LITHIA — Sarah Farnan used to dream of working the Shamu show at Sea World.
Now she just wants a way to stay in the United States, at least until her college graduation.
A Bright Futures scholar in her junior year at the University of South Florida, Sarah could be deported back to England when she turns 21 this summer.
Her parents, who own a Pinellas County pressure washing business, thought Sarah could remain with them as long as she was their dependent.
"My understanding was that she is my dependent until she finishes school," said Peter Farnan, 51. "It turns out I was wrong."
Their plight, and others like it, have advocacy groups pushing to reform the E-2 visa program, which rewards foreign business owners for investing and creating jobs in the United States.
They estimate there are more than 100,000 such businesses, with yearly revenue of $50 billion and a work force of 700,000 despite the visa's limitations.
Among them: An E-2 holder cannot get a homestead exemption or a job in a different business and has no path to permanent residency.
"This is not an immigration visa," said Sonja B. Stefanadis, a caseworker for U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis who is trying to help the Farnans. "You're supposed to just finish up and go home."
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The Farnans were raising two children in Cambridge when Peter's employer laid him off, then rehired him in a job he didn't like, they said.
"If we were going to try something different, it was really then or never," said Alison, 46.
They had visited Florida on vacation, and knew someone who lived in Valrico. They bought a house in FishHawk Ranch, and, through a broker, they bought Grimebusters of Palm Harbor.
The business cost $150,000, they said. They put a $200,000 down payment on their $350,000 house, which was financed with an international mortgage.
Sarah got used to spicier food and schoolmates who giggled at her accent. The family joined community organizations such as the FishHawk Area Network Group. They took part in the Relay for Life for cancer research.
Sarah's grades and volunteer work at Newsome High School earned her a Bright Futures scholarship to the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, they said. She lived in a dormitory and chose anthropology as a major.
Unable to work under the E-2 restrictions, she moved back home so she could afford a car. She volunteers at Lowry Park Zoo when she isn't studying or driving to classes in St. Petersburg.
If not for the visa problem, she would be looking forward to traveling after graduation — perhaps a road trip through the United States or a visit to England and Ireland.
Instead, she said, thoughts of the future are giving her migraines and nightmares.
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The Farnans say their interactions with government have been frustrating at every turn.
Their initial E-2 visa, awarded in 2006, was good for only two years, under the program rules. They were told they could not apply for a renewal — a process that involved a visit to the U.S. Embassy in London — until three months before the expiration, though it might take five months to process it.
They were able to take the trip because the family had attended a wedding in Australia, and in doing so had extended their travel documents.
The trip to London cost $15,000, Alison said. They stayed with her parents. "It would have bankrupted us if we had had to stay in a hotel."
Daniel, now a senior at Newsome High School, missed his final exams and had to make them up. They needed to have their visa documents sent to them by courier. The renewed visas, although approved, had varying expiration dates.
"By then you're worried that your business is going down the tubes because you're not here, and you just want to get back and deal with the mess," Alison said.
Back in Florida they called a lawyer, who said to contact Sarah's school. They didn't find the expertise they needed at USF St. Petersburg, they say.
Nor did they want to see Sarah reclassified as a foreign student or apply for a student visa. She'd have trouble getting one, they said, because she'd have no home or family when she returned to England.
Another lawyer suggested Peter find an employer who would sponsor him toward a green card — and quickly. He did find a sponsor, and submitted the paperwork.
But the family learned there is a backlog of at least nine months at the Labor Department, one of the agencies involved.
"They have to take these cases in order," Stefanadis said. "Otherwise, every representative would be pulling their constituents ahead of each other."
And once Sarah turns 21, it will be too late to include her on the green card.
Similar dilemmas exist in other E-2 families, said Steve Adams of Lakeland, who arrived in 2003 from England to open a pool service business. He and his wife Zoe, who are active in E2reform.org, say there are inconsistencies in which businesses are approved, and that often the visa holders' children face deportation or unemployment.
"America is paying for our children's education and at 21, they're throwing that money away," Adams said.
Their campaign has had a positive response from U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, who co-sponsored a bill to create a green card path for some E-2 visa holders.
But getting it passed is an uphill battle. "The minute anyone in Congress hears about immigration, they literally shut their ears," Adams said.
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When Sarah weighs her options, none makes sense.
She could go back to England. But she would have an unfinished education, no circle of friends, no British driver's license, not even the documents she would need to get a job.
"I'd be moving back alone," she said. "Or my entire family would be following me, and we would be going back with no money."
Like so many Floridians, the Farnans also have seen their house value halved.
"People look at us and say, 'Oh you're here from England, you own a business, you must have lots of money,' " Alison said. "We did the day we got off the plane."
People have suggested that Sarah just get married. That would not be a bad idea, Stefanadis said, if Sarah were in a relationship headed towards marriage.
She isn't. But she has researched the rules, and some school friends have offered to marry her if that's what it takes, though Sarah isn't seriously considering it.
"If we sound a bit glib about it, it's because it's a common response and we've had it a lot," Alison said, adding, "It absolutely horrifies me."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or firstname.lastname@example.org.