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H1B for Life
Knowing smiles at parking lots, a sympathetic nod on the street, friendly honks at traffic signals, and giggles galore at picnics. Such reactions from strangers, mostly Asian, are routine for Nishant Lodha, whose car license plate reads ‘H1B4LF’ or ‘H1B for life’, a nod to the popular non-immigrant work visa, the H-1B.
“Life is not what happens to you, it’s how you respond to it,” says the 45-year-old Cupertino resident, the American lilt conspicuously missing, despite his 20+ years in the country.
Lodha, director of emerging tech at Santa Clara-based Marvell Technology, came to the U.S. in 2002. Like countless other immigrants, he has spent too much time waiting for his green card ticket to the American dream. “Three thousand three hundred and ninety-four days,” he specifies.
For Indian employees, who comprise 75 percent of all green card applicants, the journey from a work visa to permanent residency is a long and arduous one. While the wait time can be anywhere between a few years and a lifetime, the average Indian skilled worker waits in line for around 15-20 years.
Finding the funny
While Lodha admits his license plate does reflect the uncertainty and unpredictability of the green card system, it does not come from a place of frustration. “This is my way of joking about the extraordinary delay in the U.S. immigration process. But we, as a family, were never really worried. Some things are in our control and some things aren’t. The immigration process is definitely not,” he says.
Lodha has been on many types of visas, including B1, L1, L1A, and H1. “I’ve been to India for my ‘stamping’ at least eight times, across Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, New Delhi–I know all the hotels, the auto-rickshaw fare, photocopy places… my wife and I would make a vacation out of these trips,” he says.
Around four years ago, he began noticing a lot of vanity plates, or personalized license plates, in California and felt like he should get one too. “Trying to decipher their meaning became an interesting hobby for us while driving,” he says, referring to his wife, and his two daughters, both of whom are Americans by birth.
Around the same time, he visited a cousin in Phoenix, Arizona, who had a license plate that said “Jodhpur,” Lodha’s hometown in Rajasthan, India, where his parents live. So he flirted with the idea of getting a plate that said mujrosa, a Marwari word used to express respect for the elderly.
But he wanted something that reflected his situation in the United States. One contender was a plate that said “Papers?”, the one-word question cops typically ask people trying to cross the border to enter America.
But Lodha’s story was the infamous work visa story. A football-loving neighbor owns a car with a plate that says “Raiders4Life”. And that’s how “H1B4LF” came to be.
A note on the windshield
The story of how we tracked Lodha down was just as serendipitous. I happened to know someone who works at his company. The friend spotted Lodha’s car in the parking lot and tucked a handwritten note under his windshield wiper, asking him to get in touch. He reached out to her on the company’s Slack channel and soon enough, he was sipping a latte with this India Currents reporter!
Once an immigrant…
While Lodha’s vanity plate was all in good humor, it is a strong socio-political statement. “I am one hundred percent aware of that. When I applied for the plates, the authorities asked me for an explanation,” he says. This is the DMV’s way of making sure people display nothing culturally or religiously offensive.
While the plate tickled his daughters, amused his friends, and entertained strangers, it annoyed his wife. “She was furious when she first saw it. She thought I’d jinx my chances of getting the green card!” Lodha recalls.
But he was adamant. “After waiting for over 3,000 days, I didn’t mind waiting for another 1,000”.
Lodha’s green card finally arrived about six months ago. But he still flaunts his ‘H1B4LF’ plate with panache. Why?
Says Lodha, who has spent roughly half his life in the US, “Because it was never about the green card. It is about belonging. At the end of the day, I identify as an immigrant. And as far as I can imagine, I will always be an immigrant.”