Green Card Blues

The prevailing myth among those who have never experienced the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service first hand is that when you marry an American you are simply issued a Green Card and all is well. You sail off into the sunset, everyone’s happy, America has gained another taxpayer. You raise bilingual kids. End of story.
By virtue of having married a Polish citizen, I now possess a wealth of knowledge that not only contradicts that myth of bliss, but actually is capable of shattering it completely to the point that it is unrecognizable. Even to the myth’s relatives and close friends.
When fate introduced me to a Polish girl in an Irish bar in France, fate was also arranging my introduction to a world of stifling bureaucratic chaos I once thought was monopolized solely by the Internal Revenue Service. How naive I was.

Recently we had what a layman might call our Green Card appointment. This became our life’s goal when we mailed an over-stuffed manila envelope to INS nearly two years ago.
The odyssey began with our civic marriage. The “civic” marriage was a necessity because the “church” marriage wasn’t to be until August 2002. But INS could not wait that long. They did not care that I was in love with an Alien. They only cared that she was an Alien. Paperwork had to be filed immediately or my Alien fiancé would have been deported – which is terrible for relationships. I also think calling someone’s spouse an Alien is terrible for relationships, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
And so, in order to get the INS paperwork going, we had our civic ceremony that December in 2001. By civic ceremony I mean we were at the matrimonial equivalent of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. We were married right after a sketchy long-haired guy and his South American wife, right ahead of the morbidly obese couple who came dressed in jeans and t-shirts to celebrate their commitment to dressing like crap.
A woman with a tremendous Hispanic accent called us into a room, recited from the top of her head the marriage vows in mumbled Spanglish, and pronounced us married. My dating life ceased. As the grand finale I was told “chew may now kees dee brine.” So, I kissed me brine. My brother’s cell phone went off, playing Michelle Ma Belle in pre-polyphonic digital bleeps. It was as glorious and romantic as you’d imagine it wouldn’t be. Afterwards, we stood in front of the fake Christmas tree and plastic Menorah in the lobby to have our photo taken.
Newly married, and in possession of a piece of paper saying so, I immediately set about filling out the paperwork. The first step in the coveted Green Card journey. The first step involves reams of paper. Environmental fanatics take note: an entire forest was murdered to accommodate me.
I can recite the forms off the top of my head now. First there was the I-485 Adjustment of Status. This was what you might call the Green Card application. Then there was the I-130 Petition for Alien Relative which you use to prove that you’re related to an Alien and entitled to file the I-485 in the first place.
In addition, we needed to supply the G-325A Biographic Information forms for the two of us, and I had to fill out the I-864 Affidavit of Support. The I-864, backed up by copies of three years of tax returns, W2 and 1099 forms and pay stubs, all my bank account information and any other proof of worth helps to show that you earn more than the poverty limit ($12,000 a year at the time) so that INS could be assured my wife wasn’t going to go on welfare. If you are making less than $12,000 a year no one would want to marry you anyway, so this rule seems completely pointless.
The I-693 Medical Examination of Aliens Seeking Adjustment of Status form required a visit to an INS approved doctor. That doctor ran tests and provided a sealed envelope to include in the application. God forbid my wife had a horrible disease, since that could mean she was dying and was going to be deported. You’d want to know that right away. But they don’t open the sealed envelope until your interview. Two years later. So, right in the beginning of the interview you’ve waited two years for, they presumably dish out the bad news, ask you to cover your mouth, and drag you to the airport for your one-way trip back to the homeland.
Each form comes with a set of instructions unique to that form. Each form requires a certain number of photocopies and originals of various things. Some forms require photographs. Everything needs to be done correctly. The penalties for doing them incorrectly are anybody’s guess – at the very least it means a delay in your application which is already going to take two years under the best of circumstances. Worst case, I imagine you get deported. Again, terrible for relationships. The anxiety starts to build.
The forms were all various degrees of confusing, often with several pages of text telling you what you need to do, but leaving you with enough questions that you’re terrified you’re making a mistake and ruining your life. I pity the poor souls who don’t speak English. Their eyes must tear up as they go from word to word trying to make sense of it all. A lot of it didn’t make sense to me either, and I can read. In English.
Questions are plentiful, and worrisome, because answers are hard or impossible to come by. You will not reach a human by phone. You can go to the district office and wait long periods of time to ask a question. Make it a good question though, because you can only ask one and then you have to go to the back of the line and wait all over again.
For quicker answers the best you can do is flip through Do It Yourself books and hope they’re not outdated. Since the numerous forms are subject to change, you can count on your book being outdated. A few times the books referred to sections that no longer existed on the forms, or didn’t acknowledge other sections on the forms. The books often contained actual copies of forms which would have been helpful if they weren’t outdated. Your best bet was downloading the most current forms on the INS website. Depending on the form, some looked great and others looked like a ninth-generation photocopy. All this form confusion just added to the anxiety, which had already climbed to maximum by the specter of my wife being hauled off by INS agents because I forgot to dot an “i” or cross a “t” on one of my I-forms. I’m not known for being detail oriented.
Processing fees also changed without much fanfare, and had I not noticed this on their website I would have sent in a check for the wrong amount. In any other instance this would have been an unfortunate inconvenience. With the INS it would be a terrifying, nerve-racking disaster.
If you were desperate for assistance you could easily spend thousands of dollars on a lawyer. We had spoken with one early on and she either didn’t know what she was talking about, wasn’t aware the rules had changed, or was deliberately trying to frighten us into using her services. I decided she was a moron and vowed not to involve lawyers in the process. Plus I’m not fond of lawyers. I hate to give them money.
By December’s end I had pounds of paper ready to go. In hindsight I should have also filled out the I-765 Application for Employment Authorization Document which would have allowed her to work and the I-131 Petition for Advance Parole which would have allowed her to leave the country and return, but I held off. Part of me was confused, part of me was tired of paperwork, and part of me didn’t realize that without the I-131 Advance Parole your spouse is in big trouble if they leave the country. This would be another source of extreme anxiety in the near future.
After you mail off the manila envelope, you wait. How long you wait is anyone’s guess. And what you’re waiting for is anyone’s guess. A few weeks later I received a hand-scrawled envelope that contained nothing but a small, yellow receipt. At least it was proof, I hoped, that they had received what I mailed. I cherished that receipt. It was all I had to go by. I photocopied it numerous times. I treasured it like it was a family heirloom when in reality it was a tiny yellow receipt that was barely legible because the ink was so faint.
I was under the impression I would be receiving something more substantial. One book suggested I’d get an official looking letter that said they had received my application and it was being processed. The book even had a picture of the letter. That never happened. Or if it did happen, I never got it.
Fear of not getting correspondence from INS added tremendously to the anxiety. Most correspondence was hand addressed. The idea that in the 21st Century we had people hand writing addresses seemed absurd, counter-productive, and error-prone. What if the human misspelled the address? What if it was illegible? It certainly looked close to illegible. It had to be — a human being was scribbling 300 of these a day by hand. I constantly wondered if we had missed vital pieces of mail. On top of that, my Chinese expatriate mailman constantly gives me other people’s mail. Despite complaints to the Postmaster, I continue receiving X-rays for a dentist on another block. I could only assume someone other than me was getting some of our mail. Probably our INS letters. More anxiety.
I soon realized the folly of not filing the I-131 Advance Parole document. Without obtaining this piece of laser-printed paper with a photo glued to it, my wife could not leave the country and return. If she did, on an emergency family visit for example, they would not let her re-enter the United States. Even better, all the paperwork we had filed – the entire case – would have been thrown out. We’d then have to start from scratch, but she’d be living outside the US for months or longer. Again, not good for a marriage. Even more anxiety. To top it all off, her aunt was very sick. Every time the phone rang I was terrified my wife would be summoned to Poland. In mid-March 2002 I filed the I-131 Advance Parole and prayed to any deity that would listen.
Near the end of the month we got a little yellow receipt for the I-131 check, which I took to mean the Advance Parole was in the works. But we heard nothing. And her aunt was apparently more ill. Now I was losing sleep.
By April 2002, four months after we’d sent in our paperwork, I only had yellow receipts to show that my checks had been accepted. I had received no other correspondence. I had no A-number, which is the Alien Registration Number they use as an identifier for your case. I had not seen the letter that one of the books claimed I’d be receiving. I started to worry that maybe they misaddressed our mail, lost us in the system or just took my money.
At the end of May 2002 we received a letter telling us to come pick up our Advance Parole Document the following month. After that, she’d be able to leave the country and come back. Though not without a great deal of anxiety. If we were ever to lose that document while abroad the consequences would be unfathomable. The I-131 was valid for one year. Unfortunately, by the time they issued our appointment to pick it up it was already two months old. We’d have to apply for a new one in short order. By this point, my wife was desperate to visit her family. She’d never been away from them for so long.
When we picked up the Advance Parole document in mid-June, we were thrilled. She could leave the country to visit her family and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The document had her A-number which we had never before seen. I immediately filed the I-765 for her Employment Authorization Document.
We were also happy that the Advance Parole would allow us to go to Poland and get married again, this time in a church with friends and family. We had invited people to the wedding in August. It would have sucked if we couldn’t have been there.
There was much more waiting. By September 2002, nine months after filing, I knew only this much: We had now been married twice. Once on INS terms and once on our own. INS had cashed our checks. They had issued an Advance Parole Document, which means we were in the system somewhere. But still no news on the coveted Green Card interview. We received a letter saying the Employment Authorization Document could be picked up in December.
Picking that up was a story all its own, and a terrific example of how horrible a mean-spirited little man can be when he’s handed power over other people. For every decent INS employee we encountered there were a few of these types: bureaucrats to the nth degree who were dreadful to the wide-eyed, helpless masses sitting in their lobbies.
Months came and went. No news. I just had to hope all was progressing along normally. Going to the mailbox was a combination of hope, dread and anger. I never knew what to expect, but since I’m terribly pessimistic I expected the worst. When I opened the mailbox and received nothing, I then expected that the worst had happened but the mail had been misaddressed. Or that the Chinese mailman gave it to the dentist down the street.
As we approached May 2003, we had to re-submit another I-131 Advance Parole application so that my wife could continue to leave the US and be allowed to return to it when she was finished.
Same deal. We sent it, received a small, yellow receipt weeks later. And an appointment letter after that. Naturally, the appointment was scheduled for a date that my wife was out of town on. she was returning the day after the appointment had been scheduled. More anxiety. I had to go down to the offices, wait in line, and ask a lady what I should do. I told her the appointment was set for May 2nd but my wife was returning May 3rd. The lady told me we could come pick it up on May 4th. I was relieved. I left.
Then I realized May 4th was Sunday. More anxiety. I opted to suck it up and we’d simply return on the 5th. Fortunately they didn’t seem to mind when we did that. We finally had our new Advance Parole. We continued to travel.
Returning from abroad was always terrifying to me. Even though we had the Advance Parole I was nervous that the rules had changed while we were out of the country. As we approached the INS desks at the airport I’d start to feel jittery. I was artificially friendly with the INS staff and visibly nervous. To a trained eye, I’m sure I’d look like a suspect of some sort. Knowing that I looked guilty of something made me even more nervous. The palms of my hands would get clammy. I’d stutter… I’d make a lousy spy.
Inevitably, we’d be told to go to the airport INS office to have the Advance Parole stamped. This took a minimum of 45 minutes, sometimes longer. We’d sit and watch other people from various countries going through various Hells. I saw fathers being told their kid would not be allowed in the country. I saw a hysterical Chinese lady being deported. And I saw countless African guys lying through their teeth. The Africans were my absolute favorite. I watched guys with fake passports, expired passports, no passports or other people’s passports stand there and lie and lie and lie. The INS agent would ask a question, the guy would lie, get caught, and the cycle would repeat itself. It would go like this:
“What is the reason for your visit?”
I have business.
“This is a work visit?”
“So you’re visiting for work?”
“Well, sir, you don’t have a work visa. You don’t have permission to come here and work.”
(Pause) It’s not for work.
“Wait, you just told me this was a work visit.”
“Why did you tell me this was a work visit?”
I didn’t.
“Yes you did.”
My brother lives here.
And so on. If it wasn’t holding everyone else up it would have been hilarious. Eventually the guy would be cuffed to a chair while they awaited the next flight home.
The end of May finally brought us what we’d been looking for: the date of the Green Card appointment. We were thrilled, though the appointment was not until mid-November 2003. In the time in between we’d have to assemble the necessary evidence to prove that we were a legitimately married couple. A man and his Alien.
My wife also had a Fingerprinting appointment, which turned out to be the greatest immigration experience we had. The reason for this was that it wasn’t INS doing the fingerprinting, it was the Department of Homeland Security. We received an appointment letter which directed us to a clean, well-lit, modern space with only a few folks in it. We were in and out in only 10 minutes. And on top of it all, they handed her a customer satisfaction survey. My first thought was that it was a trap of some sort. It all seemed to good to be true.
As our November 2003 appointment grew closer, my anxiety grew bigger. I fully expected to walk into the meeting and be told that they didn’t believe we were married. I spent hours assembling everything they wanted to see, as well as anything else I thought they might want to see. I had to bring originals and photocopies.
On the day of the meeting, we woke early and headed down to the INS office. I was pulling a rolling suitcase filled with: copies of all our paperwork, our passports, birth certificates, translations of her birth certificate, ID photographs, Social Security card, marriage certificate, life insurance policy showing my wife as the beneficiary, any INS correspondence from the past two years, three years of tax returns with three years of W2s, 1099s and paystubs, canceled checks from the IRS, three months of checking and savings account information for myself, three months of checking and savings account information showing joint accounts, gym membership card, health insurance information proving she was on my plan, hospital bills from a miscarriage to show that we were trying to have kids, proof she had her fingerprints taken, her work authorization, a copy of our wedding invitation, cards from a Las Vegas casino to show we share a life together, receipts from our wedding rings, boarding passes from flights we’ve taken together, bills from the dentist to show I’m paying for her dental work, receipts from NYU to show I’m learning Polish, a receipt showing we sat through the horrendous Pre-Cana classes the Catholic church required us to take to get married on their property, phone and utility bills, my college quarterly showing a photo from our wedding, both Advance Parole documents and enough photographs to detail our entire life together. We had photocopies of everything, save the pictures.
For the first time ever, there was no line at the INS building. We walked right in and went through security. It was eerily quiet. That turned out to be misleading. We exited the elevator onto the eighth floor and into a sea of people. After handing the agent our appointment letter we were told it would be a 3-4 hour wait. We sat. We waited. I studied the crowd. There was a little bit of everyone in the world sitting in that room.
The PA system did not work correctly. For over an hour and a half we heard people testing the microphone. They tapped on it. They blew on it. They said “Test, test, test'” into it. But it didn’t work properly. I was certain that after two years of waiting for this appointment we weren’t going to hear our name called and that would be that.
Every few minutes and INS officer would come out, on the other end of the room, and call out a name. It was nearly impossible to hear. Some of the agents halfheartedly called the names, as if they were conserving valuable oxygen. Between that and the din of the crowd the anxiety was working itself to a fever pitch. I tried to read, but all I could really do was listen intently the nearly inaudible announcements.
As seats became available we migrated our way towards the area where the INS officers called out names. When we heard ours we bolted towards the woman and were escorted through a labyrinthine office – a football field of cubicles. She took us into a side office and shut the door.
I was a nervous wreck. I feared that my nervousness would make her think that we were lying. That made me more nervous. I fumbled through my suitcase as she asked to see a few ID documents to make sure we were who we said we were. She opened a file on her desk, our file, and I recognized all the documents that I had mailed to them nearly two years ago.
When she asked to see the I-693 Medical Report results my heart sank. We had sent them in with the initial packet in December 2001. We told her as much. I was terrified they had lost them and it would suddenly be our fault. She flipped through the folder and found them. She opened the envelope. Apparently no diseases to worry about. She pressed on.
The questions were straightforward. Her job is to determine that we’re legitimately married and financially secure enough that we won’t be going on welfare. Fair enough. She asked where we met. What we did. She looked at the original birth certificates, marriage license, passports, bank documents and passports. She took copies of them. Copies of the W2s and 1099s. She flipped through our photos and asked a few Who, What and Where questions. She made a photocopy of a picture from our honeymoon.
She wrote her name and date in my wife’s passport and told us we’d be getting a letter in a month or so. The letter would have an appointment time for us to come in and get her passport stamped. That would serve as proof of a Green Card until the temporaryGreen Card arrived in the mail, God knows when.
A temporary Green Card, called a Conditional, is issued if the couple has been married less than two years. In our case, we would have reached that mark only five weeks later. We mentioned this, but it didn’t matter. Rules are rules. Even if our second anniversary was only five weeks away, we hadn’t been married two years yet. A Conditional was issued.
This means that our two-year journey did not end on that day. Two years from now, we’ll be filing an I-751 Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence. We’ll be given another interview date. I’ll be packing another suitcase full of paperwork, and we’ll be making our way back to the sea of humanity to once again prove that I’m legitimately married to an Alien.