Many people, including me (though I have fewer now I hope), have misconceptions about American Immigration. They might assume that it is quite easy to get American citizenship, or that once you marry an American you are a citizen. People conflate Green Cards (legal residency) with citizenship. Perhaps they assume there is a streamlined system. Whatever it is, people do not have a clear idea of what the immigration process is. There is a good reason for this.
Immigration to the US is labyrinthine, in every sense of the word. It is purposefully hard to understand.
My spouse is a legal resident because I am a citizen. Through a mess of paperwork and the postal service, we applied for him to enter the country to get married about a year before we got married, and then immediately after we got married we filled out more inordinate paperwork to apply to change his status to permanent resident and get an advanced parole visa so he could work and also leave the country to visit his family.
From start of the application to the receipt of the Green card took about a year and a half.
That was a very fast timeline.
Each step required some combination of paperwork, evidence of our relationship, background checks in every country, medical exams, interviews, and exorbitant fees. We hired a lawyer to decipher the complexities and get advice on how to do it most effectively. Once, an immigration office [there are more than one you have to deal with] sent us paperwork with a deadline for us, didn’t tell us they’d sent it, and it got lost in the mail for no apparent reason. We only found out because we asked them directly about our general status through our lawyers when we were concerned about there being too much time between contact points.
I was applying for him to join me in my country of birth, and he was scrutinized in every way, and I felt like I was on trial and presumed to be guilty of some nebulous crime and had to prove my innocence and worthiness.
I sent immigration officers family photos, photos of our first date, of our time in Hong Kong. I wrote a narrative of our relationship explaining how I knew I loved him, and then I had to get it notarized. I had friends and family write letters about us as a couple to go in our application. We proved we had secure financial situation and that our family would help us out if we needed it to prove to the government we wouldn’t rely on welfare programs and therefore be a weight on the state. Many times, we have waited for months without any notifications, shuffling papers we’d prepared for further proof for further steps.
When we first applied after getting engaged in April 2014, we hoped he’d be able to move to Chicago with me in September, then a month after I moved. That came and went, then we hoped by Thanksgiving, then maybe Christmas… He was finally able to move about 5 months later than we’d hoped, and we got married in February in Chicago instead of October or November in Chicago. We had some of our closest friends and family for a incredible (and frigid) weekend in Chicago to celebrate—we were surrounded by so much love, our families met for the first time, and our old friends and family traded stories about us when we were younger, and I could prove it in court.
The first thing we did when we got our marriage certificate was send a copy to immigration to change his status, so he could then get his Green Card. It takes an average of 6 months to get it approved, in which time you can’t leave the country or work.
In one of those irritating ways life has of timing things too close together, we wanted to go to our nephew’s christening and a good friend’s wedding in England 5 months later in July. We applied for advanced parole [that’s literally what it is called] so he could leave the country to see our soon-to-be godson whom we hadn’t gotten to meet yet, and my in-laws were generous enough to delay their dates, at least partially, on our behalf. We applied for probation shortly after we got married, and we got our travel approved by the US government mere weeks before we traveled.
When we came back I went through the immigration line with him and had some banter with the immigration officer to make sure we were on our connecting flight together, as legitimate family on our way home. After chatting about Chicago vs New York pizza and baseball the officer jokingly asked if American men weren’t good enough for me. It was a joke, so I laughed like I was being sporting and said something about “I couldn’t help it, and look isn’t he so beautiful?” We made our connecting flight.
A few months after that trip, he got his permanent residency, aka a green card. If we had gone to visit his family before getting the probation certification, or the green card, we would have had to start the entire process all over again. One of our biggest fears before we got our permission to travel was that we wouldn’t be able to see our family if an emergency arose. And if we did choose to visit them anyway, we would not have been able to move back to the US.
Then, even after you have residency, if you move outside the country before you get citizenship you have to reapply for your green card. You start the process all over again, probably with more questions as to why you chose to leave the country, and it will probably take longer.
If you don’t have special considerations, like international travel to see your family, then you have a little less to worry about. But if you fill out a form wrong or miss a deadline you didn’t see anywhere because they don’t really communicate clearly, you suddenly become “undocumented.” And then you will never get back on track. We pay very close attention to what our deadlines are.
The system is confusing and risky.
There are many, many types of immigrant visas you can apply for. Our first visa was a K visa, if the size of the alphabet gives you any inkling of scale. If you don’t look at immigration categories professionally, it can be overwhelming and confusing. Here’s a list of immigrant (things that give you residency) and non-immigrant visas if you’re curious on the State website.
Fun fact: green cards started out as literally green cards, then changed to non-green cards for a little while, but people were confused, so they made them green again.
My spouse is not a citizen yet. On our spousal visa, you have 3 years of residency before you are allowed to apply for citizenship. On most other types of green cards it’s about 5 years. On a student visa, it’s not possible unless you change the type of visa you’re on. And that timeline is from when you get your green card—not from when you enter the country.
As an applicant, this list of options is already confusing. If you’re engaged to someone, you seem to have three options: could get married before you apply (two options within that), or apply to get married in the US (what we did) and there is no guide to tell you what is the better choice. What’s faster? What requires more paperwork? What optional supplements can you add to your application? What will they ask for later? But at least the thousands of dollars in fees are pretty clear.
Of course, then there is the bureaucratic bloat. We had to work with at least 3 different agencies to finish the process. Filed similar paperwork multiple times in multiple places—Dallas, Hong Kong, DC, etc. They have thousands of documents just from us, because these documents are required. Someone may have read all my paperwork and learned the story of our relationship with letters from our parents and friends avowing our love. Or they might have been looking through 30 applicants in an hour and essentially judged each application based on stereotypes and file thickness. Who knows, really.
At least after you’ve immigrated, while you are on a green card, you like to think that you are fairly secure. But a change in policy can put you at risk, and your visa can be revoked at a whim of a law enforcement officer or a bureaucrat, as we have seen on a large scale rather recently.
Life of immigrants is fragile
We’ve seen stories of legal green card holders being deported, skilled professionals getting picked up by ICE after living in the country for dozens of years legally. It’s terrifying. You think you can trust the government to respect its own visas, but the recent actions by immigration officials seem to call into question the authority of multiple branches of the US government.
Worse, if you’re detained by immigration officials, there isn’t due process or a speedy trial for visa holders. You can be detained indefinitely and barely given a hearing, if at all. Conditions in detention centers are famously inhumane. [if you want to hear a piece about this, Embedded Podcast did a great podcast on detention centers]
Even if you become a citizen through this process, you can still get your citizenship revoked for some things within the first 5 years of your citizenship—including for joining the communist party or anything other than an honorable discharge from the military. These are avoidable things, fortunately; we aren’t communist and we aren’t in the military. But these clauses allow a recently naturalized citizen to be treated in a way that the Supreme Court has declared “a cruel and unusual punishment.”
Throughout the immigration maze, even though so much of the language is in the terminology of courts, there isn’t fairness, there isn’t due process, there is a presumption of guilt.
Fortunately for us, we are not at high risk for the most part. We can pay a lawyer; we can pay the thousands of dollars of mandated fees to all the governmental agencies; we can keep track of our paperwork and deadlines; we have a loving, stable, happy marriage; we don’t have criminal records (in any of the countries we’ve lived in); we are white and English-speaking; we are politically moderate; we are both well educated with good jobs; we have strong community networks in our home.
We had it easy. But even we often feel targeted and like our lives are fragile. It took so much work for us to get here, and I worry that even talking about our immigration process puts us at further risk. Imagine how much worse it is if you don’t have our advantages.
When I am feeling generous, I like to think this is what people mean when they say immigration reform. Improve staffing at the State Department and local immigration offices, reducing the redundancy of paperwork, creating a digital system, increasing transparency of the process, and increasing respect and effectiveness. But I know it is not. They tend to mean reducing immigration by making it harder, by making it less transparent, by making it more expensive, and making it less humane. And it is terrifying.