Green card applications go up driven by improved internet access, slow job growth


At the beginning of October each year, the United States Department of State opens the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program which runs for a month.

At the beginning of October each year, the United States Department of State opens the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program which runs for a month.

Thousands of Kenyans and other non-American citizens all over the world are given the chance to try their luck at attaining residence in the world’s largest economy.

The program, which attracts millions of applications globally, ends with just 55,000 randomly selected applicants who meet specific requirements being awarded an immigrant visa allowing them to lawfully work and live in the United States of America.

In Kenya, this is the time when thousands of locals seeking the document – also known as the green card – flock to cyber cafes while others use personal computers to make the application before the 30 day window closes in November.

Early May, as the United States Department of State announced that out of the millions of initial applications received from all over the world only 105,628 have been selected to proceed to the next stage of the process, it also emerged that the number of initial applicants from Kenya has been trending upwards over time.

Initial applications from Kenya rose from 184,706 in 2005 to 198,866 in 2006 then dropped marginally by 9,893 to 188,973 in 2007 before going up for the following three years.

They rose by 18 per cent to 223,586 four years ago, then by 17 per cent over each of the next two years to 260,734 and 304,083 in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

The applications however fell by 38,609 to 265,474 in 2011, a year when the number of applications worldwide also dropped by seven million to 12.57 million mainly due to Bangladesh residents being declared ineligible to apply.

Mugo Kibati, director general of the Vision 2030 Secretariat said the increasing initial green card applications could be attributed to an improved economy and infrastructure which has empowered more people and provided them with better access to information.

He said that with improvements in infrastructure, access to the online application forms may have become easier and Kenya’s population has become more informed.

The local economy expanded by an average of 4.8 per cent over the seven year period with the transport and communications sector which includes roads and information communication and technology growing at an average of 7.9 per cent according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

This was second to the hotels and restaurants industry which over the same period posted an average growth rate of 8.63 per cent.

According to the Communications Commission of Kenya as at the end of March this year 30 per cent of the population had access to the internet, majority through mobile phones, compared to only an estimated five per cent of the population as at the end of 2007.

“As the economy improves even further to the point where a lot more opportunities are available to more individuals, we may start seeing them (the numbers) coming down as people have more choices,” said Mr Kibati.

Dr X. N. Iraki, an economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business said that almost all of the people who want to go to the United States want to improve their economic situation.

“There are a few rich people who are looking for something different, but this (increasing applications) could mean that a vast majority of the people have not benefited from the economic growth so they are looking for greener pastures,” he said.

Although the Department of State did not provide age or gender profiles of those who have made applications, recent trends of younger Kenyans going to work in the Middle East as house helps could provide a pointer on the individuals who are intending to leave the country.

Last year new jobs created by the economy went up by only a marginal 4.7 per cent to 520,100, 85.7 per cent of which were in the informal sector according to the Economic Survey of 2012.

The few jobs created do not match the thousands of youth graduating from secondary schools, colleges and universities and the unequal society that the Kenya has become over time has made making ends meet for the majority very difficult.

Returning home

Dr Iraki said that internet connectivity and access had improved over the past seven years but that over time, more professionals living abroad have also indicated their interest in coming back home attracted by the high growth being experienced locally and slower growth being experienced internationally.

READ: Brain drain hits US as immigrants head home to start businesses

The World Economic Outlook released by the International Monetary Fund in April this year projects that the United States economy will expand by 1.9 and 2.3 per cent this year and next year respectively while Kenya’s economy is expected to grow by 5.2 and 5.8 per cent over the same time period.

“I can tell you that in the last two years I have had a lot of calls from people abroad saying that they would like to or are coming back and also a lot more corporations are more comfortable with employing locals who have had the western exposure,” he said.

Bangladesh residents, who have been making the highest number of initial applications worldwide, were for the first time barred because the nation sent a total of more than 50,000 immigrants to America over the previous five years, resulting in the sharp drop.

Kenya was not the only country in Africa that registered a drop in the number of initial applicants last year.

Those from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone – which have traditionally featured among the top six countries in the continent and in the world whose residents have been sending in the highest number of initial applications over the past three years – also dropped making it difficult to draw a conclusion from Kenya’s 13 per cent drop.

Although the American embassy in Nairobi did not provide an official comment on the numbers, the United States Department of State, in an email response to Business Daily said that they had noted that the number of entries in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria dropped, but they had not analysed the reason for this.

“The online registration process has been used for many years, and to the best of our knowledge there was no policy change which would have impacted the ability of applicants to apply for the program,” said the United States Department of State.

Out of the high number of applicants from Kenya, only 4,410 were registered to proceed to the next stage of the green card application this year which includes submission and verification of documents, interviews and medical tests among others before one can be granted an immigrant visa.

In the previous two years, only 4,720 and 4,689 residents were selected to proceed to the next stage, indicating the low chances one has of getting the document that would give one access to legally work and live in the United States of America.

The country does however benefit from those who have settled abroad as they send money to support their families locally and invest.

In the first six months of this year Kenyans abroad had sent home a total of Sh50.67 billion ($596.23 million) compared to Sh34.55 billion ($406.55 million) in the same period the previous year.

According to the Central Bank of Kenya, about half of the remittances come from North America or the United States, indicating the importance of Kenyans who work there to this country and pointing to why many locals are still attracted to the world’s biggest economy.

The global financial crisis which led to a global economic downturn from 2007 extending into European debt crisis which is still affecting western countries to date, seems not to have discouraged individuals from poorer countries from trying their luck.

Ever since the downturn, many Kenyans have returned home to either start their own businesses or take up emerging opportunities offered by multinational firms which have been setting up in Nairobi as an entry point in the East African region.

Dr George Njenga, deputy vice chancellor, research and quality assurance at Strathmore University says that there are more opportunities in the region pointing to about 7,000 Kenyans working in the middle and upper levels in Rwanda and about 100,000 in South Africa.

“There is also a lot of promise within this country and everywhere you go it is evident that people are seriously investing,” he said, adding that this country has experienced a better business climate as a result of infrastructural projects while other Western countries are projected to grow slowly.

Dr Njenga said that most of those who have been applying for green cards have found it difficult to compete locally and hence the need to look for better opportunities abroad.

Staying in the US

Views from Kenyans who have lived in the world’s largest economy are mixed with majority expressing sentiments of wanting to come back home but are held back by prospects which are still better in the United States.

Ms Nyanjui who was granted a green card in 1999 and now lives in Boston, Massachusetts told Business Daily that even though Kenya’s economy has improved the US lifestyle remains superior.

Ms Nyanjui said that having a green card has helped her invest locally and in the United States, travel anywhere outside America and attain a college degree.

Peter Kamau* and his wife who now live in Baltimore, Maryland after getting their green cards in 2006 said that even though they miss their friends at home and ‘the more relaxed atmosphere’ the expansion of Kenya’s economy has come along with a high cost of goods and services.

“There are dim prospects of jobs and the very high cost of living. It is absurd that common use items like petroleum jelly retail at the same price in Kenya as the United States given the wide disparity in income levels. I also think that population pressure is starting to build,” he said.

Mr Kamau, who now works as a research fellow while his wife is a registered nurse, said that the ability to get job promotions on merit and the assurance of protection from thugs and crooked policemen are some reasons why individuals choose to stay in the United States.

He said that the ability to buy property and settle in any place one pleases and a more decent political leadership would go a long way in attracting those abroad back to the country.

“We intend to first gain sufficient work experience, make some money and also see where Kenya is heading politically – it still appears to be a very fractious country,” said Mr Kamau.

Sammy Mbau, a media consultant who graduated with a Master’s in Education Leadership from the University of Fort Lauderdale in Florida before coming back in 2002 says he does not apply for green cards because he is getting better opportunities locally.

“I have the experience of staying there which is an advantage. To me it is just like getting a visa and I think those who are applying are fresh from school or college and are looking for opportunities,” he said.

He is among many who, after completing higher education abroad chose to settle and look for emerging opportunities locally.

Mr Mbau said that in in the United States life is too fast and most people live ‘from bill to bill’ while in Kenya you have ‘a full life’.

“I think Kenya is delivering its promise and if we can prove ourselves during this election there will be a tremendous exodus to Kenya because the growth potential is here,” he said.

Source: Business Daily Africa



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