again, took a few classes, and I succeeded for a second—but then it just slowly faded away,” and he quit.

            Instead, at Canvass, he’s acquired a satchel full of skills. Mostly self-taught, he’s learned “Excel algorithms, data collection, office management, organizational development, payroll, and leadership.” His eagerness to succeed has been rewarded with six promotions.

            College, he says, offers subject mastery in things neither he nor anyone needs in life. Say a course in algebra or the history of the Beatles—such erudition a waste of time. “There is nothing I learned in my job,” he say, “that I did not need to learn for my job.”




According to the economist, Stephen Rose, the “B.A. wage premium” is 74 percent greater than a high-school graduate will earn in his/her lifetime (roughly $1 million). What’s more, college graduates have an unemployment rate half that of those without a degree. Sounds like a good investment.

            Yet the demand for educated workers keeps falling, replaced by a projected growth in unskilled and semi-skilled labor which, surprise, runs against the constant calls for an educated workforce. While it’s true that jobs for workers with master’s degrees in bioengineering and education keep climbing, the biggest growth in coming employment opportunities will be for those with a high school diploma or less.

            “More than two-thirds of all job openings,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites for the decade 2010-2020, “are expected to be in occupations that typically do not need postsecondary education for entry.” Two-thirds. These vocations provide “on-the-job training,” no prior experience needed: personal care and home health aides, including medical secretaries, as well as carpenters, plumbers, ironworkers, laborers, and so on. More openings are slated for pet handlers, sports trainers, massage therapists, housecleaners, and dental assistants, which require one year beyond high school. There will be growth in veterinary medicine, medical diagnostics, and occupational therapy, needing a two-year associate’s degree.

            It goes without saying that these positions are low wage, non-union, benefits-lacking, contract labor—and, if the population remains the same via immigration and birth, each slot will become increasingly competitive. By contrast, how many university grads have I run into lately who are enduring unpaid internships, nowadays one of the only ways into professions bulging with applicants?

            The message: If it’s a basic job that pays a basic wage, why go to college indeed.

            The notion that four years of college is universally desired (how often do we hear President Obama use that phrase: “send your kids to college”) exists as one of the more dubious inducements we foist on the young and the restless. How and where to go is implanted—and worried over—typically when kids are high school juniors. So says Mary Jo McCarey, head counselor at Clairemont High School.

            In a phone interview, McCarey tells me her school provides ample materials to kids for possible life paths, namely, career and personality assessment software: Find your aptitude, gauge your interests, see what’s available. “We tell them,” she says, “that it’s important to figure what kind of career you want and understand how to get there—because nearly every job requires a skill, and after high school, you’ll need to go another two years.

            “A lot dream—I want to be a doctor, a pediatrician, a CSI, or crime scene investigator: whatever they see on TV.” It’s actually the star they want to be, she says, not the professional played.

            Do they know how to get there?

            “They have no clue.”

            Do their parents?

            McCarey pauses, sighs wearily. Her voice has that landscape of frustration in it, which arises after decades of explaining what few seem to grok.

            “Maybe 15 percent of our kids have role models at home who support them to further their education.” For the rest of the kids, she says, most of their parents “are just as lost. They don’t even talk to their kids.” She says low-income families are primarily concerned with their kids’ earning money, on that bright June day they graduate high school. These parents seldom, she notes, “think of education as an investment, that [their kids] would make more money.”

            One of the strangest problems, McCarey has witnessed, is that those uneducated and college-averse parents who do want them to graduate high school suddenly don’t want them to go to college. “It [a college degree] is a slap in the face. Their attitude is, ‘What I do—if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.’” There’s no cause for university if one’s sights are set on lawn maintenance or the night shift at Burger King.

            Debt may dissuade some not to attend college. But, she says, high school students by and large don’t understand that a college loan is just that. “They don’t realize they have to pay it back.” She’s known more than a few who’ve dropped out of college after two years because it hits them—and their parents—that the money is not gratis. “I don’t’ think they get it until they get the bill.”

            She says that the ones who’ll make it in college are those in the advanced placement classes who have study skills and keep their GPA between 3.5 and 4.0. “The kids between 2.5 and 3.0, in the regular classes—they’re probably not going to make it.” McCarey is frank, some might say punishingly realistic, with her charges. “I tell them, ‘You might get in college but the chances of you staying in college are slim to none. You don’t have the study skills; you’re barely getting by.’”

            I ask McCarey if scholarship, fine art, self-enrichment, the love of study appeals to any of her high-schoolers. Out of the 1200 at Clairemont, she says, “maybe five fit that profile.” Job, job, job is the mantra—neither a degreed profession, nor love of learning, nor a beautiful mind is the goal. It’s odd, too, that with longer life expectancy and second acts encouraged in our culture, Americans equate school so heavily with employment, excluding these days what was, at least, a generation removed, a common aspiration—the liberal arts.

            Much college avoidance may be cultural. McCarey notes that 53 percent of Clairemont high’s population is Hispanic. For most of them, college is doable only if the campus is local. (Which is contributing to college’s fastest growing area, online classes.) Hispanic kids, she says, often “do not go away to college. Their families don’t want their kids to leave period. If they go, they live at home and commute. It’s the only way, especially with the girls.”

            Why the tether?

            McCarey has a story. When she counseled at Hoover high school, an Hispanic staff member told her that parents in her culture didn’t want the kids to roam, which means working and not moving on to or away for higher education, was a “form of insurance. Many families don’t have insurance. They have children. Their children are their insurance.”

            Moving out, and especially going off to college, suggests that the kids “may never come back and, in essence, not be there to take care of the parents when they get sick and old.” In essence, she notes, many families don’t want their children marrying their professions and, thereby, divorcing either their families or their communities.




In 2010, student debt in America reached the $1 trillion mark. The explosion of such debt is among the harshest of economic indenture, afflicting the poor and the middle class for whom college is an added not a planned or saved-for expense. In the last three decades, while inflation has risen threefold and healthcare sixfold, college costs have shot up tenfold. Some bubble-wary economists believe that college loan debt—the average in 2012 for a graduate was $26,600; 60 percent of those attending college borrowed; 37 million people owe, about one in 10—is a looming financial crisis on par with the mortgage crisis five years ago. Why? Student debt is now greater than the country’s credit-card debt.

            Unpaid bills are just one many bugaboos that beset Tyler Wayne Davis who has myriad doubts about the worth of a college degree. He meets me one January afternoon at Lestat’s on Park Boulevard to talk about his blowing off college, which he’s been quite good at for the 12 years since finishing high school.

            An Ocean Beach resident, Davis, at 30, is open-faced and warmly relational, less jaded than I feared. He wears a green hoodie and a green hat. Above the hat’s bill is a button—a capital A with a circle around it, the insignia of the anarchist. He’s an unabashed champion of social justice who’s recently married his long-time girlfriend and is vexed that he’s educationally stuck.

            Any debt, he says, “really weighs on me.” He and his wife just bought a car, financing $18,000. First real debt for either of them. Their forestalling payments has been “partly out of fear, partly out of principle,” he says. “It’s scary. Hell, I can barely pay back friends who loan me $20 let alone pay back a credit card company that has no remorse.”

            We talk about the idea that one of the major problems of a college debt—which, both school and loans, he’s so far happily evaded—is that it almost guarantees you’ll probably have to work at a job you won’t like to get rid of that debt, and yet, without a degree and that crushing college bill, you’ll probably be working at a job you won’t like anyway.

            He’s not averse to hard work. For years, he’s found jobs, paid and unpaid, with at-risk kids in summer camps and detention as well as with disabled adults. These days, he has two jobs: helping home-bound adults on public assistance and managing a group of merchandise kiosks at Belmont Park.

            How many times, he moans, has he, when applying for a job, faced the box on the form indicating “college education,” put down his handful of community college classes, then been told the cold fact that, learning-wise, he’s under-qualified.

            Davis tells me a story, one that’s “played over and over in my mind a million times.” While he and the woman who became his wife were living in Lawrence, Kansas, a friend from Austin, Texas, called him and said he had the perfect job for him, one in which he would set up “social experiments with high school kids” and create diversity training programs to defuse bullying. All these things he’s had ample experience, mostly with Anytown, a program for disadvantaged youth, 14-18, which is sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice.

            His friend said, “I’ve convinced them you’re great for this job. All you have to do is fill out the resume, come down here and meet them, and send a copy of your diploma—”

            “My what?”

            “Your diploma.”

            “Dude,” Davis said, a remorse-laden tone, “I don’t have a bachelor’s.”

            “Oh, no,” his friend said.

            But the bachelor’s could be in anything. Still, Davis had no degree.

            And that was that.

            It haunts him that when he turns in his resume to “at least get a foot in the door”—the person with the degree and not the experience always receives the call-back before he does.

            While in high school, neither his parents, teachers, nor counselors saw him as college material. They did see many of his friends that way, testing and prepping them with advanced courses. He says his parents were also college dropouts. “They ended up doing basically what I’ve done.”

            Another reason college hasn’t happened is a phrase he iterates several times: “Life got in the way.” You name it: an aversion to college algebra, full-time jobs working nights, friendship and relationship problems, growing up in a family that was “fiscally irresponsible,” his mother’s remarriage to an alcoholic, and more.

            Throughout high school and beyond, “I was really just going through the day,” never thinking, “‘what am I going to be doing in five years.’”

            Davis impresses me on one count: he says that early on he was interested in religious studies, “not because I’m religious but just because I’m interested,” and the last thing he wanted, he realized, was to attend university for eight years, get his PhD, and “end up teaching it. That’s not practical.”

            Every next year, he says, “is the year. This year is crazy,” he laughs, “but next year—I’ll figure out my finances, and it’ll be better.” So college looms as a prospect, a salvation, even a goal. “But then,” the pragmatist in him notes, “next year comes and you’re living life and it isn’t better. Next year is sometimes worse.”

            Some three years after graduating high school, Davis came close to an associate’s degree at a community college in Kansas but then two of his close friends, a male-female couple, were murdered. Under the emotional strain and after three weeks of missed classes, his teachers said he was too far behind and he dropped out.

            His tenure with social justice groups, organizing and working with youth, never paid, he laughs, a tad dishearteningly. “If anything, that was my biggest financial drain. My money went to paying rent, keeping a crappy car running, utilities, food, paying rent on our office space.”

            Devotion to such a social ideology as anarchism has not “translated into getting me a job. In fact,” he says, things like publishing a radical newsletter for prisoners, staging hunger strikes, organizing anti-military recruitment offensives “doesn’t look very good on anyone’s resume.”

            He’s close to a crossroads. He’s not bitter by any means—“I definitely benefit” in this society “from male privilege, white privilege, and because I’m married, straight privilege.” Even with these pluses “and working 60 hours a week, I still can’t get ahead. There’s got to be something wrong about that.”

            The pressure to “decide” about his future, not just live it, is ever present, harsh sunshine for one squinty-eyed. He may inch back to college—“I’ve said that so many times that I wonder, is the claim real?” He believes he’s mature enough now to get his credits together, find a math tutor, defer doing for being a student.

            What’s difficult for Davis is that he still doesn’t know what he wants to do—over the long haul. He worries that his current jobs—whether doing 60 hours in the current off-season or 80 hours in the summer—allow him the time necessary for any educational program. He keeps working as much as he can to make his and his wife’s move from Kansas to Ocean Beach viable and to support his wife’s one-year certification program in dental hygiene.

            Davis remembers that when he lived in Lawrence he hung out with lots of kids in college or those just graduated. Many were working in the same field he was, social justice, for which he has no postsecondary qualifications.

            One day, he and a woman got in a hot chat about time travel and physics. “I explained what I had just read and this girl said, ‘I’m minoring in physics,’ and then explained, with all the right buzz words, exactly what I’d just said—literally, to the T.” He was dumbfounded.

            He thought to himself, “Oh, I see. I get it. You’re minoring in physics, so it matters more what you have to say than what I have to say. Got it.”

            Such attitudes, putdowns, really, from the university know-it-alls, added to a life spent paying back tens of thousands of dollars to become one of them, are things Davis can live without.