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Profiles in Immigration – From Student Visa to U.S. Citizenship

Matt Nicholson, the associate head coach of Niagara University’s Division I Men’s Hockey Team, navigated the United States immigration system for nearly 20 years before becoming an American citizen on July 31st, 2019. He spoke with FordMurray about his journey from student visa to U.S. Citizenship, and how his status has provided peace of mind during the COVID-19 pandemic in this installment of Profiles in Immigration.

First as a student at Colgate University in upstate New York, then as a professional hockey player, and finally as a hockey coach, in all, Matt Nicholson studied or worked under four visa programs, including the B-1, TN and H-1B visa, before eventually gaining Permanent Resident status in 2014, and becoming a Naturalized U.S. Citizen in July of 2019.

The Immigration Ladder

Matt’s immigration journey spanned nearly half his life, but with every step on the immigration ladder, Matt developed a stronger sense of belonging in the United States.

“It’s kind of like dating, then getting engaged, then getting married, then having kids,” Matt said (he is a self-professed analogy guy). “With every step there is more commitment and there is a deeper love and more peace of mind.”

Associate head coach Matt Nicholson coaches players during a Niagara University Hockey game. Matt first came to the United States on a student visa at Colgate University.

Matt held TN visa during his first college coaching position, where he helped Adrian College develop a Division III hockey program. He experienced anxiety every time he passed through a port of entry for a new visa stamp, wondering what would happen if the border patrol agent was having a bad day and decided not to let him in. The TN visa is an employer-sponsored visa for Citizens of Canada and Mexico and can be used for a variety of professional positions. TN visas are typically issued at U.S. ports of entry, as long as the beneficiary can present a job offer from a U.S. company and other supporting documents. The TN visa is a allows visa holders to stay in the United States for three years before returning to their home country, where they can apply for additional three-year terms. While it is a flexible option for qualified professionals, it is a “pure” nonimmigrant visa, meaning the TN visa holder cannot apply for Permanent Resident status while working in the United States for fear of impacting the nonimmigrant intent behind the status.

In 2009, Matt was hired to coach at Robert Morris University and sponsored for an H-1B visa. It was there that Matt first worked with FordMurray founding partner Russell Ford, who still serves as immigration counsel to Robert Morris University. Russell helped Matt through the H-1B visa process and gave him valuable advice for his future in the United States.

“He told me to get my master’s degree, as it would help build a stronger case for my Green Card,” Matt recalled. With the help of Robert Morris University, Matt earned a Master’s Degree in Instructional Leadership and Decision Making in 2011. Three years later and through the sponsorship of Robert Morris University in his position as the Associate Head Coach, he received his Permanent Resident “Green Card.” FordMurray navigated Matt and RMU through the PERM process, then the I-140 Immigrant Visa Petition, and finally the I-485 Application for Adjustment of Status.

With a Green Card in hand, Matt’s Permanent Residency in the United States would no longer be tied to employment. Being free of visa stipulations was liberating for an occupation that demands that young coaches take advantage of every available opportunity to “move up the coaching ladder”. A year after receiving his Green Card, Matt went on to work as Head Coach at the junior level before going on to serve as Niagara University’s Associate Head Coach

From Green Card to Naturalization

For Matt, the decision to build a life in the United States was simple – he wants to open himself up to as many opportunities as possible.

Matt Nicholson, pictured here with his mother at his naturalization ceremony, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in July 2019.

“The opportunities to succeed in the U.S. are greater than they are in Canada. The U.S. is ten times as big as Canada, and there are ten times as many choices for everything, whether it’s job opportunities or laundry detergent,” he said, adding that when his mom comes to visit, she loves visiting the grocery store just to browse the variety of products on the shelves.

The process to move from Permanent Resident status to Naturalization, though seemingly straightforward, should still be guided by a trusted counselor to avoid any missteps or issues. Most Green Card holders can apply for Naturalization five years after they gain Permanent Resident status, as long as they have lived in the United States for at least 30 months during those five years. Other stipulations include certain physical presence requirements, jurisdiction requirements, passing an English language test, a civics test, and going through an interview with a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer. An individual may begin the Naturalization petition process three months before reaching their 5-year anniversary of obtaining permanent residency.

Working with FordMurray

Matt knew he wanted to become a Naturalized U.S. citizen, and he knew who he wanted as counsel during the process.

“I knew from my previous experiences that you need to be patient and you need to have a good attorney,” Matt said. “And FordMurray is the best.”

Five years and one month after obtaining his Green Card, Matt became an U.S. Citizen at a Naturalization ceremony in Buffalo, N.Y., alongside 100 other new Americans from across the globe. He said the experience was profound.

“You’ve never met these people, but you feel a sense of connectedness to them,” Matt said. “It’s such a big world, and we all traveled different paths to get here, but we all had the same goal. It was a big moment for everyone.”

Now, a naturalized citizen, Matt has filed the paperwork so his mom can join him in the United States, and FordMurray has been privileged to be there to help every step of the way. If you are interested in learning more about employer or family-sponsored green cards or naturalization, contact us for a complimentary consultation.