Angélica Ocampo almost deleted the email that would ultimately lead her to Pittsburgh, to a big job at the World Affairs Council and a new path for her 16-year-old daughter.
A native of Argentina, Angélica worked in New York City at the time as the executive director of Worldfund, a nonprofit focusing on development of teachers in Latin America. She remembers that evening, how she was on a train on her way from work, cleaning her mailbox.
Delete. Delete. Delete.
Then followed a message that she almost committed to trash, something from a recruiter about a job in Pittsburgh, the city she never heard of before. She saved it for later. And then forgot about it. Until a week later, a friend who used to work in Silicon Valley told her, “There is interesting stuff going on in Pittsburgh. You should check it out.”
And she did. Angélica remembers her first few visits while she was interviewing for the CEO position at the World Affairs Council. How taxi drivers and concierges and waiters whom she asked about the city were its best ambassadors and cheerleaders. How the city was green and friendly. How they said it’s a great place to grow a family, which sounded like an appealing argument for a single mom.
It will be later that she would see veiled signs of how foreign to diversity Pittsburgh was. It will be later that Angélica will hear someone suggest to her that she may want to take accent reduction classes. “I thought it was a joke. I didn’t know what to say.”
But challenges do not have a paralyzing effect on her. In fact, they are a driving force.
Moving to Pittsburgh and assuming this new position in November 2015 for Angélica would mean working with the World Affairs Council on filing a work visa permit, known officially as an H-1B work permit, a process that was unfamiliar to her new employer. The H-1B visa program was established for U.S. employers seeking to hire immigrants — otherwise not authorized to work in the United States — in specialty occupations.
Angélica, 51, is still a citizen of Argentina and does not have a green card. When she was offered a job in New York in 2013, she still lived in Buenos Aires and worked as the head of public affairs at HSBC Bank.
“I would get a lot of reassurance from New York [about H-1B] while I was in Buenos Aires,” Angélica remembers. “‘This is something we do all the time,’ they said.” The process took less than a month. “I didn’t have to take care of it,” she said. “The people in New York were really comfortable that the process would come along fairly swiftly, that it was part of bringing somebody from abroad to work in New York.”
The situation was completely different when she was going through the interview process at the World Affairs Council here in Pittsburgh. It was now Angélica who was reassuring her new employer that getting an H-1B is not that insurmountable of a task. They had concerns about the cost and how long it would take, but they were willing and hired a lawyer, which many Pittsburgh employers may not have done.
“There was a sense that this whole H-1B visa was something very complex,” she said. “It was useful that I had been through the process with a New York lawyer, and I felt so comfortable that was something that would happen without being a huge issue.”
According to the law regulating H-1Bs, there is a cap of 65,000 applications the government approves each year. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has exemptions from the cap, for employees with higher degrees and those who work at universities, certain research facilities or nonprofit organizations. As a result of numerous exemptions, 275,317 petitions were approved in 2015 out of 348,669 petitions filed.
If you break it down by cities, Pittsburgh has a ways to go. Among the U.S. metro areas, it ranked 32nd. According to the Department of Labor, 5,613 H-1B positions were certified in Pittsburgh in 2014; 17,541 applications were certified for Pennsylvania that year. Compared to New York City, where 48,385 position were certified in 2014, getting an H-1B in Pittsburgh is “a higher wall to climb,” as Angélica put it.
Worth the risk
But the application process is not the most emotionally taxing experience. Living in America on a work visa, especially as a single mom, as Angélica attests, is living in uncertainty. Your life hanging on a thread, “that any day you could be three weeks away from a plane back to your home country.”
It’s something very difficult to reconcile with when you are trying to plan a future, to grow roots in a new country, to build a home, “especially when you’re planning your daughter’s school, and when she’s growing up, and really trying to establish relationships and belong.”
At the same time, it’s exactly because of her daughter that the risk and uncertainty of the H-1B is worth it. Angélica wants a better life for her daughter, Ayelen, now a sophomore at the private Oakland Catholic High School. In Argentina, she couldn’t give her a sense of stability.
“The situation in Argentina makes it very difficult to really be able to plan and really have a sense of having your efforts be parallel to what you can receive,” she said. “Political instability in Argentina really affects people at a micro level.”
Angélica says, she and her daughter are happy in Pittsburgh. Especially in contrast with New York, she says, “living in Pittsburgh has been one of the most welcoming experiences of my life.”
Look to the margins
Angélica hopes that Pittsburgh will become a long-term home for her and her daughter. As a city, it has a lot of potential.
Angélica thinks that the time for change is ripe, and Pittsburgh cannot afford wasting the opportunity to become a destination and a thriving city for all. “If you don’t find a way to really make everybody part of this new phase in Pittsburgh life then what you will have is like many other cities.” Angélica says to do it right, the process needs to be inclusive. “Pittsburgh can do it, but it will take a big effort. There are going to be costs associated with that.”
Facts about H1-B
- The H1-B Visa is an employer-initiated visa, it may be awarded for up to 3 years.
- The Visa can be transferred between employers.
From her leadership position at the World Affairs Council, Angélica appreciates good signs of progress but she also agrees with what she heard some other people say: “In terms of diversity, experiencing Pittsburgh seems like traveling back in time.”
The fact that she has to explain where Argentina is is a sign of curiosity but also a missed opportunity, part of which Angélica explains by the geography of Pittsburgh. She uses a metaphor of a CD to explain it:
“If you are in the center, you don’t move. If you are born and raised in the center, in a place where it seems that everything is figured out, then the margins are not relevant to your life. If you are in the margins, then you will look around not just to the center but to the other margins. You move around. I find that to be probably the most interesting aspects that I’ve learned about traveling around.”
That's what her work is about: to encourage people to explore the world, to engage them in learning about global issues and open their minds to new experiences and ideas.
Angélica believes in Pittsburgh, but she draws a powerful metaphor describing the state of the city. She compares Pittsburgh with a person who has had a massive stroke and survived.
“The doctor may say that you are not going to die but you’re still very weak… The worst part is gone but…you’re not ready to run a marathon." That’s where she says Pittsburgh is now. The city needs nutrition; the question is how you are going to define ‘nutrition.’
Will it be a truly healthy city to live in or not? Will it solve the race and diversity issues — the issues Angélica refers to as an elephant in the room? It would be a shame if Pittsburgh missed the opportunity, she says.
“The city is small. It’s doable.”
Correction Nov. 4, 2016: The previous version of the article misstated one of the requirements for H-1Bs (posted in the box), employers are not required to prove that they were unable to replace U.S. workers with H-1Bs, only the H-1B dependent employers must attest that they will not displace any similarly employed U.S. worker within 90 days before applying for H-1B and that before applying for H-1B status for any alien worker, the employer took good faith steps to recruit U.S. workers for the job for which the alien worker is sought, the details of the requirements can be found here https://www.dol.gov/compliance/guide/h1b.htm.
Reach Mila Sanina at 412-515-0061 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @milapgh.
Video accompanying the story is part of From Other to Us, a series developed by Change Agency and The Global Switchboard on the immigrant experience in our region.