In recent days, our TV screens have been filled with pictures of vast crowds, demanding more “rights” for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Religious groups have championed their cause. Adoring reporters have shoved microphones in front of them—falling head over heels again for raucous ‘60s-style demonstrations.
Jaco van Rooyen, a 22-year-old South African immigrant worker, hasn’t been out there waving a sign. He’s a legal immigrant playing by the rules. In short, he’s a forgotten man.
Bob Webber, an Edina immigration attorney who works with immigrants like Van Rooyen, says, “My clients ask, ‘Why isn’t anyone talking about us?’ They can’t understand it.”
Van Rooyen’s story mirrors that of thousands of other legal immigrants, whom the media have largely ignored in their romance with “undocumented workers.” He is a general farmworker and mechanic for Kristie and Marlyn Seidler on a 9,000-acre farm 55 miles north of Bismarck, N.D. “There’s nothing he can’t fix,” says Kristie Seidler. “He’s vital to us.”
But following the law is costly and time-consuming. The Seidlers have had to jump through multiple hoops with government agencies to hire Van Rooyen, who honed his skills on his family’s South African farm. In addition to proving that no qualified American will do the job, they have had to pay thousands in fees and legal and travel costs. Van Rooyen has worked for them for four agricultural seasons, but was compelled to return to South Africa each autumn. Every year, they have had to repeat the whole expensive process to get him back legally.
Now, the Seidlers need Van Rooyen year-round. Nine months ago, they started paperwork to adjust his immigration status. But they’ve hit a wall: The American government caps visas for skilled workers such as him at 140,000 a year.
As a result, Van Rooyen will have to return to South Africa again when his visa expires on Nov. 30. This time, he will probably have to wait at least five years to return, because of the current visa backlog.