Most people give two weeks’ notice before they quit their job. When Philadelphia PR professional Kylie Flett left hers at Old City boutique ad agency Neff Associates last autumn, she had two weeks to leave the country.

After scrambling to make arrangements (someone to care for her dog, someone to watch her car), she decamped to her native Australia on the last possible day, expecting to return in short order after some routine paperwork. Instead — thanks to heightened security around U.S. immigration, general bureaucracy and a bit of bad luck — her two-week trip turned into two months Down Under.

“The whole process is dehumanizing,” she said. “I have a masters degree, I speak English. For people who don’t, I can only imagine what it’s like.”

‘Why don’t you just become a citizen’

Upwards of 11.5 million illegal immigrants live in the United States. Many of those people were never authorized to be here, but many — some estimates say half — did obtain a visa of some sort, then overstayed their legal welcome.

The most common type of working visa issued by the U.S. is called an H1-B, which is for a job that requires a college degree. There’s a cap on the number approved each April, according to Philadelphia immigration lawyer Brian Getson. Last year, he said, 233,000 people applied and just 85,000 H1-Bs were issued.

Australians get a lucky break, thanks to a side deal worked out when president George W. Bush and prime minister John Howard were negotiating a free-trade agreement in 2005. Each year, up to 10,500 specialty visas called E-3 are available only to qualified Aussies, which is way more than ever apply (in 2014, around 8,830 were issued).

Here’s the catch: One caveat of E-3s is that they are defined as non-immigrant visas. You must file forms, and promise that you don’t intend to make the U.S. your permanent home.

“Everyone always asks me, ‘Why don’t you just apply to be a citizen?’ but with my status, I can’t,” Flett explained. “My visa is renewable indefinitely, but I can never file for a green card.”

E-3s can be renewed every two years for an unlimited amount of time — provided your application is sponsored by your employer. If you want to change jobs, you have to start the process over again. Applications filed from within the United States take three to six months to go through, and you aren’t allowed to start your new job until that happens.

Now, unless your old employer is golden-hearted enough to let you stay on the payroll for 90-plus days after giving notice, that means you’ll be out of work for a serious chunk of time.

“It’s virtually impossible to change jobs,” Flett said, “Even if you’re unhappy at your position, you usually stay — you feel almost feel handcuffed.”

There is a slightly quicker way to get a new E-3 issued, which is to travel outside the U.S. and process your application at a consulate abroad. If you go this route, the whole process is expected to take around a month. When she unexpectedly resigned from her job, Flett didn’t have a choice which route to take. The law gave her just 10 business days to leave.

She booked her flight, and prepared to see Australia for the first time in almost 11 years.

A blue tongue lizard being wrangled by Flett’s step-father in Pinnaroo Township, Australia
A blue tongue lizard being wrangled by Flett’s step-father in Pinnaroo Township, Australia

‘I hated Philadelphia’

Flett had come to the U.S. almost on a whim. When she was a star lacrosse player for Australia’s national team, a coach at an NCAA Division II school in Cleveland recruited her, offering her a college scholarship.

“I’m going for one semester,” she told her mother when she departed for Ohio in 2005. But she had fun in the States. “I kind of forgot to go home.”

Just before she graduated, her coach got a new job as head coach at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. “Come with me,” the coach said, “I negotiated a contract for you as my assistant.” Flett’s first thought at the offer? “I HATE Philly.”

The hatred stemmed from her one experience here during college. After an afternoon of day-drinking, she and a bunch of her male lacrosse player friends ended up in Old City. At the Plough and the Stars, a stranger mistakenly dropped his drink down the front of her white dress.

“I watched it turn pink — it was a vodka-cranberry or something — and then said something like ‘Ugh!’” she recounted. “He goes, ‘What, Bitch? It happens.’”

Flett decided to turn the tables on him. She ordered her own glass of cranberry juice, then turned and threw it in the dude’s face. He took a swing and punched her. Not a good move on his behalf, since she had a whole crew of lacrosse players who jumped to her defense, inciting a bar-wide brawl.

“We watched the whole fight play out on the news the next morning as we were having breakfast in the hotel,” Flett said. “I swore I was never coming back.”

Yet, when her coach gave her 24 hours to accept a job with a chance to attend graduate school, she decided to give the city a second chance. Once here — like many others who discover Philadelphia — she fell in love with the place.

A $5,000 process

After obtaining her masters in public relations from LaSalle, Flett was offered a job at Neff, which sponsored the E-3 visa that allowed her to stay in the country even though she was no longer a student. She did well at the firm, moving up in the ranks until she was offered a position as partner.

Last autumn, creative differences that had been brewing for a while came to a head. Despite knowing that it would essentially cancel her visa, Flett made the choice to resign. That started a scramble to land a new position — which she found at Punch Media, a firm run by an old friend — and score a new visa so she could continue her Philadelphia life.

“All in all, it probably cost me more than $5,000,” she said. (The high price of doing things by the book is another reason many people enter or stay in the country illegally.)

In a process that depends on dotting every I and crossing every bureaucratic T, Flett’s went awry from the start. Days before she was to leave, someone hacked her bank account; Wells Fargo had to cancel her debit card. A new one wouldn’t arrive until after her departure. A freak hurricane hit on the day she flew out, and her flight to Melbourne left late enough that she didn’t cross out of U.S. waters until after midnight — and was clocked as having overstayed her visa by one day.

Officially, once you overstay your visa, you’re banned from returning for 10 years. Thankfully, the rule wasn’t rigidly enforced, but it did likely hold up the paperwork she submitted from her family’s home in Adelaide. Once the forms did go through, more than a week later than expected, she got the earliest possible appointment at a U.S. consulate… taking a $1,000 flight across Australia so she didn’t have to wait an extra month.

Welcome to the DMV

“The place is like the DMV only with more at stake,” Flett said. “It’s organized like they purposely want you to feel bad.”

After getting fingerprinted at a little window, she answered a few questions, and the official told her she was approved — but handed over nothing to prove it, and also kept her passport. “We’ll send it back to you when everything’s ready,” he told her.

A week or so later, a package showed up at her aunt’s address. “It must be the passport,” Flett thought, and promptly booked a flight home. Opening the envelope, she discovered it wasn’t the actual document, but instead a note that told her to pick up the passport at a DHL shipping center by showing photo ID. But, “my ID was inside the package I was supposed to pick up!”

Some cajoling and tears eventually solved that issue, and Flett finally embarked on her trip back to the U.S., six weeks plus one day later than expected. Her arrival in Philly was set back 24 hours when she arrived in San Francisco just after the Paris terrorist shootings and her connecting flight was held up.

“It was a really tough process, but I still wanted to come back,” she said; she’s living proof that “people will go through a lot to live and work in the U.S.”

Danya Henninger is a Philadelphia-based journalist who believes local news is essential for thriving communities, and that its format will continue to evolve. She spent six years overseeing both editorial...