Worth the wait

Features - Cover Story

Frustrated with the H-2B process, Molly and Joel John took on the difficult task of securing green cards for their workers at M.J. Design Associates.

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All photos: © Eric Wagner

The Green was everywhere. Green cupcakes with green icing, Granny Smith apples, Mountain Dew – and it wasn’t even St. Patrick’s Day.

Instead, it was a “Green Fiesta” organized by Molly John, co-owner and CEO of M.J. Design Associates, and her husband, Joel. The duo owns M.J. Design Associates office in Columbus, Ohio, and they threw the party when the first of their crews’ green cards arrived in August of last year.

Although a few of the applicants were still waiting for cards to arrive, the Johns felt it was necessary to celebrate those who received theirs.

“It was because of everything we’ve gone through,” she says. “Even though some of the cards weren’t in, it was for them to see the process is working and our patience is paying off.”

The experience wasn’t always a party – the months of waiting here in the U.S. through the ever-changing process of obtaining a green card proved agonizing at times, especially during the winter.

One man missed his daughter’s quinceañera. Another of John’s employees, Fernando Rivera, missed the birth of his only son last February because he couldn’t go home.

“It took us almost three years in waiting through the whole process,” Rivera says. “It’s difficult and hard to lose time. (This is) not really my case, but the other guys are losing time with their sons and daughters who are growing up, walking, crawling.”

There’s no telling how long the rigorous process might take, but in general, becoming a permanent U.S. citizen via green card opens up a variety of opportunities that later outweigh the hardships of waiting.

Why a green card?

For the past 15 years, M.J. Design Associates has participated in the H-2B program to provide the company with its seasonal workers. When the company first got involved in the program, it requested two employees. Gradually, the company increased its request for H-2B workers.

The company primarily relies on the program for seasonal workers. They now have 25 employees, 18 of which are H-2B.

Use of the program started in 2003, when John says she struggled to recruit reliable American workers. She wanted to stick to domestic labor and says she advertised the jobs extensively, but after talking to colleagues who used H-2B, she identified the program as an increasingly viable alternative.

John says the program has become much more volatile in recent years. She seldom knows if she will receive her workers until a few weeks before the season starts, so it has made planning for spring and summer tough. Yet most years, John says she has received almost all the same H-2B workers. She’s familiar with them and they’re familiar with her.

Some of them serve as foremen who lead her crews. She knows about their family backgrounds, their interests and their hobbies. Many of the employees know each other well, whether they’re brothers, in-laws or close family friends. There’s a mutual trust after years of working together.

So, with H-2B not always guaranteed, M.J. Design Associates decided to pursue green cards for its consistent H-2B workers in 2015.

“We reached out to a local attorney who told us we could sponsor (our H-2B workers) as employees,” John says. “Most of our guys have come back. We’ve gotten to know them so we know they’re trustworthy.”

After a few years of filing paperwork (and much patience), 11 of M.J. Design Associates’ former H-2B workers officially received green cards as of December of 2018, while three are still waiting.

“It’s by far been worth the investment,” John says. “Allowing them to have green cards now allows us to plan for 2019.”

After years of using the H-2B program for seasonal workers, Molly John decided to sponsor her crews for green cards. The process has been long and complicated, but she now has a domestic workforce she can rely on.

Getting started.

After John learned she could potentially sponsor a few of her H-2B workers for their green cards, she approached her 18 H-2B employees to see who would be interested.

She made it clear that they would need to have some buy-in and pay for half of the costs associated with the application process. John estimates each green card costs roughly $5,000-$7,000 by the end of the process. Even with the cost, she says almost all of them were excited about the possibility.

With the interest level high, John partnered with a Columbus-based attorney who had some experience with immigration laws.

While there are fees associated, it’s worth the cost if it helps to ensure the process works, she says.

“Find a good, strong immigration attorney who has filed green cards and can explain to you the process and the timeline,” she says.

John adds that she only decided to pursue green cards with the 15 H-2B workers she knew she could trust. She recommends employers only sponsor green cards for regularly returning H-2B workers.

“My theory is you want people you know are loyal to you. If someone has only been with you one or two years, a green card might not be a good option,” she says. When John decided which of her H-2B workers could be a good fit for the green card visas, her attorney provided her with some general steps (visit the “web extra” tab on Lawn & Landscape’s website for detailed steps.)

She also brought in a translator, who comes in during performance reviews and company meetings, to help explain the green card process to employees. The steps were vague, but she says they served as a starting point.

The first step was to send a request to the Department of Labor for a prevailing wage filing. About a month after receiving that from the department, M.J. Design Associates had to spend three to six months actively recruiting domestic laborers for its vacant positions.

From there, they could officially start the green card application process with some of its H-2B workers.

John says the final stage of the application process is the longest, hardest and most expensive.

Fernando Rivera, seated, and Lorenso Garcia, far right, were two of the participants who went through the green card process as employees of Molly and Joel John's company, M.J. Design Associates.

Long wait.

The final stage of actually applying for H-2B workers to receive green card visas involves a lot of forms and waiting. There are a few steps in the months-long process.

“It involves a lot of time, paperwork, organization and patience,” John says.

First, M.J. Design Associates had to fill out permanent labor certification (PERM) forms and PERM questionnaires for each of its green card visa applicants.

Then, the Department of Labor approved the PERM certification, typically within five to seven months, at which time each employee filed form I-140 Visa Petition with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. At that time, John says, it is encouraged to pay the additional Expedited Filling fee along with the I-140 application.

This ensures USCIS will make a determination on each petition much faster, usually within a month, versus waiting another 8-12 months to hear from them.

Once the I-140s were approved, the employee could proceed with their final step in completing the green card visa forms, which include the form I-131 advance travel document, the form I-765 employer authorization document (EAD) and the form I-485 petition for adjustment of status within the United States.

John says forms I-131 and I-765 had the “most agonizing waiting periods” in the entire process.

“There is no way to know how long (the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) will take to process the paperwork,” she says.

These forms were filed for 14 men between August and early October 2017. What was thought to be a 45-60 day process turned out to be much longer. By the end of November 2017, only two men had received their travel documents and work authorization cards, just as the H-2B workers would normally be heading home.

The remaining 10 men had to remain in the U.S. through the holidays. Two more received their travel documents in mid-January and the remaining 10 did not get their documents until the end of March.

“Two men got to go home for the holidays, but no one else was approved in time,” she says. “So, we ended up with 12 guys here all winter.”

John says the complicated part about green card applications is that timing depends on which desk receives the paperwork. Some citizenship agents can complete the process reasonably fast, while other people – even in the same department – may simply take more time finishing the process. You have no way of knowing how long your application might take to process.

This was tough on the applicants since they couldn’t go home over the winter like they usually would through the H-2B program.

“It’s hard, but they understand and know it’s a benefit to have that (green card),” Lorenso Garcia says through a translator.

He’s also an H-2B employee who’s still waiting on green card approval. “They’re just waiting for me whenever I can be there, but they’re excited to see me.”

John says she encouraged the applicants to be patient and reminded them the process is slow. Most of the applicants understood they had to wait, but she says it was hard nonetheless.

“They kept thinking their applications were lost,” she says. “It was hard for them to understand why. Part of it was me. I said we hoped it would take 45 days so they lost faith in what I told them.”

So, as an incentive, John says she paid rent and utilities for the applicants who were stuck in the U.S. for the winter. She took them on a field trip to an industry trade show for one day in January 2018. She also treated them to a tour of the Columbus Nationwide Arena to meet the Blue Jackets NHL team. And on Christmas Day, she and her husband invited them to their house for brunch.

“In my case, I thought it was going to be faster,” Rivera says. “The most important thing though is that it’s a really nice chance and opportunity … to be a part of the work here in the United States.”

After a hard winter, most of the applicants received approval for their form I-131 documents by March 2018, which allowed them to travel home to see families in the process.

Once the final form I-485 forms and processes were completed, workers gradually began to receive green card visas.

Eleven have received the visas as of December 2018. The green cards are good for five years and then can be renewed in five-year increments.

Even though these green card workers will go home occasionally to see family, John says she knows they’ll be coming back – and she doesn’t have to reapply to get them through the H-2B program.

“We can plan when they’re going to be here,” she says. “We know for a fact how many staff members we’ll have. We can hopefully regulate our time better.”