They live here and their business gives jobs to Americans — but they can't stay here
By Mark Puente, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer
Diane Cherry slid her passport across the counter to the immigration officer at Tampa International Airport. He had a few questions about her trip to London, then stamped her passport.
Cherry, a British national, took several steps — and froze. The stamp only allowed her to stay in the United States for three weeks. The officer had mistaken her for a tourist.
Panic-stricken, she tried to point out the error, but he ordered her to get back in line if she had questions — a line that with the arrival of another flight had grown to 300 passengers and hours long.
She had no choice.
Leaving with a tourist stamp could have jeopardized the flower shop that she and her husband, Mike, own in Pinellas Park, and their residence in a country they've called home for a decade.
When she finally made it back to the immigration counter, Cherry requested a supervisor, who fixed the error within seconds.
Her experience reflects the plight of at least 250,000 immigrants who have, under a little known visa program, put up substantial sums to run small businesses in the United States. The immigrants can stay here for decades; they can entrench themselves deeply in the fabric of their communities; and they can employ thousands of Americans. But they can stay only as long as they keep their businesses open.
They cannot become permanent residents or citizens. They cannot retire here.
Some lawmakers sympathize with their predicament. But the issue is caught up in the congressional gridlock of immigration reform.
"We want to be included in that conversation," Mike Cherry said. "We want to be treated fairly with the other groups. We always hear how small businesses are the heart of the American economy."
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The Cherrys entered the United States under what is known as an E-2 Treaty Investor Visa. The program allows immigrants from more than 70 countries to buy businesses in the United States.
When in the United States, investors cannot work for another employer.
Businesses must also earn a profit and employ American workers. Successful businesses can earn unlimited extensions, but if they fail, investors could be given 30 days to sell their assets and return home.
The Cherrys learned of the E-2 visa program through friends who had bought a business in Cape Coral. America's "go get 'em attitude" appealed to Diane Cherry, who said Englanders tend "to be a bit negative."
Mike and Diane Cherry had met in 2004 through a mutual friend.
At 45, Mike Cherry had spent years as a business manager in the technology industry in Basingstoke. At 41, Diane Cherry had raised two sons and worked 15 years as a support officer at a police agency.
In September 2006, they scoured businesses from Sarasota to Clearwater and happened upon Hayes Florist on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park. The flower shop had been open for more than 37 years, and the owners wanted to retire.
The couple married the following month, and immediately applied for the visa program. They sold both of their homes, and, as required by the visa program, put the $250,000 purchase price of the flower shop in escrow. The wait began.
They finally got their visa in July 2007. A month later, they landed in Tampa with four suitcases and a mountain of anxiety. They took control of the flower shop in October 2007.
"We understood what the visa meant," Mike Cherry recalled. "We knew we couldn't retire here."
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U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Bell- eair Bluffs, learned of the couple and the visa program during his 2014 campaign. He sponsored legislation in April 2015 that would give E-2 visa holders the chance for permanent residency after 10 years. The move gained no traction.
"This is the couple we should be providing a pathway for," Jolly said this week. "This is the story for America. We should be embracing them. They complied with the law and came here legally."
While Jolly is not interested in offering a path to citizenship for anyone who enters America illegally, he would like to help business people like the Cherrys. But he has been unable to make any progress because Republican leadership in Congress is only interested in reforming the total system, not incremental changes, he said.
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Getting the E-2 visa is one thing. Keeping it — and being allowed to stay in the United States — is quite another.
To renew their visas, investors must submit thousands of pages of business, payroll and financial records to a U.S. embassy in their home country. Investors must appear at the embassy and remain in that country for at least five days. After a short interview, consulate officers then decide to renew the visas for two to five years.
Another rule forces investors to travel outside the United States every two years to get a new passport stamp. With a price tag of about $300, Mike Cherry takes a morning flight to the Bahamas for a beer and returns in the afternoon. His wife gets stamped when she visits her adult sons in England.
One rule that affects many investors but doesn't apply to the couple: Foreign-born children must leave the United States or apply for another visa when they turn 21 — regardless of how long they have lived here.
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When the Great Recession crippled the American economy in 2008, the Cherrys learned that every business decision impacted their personal lives.
When sales slumped, they did not lay off any of their employees (they now have five full-time employees and hire part-timers seasonally) fearing that might hinder their visa renewal in 2009.
The couple spent six months working on the first renewal. The interview at the U.S. Embassy in London took five minutes. Their visa was renewed for five years.
By that time, the Cherrys knew they wanted to stay permanently.
They got another five-year renewal 2014. But even with those extensions behind them, Diane Cherry said the renewal is always in their minds.
"I feel like there is a black cloud over us all the time," she said. "We want to expand the business, but it distracts you."
• • •
Even with the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will remain in the country, the Cherrys spent $419,000 in 2014 for a home in Seminole.
When they finally decided to apply for a mortgage with Wells Fargo — the same bank they use for business — they were rejected because of their visa status.
"They didn't understand how it works," Diane Cherry said about the visa program.
The E-2 visa also makes the couple ineligible to reap lower property taxes using Florida's homestead exemption.
Mike Cherry and his wife, now 57 and 53, also support tight measures for legal immigrants and said they are not seeking special treatment.
"We are not asking for green cards to be handed out willy nilly," Diane Cherry said.
Currently, the couple hopes to earn a renewal in 2019 and beyond.
"We don't have a Plan B," Mike Cherry said. "Our plan is to work here until we drop dead or get denied. It comes down to our health and the embassy."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente
c. 2016 Tampa Bay Times