By Michelle Baik, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Jin-Sung Choi’s* first job in America was to sever chickens.
From growing chickens until they reach a certain size in diameter to sending them down conveyor belts and seeing them to become wings, legs and thighs, Jin-Sung worked inside a poultry processing plant located in a large town in Maryland for about a year.
This was certainly not the kind of work he had to do in his home country of South Korea. He was a soccer coach.
When Jin-Sung’s wife Mi-Jin* grew dissatisfied with the Korean education system for their children, she began looking for ways to immigrate to the United States. Mi-Jin learned about the EB-3 visa program. Also called the third preference category for employment-based immigration, the EB-3 program permits foreigners to have a path to obtain a green card (permanent residency) and labor certification to work in the United States until then.
Tejas Shah, an immigration attorney, explained the concept of employment-based immigration like this: “For example, if somebody with no connection to the U.S. came forward and said, ‘Look, I’m a good person. I want to become a U.S. permanent resident,’ instead of just allowing anybody to apply, [he or she] needs to fit a certain preference or category in order to apply,” Shah said.
Though called a preference, the EB-3 places immigrants on a pathway to a green card that takes about ten to fifteen years, according to Shah.
“I researched a lot about what jobs matched the skills we had,” Mi-Jin said in Korean. “At the time, there were many ways to immigrate to the United States, and what applied to us was the EB-3 program. Then we asked, ‘How can we apply?’ That’s when I learned that poultry planting was an option.”
Other preference categories cover a range of professionals, such as “outstanding professors and researchers” and those with “extraordinary ability” (first preference) and investors (fifth preference). The higher the preference, the more likely the chance of success at lawful immigration.
The EB-3 program, for which “unskilled” workers qualify, is also applicable to “skilled workers” and “professionals,” like many in the information technology sector.
Steve Kim, a lawyer based in Illinois, said that the EB-3 visa program was created with the technically skilled in mind. Now, that definition has expanded.
In fiscal year 2016, more than 10,000 EB-3 preference visas were issued, according to the Department of State.
About 84% of those visas were issued to people born in Asia.
Asia has historically led the way in receiving the most employment-based visas from the United States, but in the past decade the total number of EB-3 preference visas has dropped by more than 3,000.
In fiscal year 2005, when the Chois moved to the United States, more than 10,000 EB-3 preference visas were issued to Asians alone.
Jin-Sung was one of about 1,100 South Koreans who immigrated through the EB-3 program. Indians, mainland Chinese and Filipinos were also among the top recipients of EB-3 visas issued that year, according to the Department of State.
Through her husband’s employment, Mi-Jin and their two children Sorah* and Joon* also immigrated, categorized as the family of the visa holder.
Earning a way into the United States, Mi-Jin was filled with gratitude despite the stark contrast in living situations.
“I just thought, ‘This is a tough job. No wonder food processing is a means to bring people to the United States,’” Mi-Jin said, reminiscing of a time when she heard about the workplace from her husband. “But I never pitied myself. I didn’t think that we were particularly unfortunate.”
Shah agreed that poultry processing is important but not easy. Nevertheless, the difficult nature of the work is a reason why an unskilled job has a reward as enticing as permanent residency.
“Oftentimes you find that U.S. workers don’t want to take on those roles,” Shah said. “It’s very hard work, and it’s backbreaking work.”
Skilled foreign workers also differentiate themselves, according to an immigration representative at a large American tech firm. She said that a significant factor that makes foreign workers more attractive to hiring managers is that the majority of them come from less-developed countries, which pushes them to work harder than their American counterparts. She said that they have grit, zest and bite because they feel that this is their one shot in the United States.
From coaching soccer to processing chicken, Jin-Sung’s occupation changed dramatically upon his arrival in the United States. His wife recognized that the transition could have turned into a damaged and scarred self-image.
But Mi-Jin said that in reality, she and her husband had already let go of the desire to maintain a high self-image for the sake of their long-term goal.
“The way my husband saw it was, ‘I have to work at a chicken farm because it’s a promise,’” Mi-Jin said. “It’s a promise we have to keep because we were guaranteed permanent residence status to come to the U.S.”
Mi-Jin believes that as a legal permanent resident of the United States, she could provide a bright future for her children.
“It’s not like I wanted them to go to Harvard or become lawyers. I wanted opportunities for them and for them to be satisfied,” Mi-Jin said.
The Choi family still resides in the same small town. Jin-Sung no longer works at the poultry plant. He has been working his way up as a mechanic. Sorah is a sophomore attending one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. Joon is a senior in high school, a varsity tennis player and football star.
It has been twelve years since the Choi family moved to the United States, twelve years since Jin-Sung gave up his occupation and Mi-Jin said goodbye to her home country.
They have already seen in their children the fruits of what they came for and the potentials that they had to give up.
- The names of the family members have been changed to allowed the family to protect their private lives.
*To protect the identity of the sources, the names have been altered.