As federal lawmakers wrestle with immigration reform, the story of a Gunnison man may offer insight into the struggles that those from abroad often face in moving to the United States — and attempting to remain here.
Jermaine Rodney — Western alum, owner of Jermaine’s on North Main Street and IT extraordinaire — came to the U.S. in October 2011 from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica on a J1 visa to attend Western State Colorado University. He hoped to study computer science.
In order to meet J1 requirements, a person must be enrolled as a full-time student, and he or she is only permitted to work on campus. So, Rodney began looking for a job at Western.
“I went to IT Department for a job, but they had all their positions filled,” explained Rodney — to which he replied, “Well then, I’ll volunteer.”
In Jamaica, Rodney was in his late teens before he ever used a computer. His teacher gave him an assignment which was required to be typed. Rodney went to the public library. There were three computers, each with 30-minute time slots.
“I went to the library and I secured my spot, and it was my turn to type my assignment and it was turned off,” he explained. “I sat there and I looked and I looked and I didn't know what to do.”
From that moment on, Rodney realized he wanted to continue working with computers — but, hopefully, with greater success. As a volunteer in the IT department, Rodney stayed busy with anything he could get his hands on — hardware, software, scraping viruses off hard-drives, and helping students with their computer needs.
“It was successful, I had a great experience,” he smiled.
Rodney volunteered in the IT department for the next seven months, earning both experience and the trust of his co-workers. At the same time, Rodney enrolled in 18-21 credit hours every semester, ultimately graduating with degrees in business administration and computer science — all in two-and-a-half years.
“I was on such a fast track, but I still had a lot of time on my visa,” explained Rodney.
After working late in the library one night, Rodney slipped and fell on the ice walking home, breaking his leg in three places. He wasn't able to work, or pay rent or school fees.
“I had a community of support,” he recalled. “Four or five people from my department actually went up to Student Affairs and asked to take money from their paycheck to cover my bills that were past due.”
Ultimately, Rodney graduated, but he had to find means other than his J1 that would allow him to remain in the U.S. Students on a J1 are eligible to apply for Optical Practical Training (OPT), which provides one year of employment authorization.
‘I created a home here'
However, after a year under the OPT program, Rodney was given three weeks to leave the country. Shortly after, Western President Greg Salsbury became aware of the situation and advocated for a new position which would allow Rodney to remain in the U.S.
"I like to think of Jermaine as one great example of the benefits of Western walking the walk regarding diversity and inclusion,” said Salsbury. “Jermaine is hardworking, smart, talented, dedicated and a guy who genuinely enjoys giving back. All he needed was a chance."
Currently, Rodney works for Western’s IT Department under a H1B visa, which differs from a J1. The H1B visa is for working status, whereas the J1 visa is for the purpose of student exchange. More importantly, it’s acceptable to apply for your green card under H1B — or request yearly extensions as one works toward permanent residency.
However, the Trump administration wants to raise the prevailing wage of entry-level H1B. Many believe this would force companies to hire cheaper entry-level positions from an existing domestic pool of laborers.
Each year, 85,000 H1B visas are issued, and approximately 100,000 more are reissued or extended, with the majority going to computer-related professions, like Rodney’s.
“I created a home here. I created a family here,” Rodney explained. “It would be nice to stick around longer, and I know everybody will do everything they can to see that happen because that's the kind of community I have.”
‘Let them feel at home’
Despite a prevailing climate of negativity surrounding immigration at the highest level of federal government, Rodney remains hopeful.
“There’s a lot that can happen, but when you know the community that you live in, when you know the people that you surround yourself with it’s easy to put everything aside,” he explained. “No matter what happens with immigration, that doesn't change who I am.”
Rodney spends his days volunteering, a passion that has remained constant in his life. He volunteers with the Bethany Baptist Church and Free the Slave. He helps mentor students, and he hosts his famous “Jamaican Night” to raise money for local nonprofits both in the valley and across the globe.
Last year, “Jamaican Night” raised more than $10,000 in less than two hours for the local nonprofit Gunni Packs, which provides weekend meals and snacks for children of the Gunnison schools whose families are experiencing economic hardship.
Because he knows the struggle of going to school hungry, sometimes for days at a time, Rodney also regularly donates to Richmond Gap Primary School in Jamaica, so he can provide breakfast for 54 children everyday.
He sees potential not only in accepting immigrants, but also changing perception.
“What about immigrants who are making jobs for American citizens?” he posed. “What about immigrants who are making a difference for American citizens? what about immigrants who are trying to change the culture and view of immigrants?”
After knowing intimately what it feels like to not have food or shelter and to be treated as a second-class citizen, Rodney expresses empathy for those struggles. He encourages the community to embrace immigrants in hopes of building a stronger community.
“Do you leave them on your step and talk with them or do you invite them inside and say, ‘Sit down for a cup of tea?’” he questioned. “Invite them into the house, let them feel at home, then we will start to feel the difference in this country.”
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)