As the owner of one of Ohio’s largest hog farms, Meindert Van den Hengel contributes significantly to the economy. By the time he finishes building his third barn this year, he will be one of the state’s largest permitted hog farmers. He will have 7,500 hogs across three barns, for which he pays nearly $10,000 in annual property taxes. He already buys 100 tons of feed a week and employs contractors to load out the hogs and power-wash the barns. He has invested $1.5 million of capital in the whole operation. But according to one immigration officer who recently held Van den Hengel’s fate in her hands, the Dutchman had not invested enough in the United States to be granted a visa extension.
Van den Hengel’s experience underscores the challenges new immigrants face as they simultaneously try to build value in the United States yet not lose that investment in the face of a confounding immigration system. Van den Hengel came to America with his family n 2008 on a short-term visa granted to foreigners with specialized skills. After the family arrived, they won the green card lottery. But before they could receive the green cards, their original visas expired — and the government refused to renew them. The result: Despite having won the lottery, the family was suddenly deemed ineligible for green cards.
Not wanting to overstay their grace period, in November 2009 they moved back to the Netherlands, leaving their hog operation behind. “It was two worlds,” Van den Hengel said, recalling how he had invested over a million dollars in his successful hog farm but couldn’t be around to tend to it. “One world was a nightmare, the other was the American dream.” Three weeks into their stay in the Netherlands, the family received notice that they had been accepted back into the United States on a two-year visa.
It was two worlds: One world was a nightmare, the other was the American dream.
After that visa expired, the Van den Hengels returned to the Netherlands and applied for yet another visa. During that meeting at the American consulate, an officer rejected their application on the grounds that they had not invested enough in the United States. Over the course of the interview, Van den Hengel was able to argue his way from no visa to a five-year visa. “Just on the spot,” he says. To this day Van den Hengel is baffled by the country’s arbitrary and convoluted immigration process.
“I do everything,” says Van den Hengel. “I pay county, federal, and state tax. I invest money. Is that not enough? How much more do I have to invest?” Van den Hengel’s children are also contributing members of society. His daughter graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business management from the University of Northwestern Ohio and is now working on a farm. His son graduated with a degree in actuarial science from Ohio State University and now works as an insurance company actuary.
Van den Hengel supports immigration reform because the gaps in the process are a drag on the system and immigrant families making significant contributions to the economy. He believes his local politicians should take note: “This is an area that has been losing people,” he says. “Even for our conservative representative, if he is really in office for the good of his district, he should at least have no objections to someone coming here, investing money, and contributing to society.”