The Search For A Country

Israeli struggles to find place to immigrate

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Nofi Barak came to America not across a border or hidden in a van.

She hopped on a plane in her homeland of Israel to start a new life in America.

"Nobody I know wants to stay in Israel," she said. "The economy is horrible. You can barely make a living and it's a daily war zone."

With the threat of suicide bombings and random violence, Barak developed a guarded instinct: Don't stop next to a bus, and either run a red light or wait several car lengths back for the light to change.

And she didn't agree with the Israel's policy on Palestine. Barak thought her country should just leave them alone.

"My political views didn't mesh with the government's views," she said.

Barak is one of more than 6 million immigrant applicants in the United States waiting for a work visa or green card.

This past March, with a dream of working as an artist, she applied for the H1-B work visa -- granted to specialized, educated workers.

"The work has to be unique -- a position no other American can do," Barak said.

But the process is grueling. The wait for an H1-B visa can drag on for more than a decade, and that's if luck is on your side.

The federal government grants 65,000 of these visas a year, and meeting eligibility requirements is a cumbersome and expensive endeavor -- one that started for Barak in February 2001.

That winter, she came to New York on a tourist visa, and then applied for and received a student visa.

But it wasn't easy. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly Immigration and Naturalization Service), requires visa applicants to find a sponsor, one who can prove employment.

A friend in Pennsylvania offered and Barak hired an immigration attorney to start the two-step process of obtaining permanent residence -- a green card.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S issued 1.2 million green cards in 2005.

After two years, the state of Pennsylvania accepted Barak's application and granted her the right to attend school. With the first step completed, Barak's application entered a 3.7-million-application bottleneck -- a figure taken from a 2003 USCIS estimate.

Meanwhile, Barak enjoyed her life in New York in the towns of Nyack, and later Nanuet, on the banks of the Hudson River.

To keep her student visa legal, Barak attended school full time and worked 20 hours a week on campus.

She received a degree in early education and social studies from Rockland Community College.

"I want to work with challenged kids and do art as therapy," she said.

But with her green-card application lost in bureaucracy and few options for employment, Payson ceramic artist, Carolee Jackson, offered Barak the opportunity she'd been looking for.

If Barak couldn't get a green card right away, at least she had the option of a applying for a work visa. So, she and her two cats drove cross-country.

"Your sponsor guarantees employment," Jackson said. "But you can't work until you get a visa."

Jackson and Barak met six years ago in an online community dedicated to artists. The women hit it off immediately. Their shared experience, work ethic and artistic philosophy created a bond.

"We were almost living parallel lives," Jackson said. "I'm a global gypsy and so is Nofi."

To buy more time in America, Barak received permission to find a job in Payson -- that's called "practice work" in government speak.

Jackson invited Barak to join her as a business partner, creating and selling their own art.

In March, Barak started the work-permit process, and paid an extra $1,000 for expedited service.

But, the USCIS asked for more information -- a business plan, financial statements, a flowchart of tasks and other hard-to-quantify particulars.

Then the USCIS started investigating Jackson's work background.

"It's intrusive," Barak said. "It's insulting."

Jackson and Barak expressed outrage at the immigration process -- people who follow the rules and pay taxes drain their bank accounts waiting to enter this country.

"If I had a million dollars I could buy a green card," Barak said. "If you don't have the money, you struggle the whole way. Those who go the legal route are screwed. It sends the message to others that it's easier and better to get here illegally."

Barak said she will only pursue legitimate avenues to enter the U.S. legally, and if that fails, she'll try her luck in Canada.

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