money talks

‘I Had a Life in New York. Then I Lost My Job and My Visa.’

Photo: ClassicStock/Getty Images

The Cut is asking readers to share what they’re doing with their money — or lack thereof — in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. This week, we spoke to Maria, 28, a Mexican citizen who lost her job last winter and had to leave New York (and her American boyfriend) in May because she was running out of savings and employment options. She told the Cut about why she didn’t want to get married for a visa, what it’s like to job-hunt in multiple countries, and the exorbitant cost of immigration.

I lost my job a few months before the pandemic started. I’m from Mexico, but I’d been working at a data analysis firm in New York for the past four years. The company went through a restructuring, so I was laid off. That meant I lost my work visa, which the company had sponsored. I had to go back to Mexico right away and then reenter the U.S. on a tourist visa to look for a new job. It was incredibly stressful.

At that point, my whole life was in New York — my then-boyfriend, David, the apartment we shared in Brooklyn, my furniture, my clothes, everything. It’s where I’ve built my career and my relationships. I know it looks different now because of the virus, but I miss it every day.

When I came back on a tourist visa, going through customs at the airport was crazy. I didn’t want to lie to the customs officials, so I explained that I had been let go and was coming back for job interviews, which was the truth. They took my phone away and looked through all my emails. They interviewed me for almost an hour. And then they finally let me pass. My tourist visa was good for six months, so I knew that was my window of time to get a new job. It was a lot of pressure because I knew that if I left again they might not let me back in.

After going to a bunch of job interviews, I got an amazing opportunity in late March. I was so relieved. The company was a great fit, and they were willing to sponsor my visa. But then everything started shutting down because of the virus. The company told me they had suspended all hiring until the end of the summer. But I didn’t have that much time left.

I was also spending all of my savings. I was still paying rent on our apartment. The total was about $3,000 a month, which I split with David, plus about $400 a month in utilities. I would never ask David to pay for my share; I wanted to pull my own weight. I also had money saved because I put away at least 60 percent of my paychecks when I was employed. When I first moved to New York, I had no money — my budget, beyond rent, was $20 a week. I know it sounds bad, but I was fine. I would just buy bread, peanut butter, jelly, cereal, and milk. Four years later, when I was laid off, I had about $27,000 in savings. But it was supposed to be for my future, for buying a house or retirement or something. I didn’t want to spend it all on rent because I couldn’t get a job.

In May, I told David that I needed to go back to Mexico. I was frustrated and worried and felt like nothing was getting better. We’d been talking about getting married, but I was always like, “No.” I wanted to prove that I could get a visa on my own. I’m proud and stubborn, and I didn’t want a man to rescue me, you know? I wanted to do it myself. But still, I was stuck in a hard place. Our lease wasn’t up until August, so even after I left, I was still paying for rent and everything, almost $2,000 out of my bank account every month for nothing.

Now I feel like I’m stuck in this weird limbo. I’m with my parents in Mexico, a few hours outside of Mexico City. It’s been great to be with my family, but it’s not really my home anymore. And neither is New York. My life is not where it’s supposed to be, and I don’t know when it will get there.

When our lease ended in August, my boyfriend moved in with his parents on Long Island. So both of us were displaced, and he was getting more and more frustrated. He was like, “If it’s not the virus, it’s going to be your visa. There are too many things keeping us apart.”

Another challenge is that now, USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] is moving incredibly slowly because of the virus. Even if I had someone to sponsor my work visa, it would probably take more than a month for it to be filed and accepted and everything. And no company’s going to wait that long for an employee to start. Also, most companies are cutting costs right now and don’t want to pay to sponsor anyone’s visa.

In August, David came to visit me in Mexico, and he proposed. It was a surprise. He knew that I was afraid that people would think that I was getting married for a green card. But he was just like, “I don’t care. We’re going to get married eventually, so let’s just do it now, so we can be together sooner.”

We had our wedding here a few weeks ago. It was just 12 people total. I did feel a little guilty having a celebration in the middle of a pandemic. But we had to do the wedding fast, so we could start the visa paperwork.

The paperwork to get a visa for the spouse of an American citizen usually takes six months, but now that everything is backed up, it’ll probably be a year and a half before I can go back. That’s a lot of time for David and I to be apart. And I can’t really visit the U.S. during that time either. Most likely, they won’t let me through because they’ll think I’m intending to stay, not visit. There are some ways around it — David can file a request to have me come visit — but they might still deny it. He can also come visit me, but it’s not the same. It just sucks that I can’t really be with him the whole first year of our marriage, if not longer.

Immigration lawyers are also expensive. Just the paperwork is at least $3,000. There isn’t really any way around it; it’s pretty well known that each step costs a certain amount to prepare and file. And if you try to cut costs, it’s not worth it. We found our lawyer just through Google and reading Reddit boards about the process.

Dealing with my immigration has definitely fast-tracked some money discussions in our relationship. We have always split costs 50/50, but now that I have no job and he still has his, things are a little bit different. But I still don’t want him to pay for anything for me. My mom is always like, “Just let him pay!” But there’s a saying in Mexico: “As soon as money walks in the door, love flies out the window.” Luckily we have not had any major problems yet. If David lost his job, things would be pretty bad. But for now, we’re taking things step-by-step. We’re also very compatible, in terms of our attitudes about saving money.

I have about $6,000 to $7,000 of my own savings left at this point. I’m continuing to apply for jobs in the U.S., because you never know. I’m also trying to find a job near where my parents live, here in Mexico. There aren’t many opportunities, but hopefully I can find something. It won’t pay much; the average salary in this area is the U.S. equivalent of about $250 a month. But it’s better than nothing. At the same time, I’m getting my master’s degree online, in data science. It’s very affordable to do in Mexico, and I got an 80 percent scholarship because I had good grades in university. I’m trying to make the most of this time.

Biden winning the election has been a huge relief. I don’t think it will make the immigration process cheaper, but I do think it will be smoother and faster, especially if he can get the virus more under control. I have a lot of hope that things will run better when the new administration takes over, and I could be in the U.S. in under a year. But I’m trying to go with the flow. It’s very hard for me to plan because every time I try, I get disappointed.

I can’t wait to get back. Brooklyn is where my life really began. It’s where my friends are, my things are, where my husband will be. I miss the food. I miss the people. I had never lived on my own before I moved to New York because I’d been living with my parents in Mexico. Even though the U.S. has treated me this way, it still feels like a part of me.

‘I Had a Life in New York. Then I Lost My Job and My Visa.’