POINCIANA – Years ago, Wendy Farrell and her husband Chris sold their business in England and moved to the United States. The Farrells joined a growing number of people from the United Kingdom who saw great opportunity to start a business in fast-growing Central Florida.
Today, the Farrells still run Signature Promotions in Poinciana, a company that employs local American workers and puts money back into the Osceola County economy. What the Farrells don’t have is a permanent status in the U.S. All these years later, they remain in a kind of legal limbo.
“We’ve got to raise awareness of this,” Wendy Farrell said. “Most people are in the dark about this.”
Last month, Congress reintroduced the Dream Act, also known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which the U.S. Senate failed to approve.
It would have provided certain illegal and deportable alien students who graduate from U.S. high schools — but came here illegally as minors — the opportunity to get permanent residency.
Farrell said she was disappointed, to say the least, in the bill’s defeat.
“The Dream Act fell at the wayside, which is really too bad, because that gave us shirttails to hang onto,” she said.
Like a lot of British business owners in Central Florida, the Farrells came here on an E2 Treaty Investor Visa, which allows a foreign visitor to enter this country to establish a new business or buy an existing one that creates jobs. These visas are issued by the State Department and can be used for two and five years. When the visa expires, the visa holder and their families have to leave the U. S., then apply for a renewal in the home country, which usually means doing it through a personal interview at a U.S. Embassy/Consulate office abroad. There’s no guarantee the visa will get renewed at the interview.
Farrell said this is a constant struggle for British business owners in this region, who often get frustrated and simply close up shop – costing the region even more jobs.
“People ask me, ‘Why don’t you get a green card,’ and we say we can’t,” she said. “The E2 Visa is just a vita that can never be converted into a green card. It’s not a level playing field. We’re continuing to support the local economy, and it should be a given after so many years that you can get permanent status.”
That’s one reason why Farrell followed the debate over the Dream Act. The children of foreign business owners here on E2 visas can stay while they’re under the age of 21. But after that, they’re automatically returned to the country they were born in – even if they haven’t been back there in years.
“At 21, they kick them out of the country,” Farrell said. “They come out from under our visas because they’re no longer considered dependents. To me, the biggest injustice is the kids. They’re not permanent residents here. You literally split a family.
“All we want,” she added, “is for the government to say after so many years of living on an E2 Visa, it’s just a given that you geta green card. We’ve made a huge investment in money with no permanency, and we spend about $1,000 every year to file the papers.”
Last year, local British business owners were carefully watching a bill in Congress aimed at making it easier for them to get green cards. Known as the E2 Adjustment bill and filed by U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, it would have allowed a certain number of E2 Visa holders to apply for and get green cards.
But the bill failed to pass last year, and Putnam left Congress to run successfully for the office of Florida agriculture commissioner. It’s not clear yet who will take up sponsorship of the bill now.
Farrell noted that the E2 Visa is essentially an investment visa, given to investors who come to the U.S. to start businesses.But they’re facing tighter U.S. immigration laws.
“Your status here is only temporary,” she said. “The Brits are excluded from the green card lottery.”
There is a second visa, she said, known as the L1 Visa, which allows a business owner in England to maintain their business in the U.K. while relocating to the United States to establish a separate branch. Holders of the L1 Visa are allowed to convert it into a green card, she said, but added, “We sold our business in the U.K.”
Former Congressman Alan Grayson said the failure of the Dream Act to pass last month demonstrates that Congress has its priorities all wrong when it comes to dealing with immigration. Rather than rewarding people who have made an investment in this country, he said the emphasize has been on gimmicks like building a fence along the southern border states.
“Building a fence doesn’t do anything in terms of the people already here,” Grayson said.
Farrell said her hope is that the Dream Act gets revived, and people understand that not all immigrants come here illegally, and quite a few of them make solid contributions to the local economy.
“The Dream Act would have given us an opportunity,” she said. “We would have gone in on the back of that, and say if you want to give the children of illegals permanent status, then how about us? We just think that’s fair. But we don’t have a vote, and it’s very hard to get politicians to take us seriously when you can’t vote. We need a champion, really, someone who can put that out there for us.”
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