SALT LAKE CITY — Marie Francois grew up in Haiti reading books her mother picked up from a local thrift shop, often tomes that had smart-looking people on the cover. She read mostly during the day when it didn't matter that their small home didn't have electricity. At night, she read by candlelight.
Her single mother, who worked as a cleaning lady while studying to be a nurse, told her oldest daughter not to get used to living in poverty.
"We're going to get out of here," she would say.
Francois' mother valued education. Though she didn't have much money, she paid for her children to attend private Catholic school. Sometimes a school kicked Francois out when her mother couldn't pay the tuition.
Her mother eventually became a nurse at the company where she had worked as a cleaner. She later went into the wheat and flour business, a popular commodity in the Caribbean. She became active in politics.
It took 15 years, but Francois' mother was true to her word.
"My mom never takes no for an answer," Francois said. "She’s not afraid to start from the bottom and work her way up. That’s why the American dream attracted me, I believe."
But the American dream isn't coming easy for the 30-year-old married mother of a 15-month old son who has lived legally in the United States on a student visa for the past decade. (Her husband also is Haitian and in the country on a student visa.)
Francois has a bachelor's degree in construction management from Brigham Young University-Idaho. She studied business management at the State University of New York, one of three Haitian students selected among thousands for a special program. She has put in hundreds of hours of community service. She was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Paraguay. She has volunteered on political campaigns. She speaks four languages. She wants to go to Harvard Law School.
"I feel like I’m the ultimate immigrant," she said.
What Francois doesn't have is U.S. citizenship or a green card, and that is making it difficult for her to land a job.
"We’re not your enemy," she said. "We’re here because we love this country and we want to be part of this great nation."
Companies, she said, aren't willing to work through the immigration system to help her get a highly sought-after H1-B visa for college graduates with special skills. Businesses don't want to take a chance on someone who might not be in the country very long, nor do they want to wade through the immigration system to help her get a special visa.
One Utah company gave her a start date and even sent her pictures of her cubicle before abruptly rescinding the offer.
"It’s disappointing and sometimes discouraging, but I’m still pursuing the American dream because I’m a hard worker and we are tough enough and we will move forward," she while sipping a hot chocolate on a chilly spring evening at the City Creek food court.
Immigrants like Francois see the H1-B visa as a path to furthering their career and making a life in America. Many applicants are international students trying to transition from student visas to H1-B visas and eventually green cards.
There are 65,000 H-1B visas available, and another 20,000 for people who hold advanced degrees from U.S. colleges and universities. All of the visas have been issued within the first week for the past 16 years. To deal with the glut of applications, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has moved to lottery system.
Last year, employers filed 190,098 petitions, including 95,855 on behalf of foreign-born professionals who had earned a graduate degree from a U.S. university, well above the 85,000 cap.
Thousands of talented professionals get turned away, including people who already know English, understand American culture and who have conducted research in the U.S. as graduate students.
"This is not an unfamiliar scenario to me," Salt Lake immigration attorney Tim Wheelwright said of Francois' situation. He does not represent her.
Francois is in the country on an F-1 student visa, which allows her optional practical training, or OPT, for one year in her major area of study. After that, she doesn't know where she will be. Her construction management degree doesn't qualify for the two-year science, technology, engineering and math extension.
Optional practical training is intended to give U.S. companies that employ foreign workers multiple opportunities to apply for an H-1B visa, which would be a logical next step for Francois.
"But as she's encountered, there are a number of employers that are leery of the H-1B process because of the expense and the uncertainty," Wheelwright said, noting businesses filed more than 200,000 petitions for the 85,000 visas made available in April. "Employers are getting tired of applying and not being selected."
President Donald Trump's "Buy America, Hire American" executive order has had an impact on employers.
According to data obtained by the National Foundation for American Policy, immigration services has begun to increase H-1B visa denials as well as the number of requests for evidence issued for applicants, Forbes reported.
"Employers report the time lost due to the increase in denials and requests for evidence has cost millions of dollars in project delays and contract penalties, while aiding competitors that operate exclusively outside the United States," Forbes reported, citing a National Foundation for American Policy source.
An Orrin G. Hatch Foundation report in April showed that the H-1B is "vastly overextended."
"This overreliance on the H-1B visa program creates choke points in our talent pipeline where skilled individuals either cannot move forward or simply choose to leave," according the report.
The foundation suggests raising the H-1B cap and tying it to market demand to meet the needs of a modern economy. It also calls for immigration reform, including a fast track to citizenship for international student graduates and entrepreneurs.
Sen. Mike Lee has attempted to break up the work visa backlog since being elected nearly nine years ago. Per-country quotas cause much longer wait times for immigrants from countries with large populations than for those from smaller countries.
The Utah Republican has introduced bills to remove per-country caps for H-1B visas and employment-based green cards, but despite bipartisan support, none have passed, including one a conservative senator blocked from advancing at the end of June.
Lee has said educating, training and employing the best and brightest, whether from the U.S. or abroad, is essential to the vibrancy of the economy and continued innovation.
An Arizona congressman, though, wants to cut off one path that foreign graduates take to get an H-1B visa.
Republican Rep. Paul Gosar plans to introduce legislation to end the optional practical training program, which according to Pew Research grew 400% in the decade after the government in 2008 boosted the amount of time STEM students and graduates could stay in the U.S. and work, Bloomberg reported in June.
Pew found that between 2004 and 2016, almost 1.5 million foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities have been allowed to work through the program, with 53% specializing in STEM fields.
Gosar also wrote a letter to Trump asking him to kill the optional practical training program by executive order, arguing millions of American citizens are willing and able to take those jobs, they just need a chance at employment.
But a recent study by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 83% of employers were having difficulty filling open positions, with 75% of those employers saying candidates did not have the necessary skills, like data science and STEM training.
Filling unfilled jobs like those is precisely the role immigration should play, but it is proving increasingly more difficult as employers use a 20th century immigration system to meet the needs of a 21st century economy, according to the Hatch report.
Francois said she feels like a pawn in a political game.
"I feel like that’s a big brain drain for the U.S. because all of us were getting our education here. We love this country. We love our friends, families and we want to build a life here. We want to see this country be more competitive, still be a big country. But when you treat us like we’re an enemy, it’s not a good thing. It’s not contributing to what this country was founded upon," Francois said.
In 2014, Francois' politically active mother in Haiti started receiving threatening phone calls. Antagonists burned down one of her stores. She fled to the United States seeking asylum through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services but eventually returned to Haiti.
Francois sought political asylum at the time as well, but being in the country legally worked against her.
The email she received from the Houston Asylum Office reads: "On the matter of your asylum case, you received a final denial of your claim. Because you were/are still in status, you were not placed in removal proceedings, and you may refile your asylum case if you wish."
Francois took the decision hard.
"I was really disappointed and shocked. I feel like I was treated as an object. I feel that as an immigrant I was dehumanized," she said.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Debbie Cannon said the agency doesn't comment on individual cases.
Francois has tried navigating the labyrinth that is the U.S. immigration system. The Citizenship and Immigration Services website, she said, is maddening.
"You go through forms and forms and forms, links and links and links, and then you end nowhere. You get confused and you don’t understand what they are requiring, and that can be the downfall for any immigrant because what you don’t know can hurt you so much more. You can find yourself waking up the next day and you are to be deported just because you ignored one thing in a new law or in a revised law," she said.
Francois' reapplied for asylum but for more than two months had no idea how immigration services treated her application because she never heard back. She resubmitted it a few weeks ago. The delays could effect her eligibility.
"It’s really draining mentally, emotionally, everything. It’s hard. At the end, you feel like you’re just an object, you’re just a piece of something people can mold as they wish during political battles," she said.
In mid-June, Citizenship and Immigration Services announced expansion of its information services modernization program to Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.
The agency encourages applicants to look at its website or call its contact center to get questions answered rather than visit local immigration offices. The agency says it saves people time and allows immigration officers to work on completing cases quicker.
The problem with that, Francois said, is that often no one answers the phone.
Where to turn
Francois and her husband have also sought out top lawyers for help.
"Crazily," she admits, they traveled to New York to meet with a lawyer who charged $500 an hour. One hour was all they could afford. They went to Florida only to learn the attorney there didn't take out-of-state cases. They have even resorted to attending events where they might meet a famous person who has the president's ear.
"Right now, I’m thinking maybe I should go to (Democratic U.S. House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi because she’s pretty fierce. I like her. … And maybe she would do something about it. I don’t know," Francois said.
Francois said she'll leave it to politicians figure out how fix the nation's immigration system. But she does have some advice:
"Just see other people as human beings. Humanize them, and then you will find the solution. Humanize every single person who is contributing to this country and you will resolve any other issue," she said.
The struggle for citizenship is draining on her family's energy and bank account. And even if she were to get a work visa, Francois would have another battle to fight.
Women aren't exactly welcome in the construction business. She started out as not just the only woman but the only black woman in construction management at BYU-Idaho. When she was failing her statics class, a professor told her she wasn't going to make it and that she should quit.
"I went to the bathroom and cried for four hours," she said. "I cried my soul out."
That same semester she won an award at a competition with 120 other schools.
"I call it a tender mercy," Francois said. "I call it a sign from God that I was supposed to stay in construction."
Francois has a passion for commercial construction, big buildings and challenging projects. Like her mother, she won't take no for an answer. She intends to stick with it whether she gets a job or not. She knows she will find a way.
In addition to her mom, Oprah Winfrey had an influence on Francois from the time she started reading Winfrey's magazine O as a teenager in Haiti.41 comments on this story
"I was like, 'One day I’m going to meet that woman. I’m going to tell her I want to talk to her.' It hasn't happened or maybe it won’t happen, I don’t know," she said.
Meantime, Francois is doing everything she can to get more women excited about STEM careers. She's working in a peer program to encourage young women to enter those fields.
America, she said, is full of opportunities, seen and unseen.
"Ii doesn’t matter if I get a job that pays or I don’t," Francois said. "What’s important for me is if I die tomorrow, I would feel like I’ve been here, I left a little mark."