Immigration 101: What it's like to immigrate to the US, part 2

In my last post, I talked about all the ways to immigrate to the United States, besides having a family member sponsor you. In today’s post, I’m going to share what it was like to obtain residency (AKA a green card) for my husband after our marriage. If I could subtitle this blog post with a noise, it would be the bitter laugh I gave in response to people who asked, “So, now that you’re married, your husband gets a green card, right?” Sure, if by “gets” you mean “embarks on a 2.5 year process, pays over $2000 in fees, and submits piles of paperwork for the chance to apply for a green card” then yes, our marriage did mean that he got one.

Let’s start from the very beginning:

My husband was born exactly two days before I was, but while I was born in the US, he wasn't. He attended an English-language school in his hometown before going to college in the United States. In order to come to school, he had to get a student visa. During his undergraduate years, my husband got a US driver's license after passing the written & road test (it said “temp immig status” in red on the top), and was assigned a Social Security number after he began working on campus. (International students are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week on campus as part of their financial aid package; they pay taxes on these earnings.)

After a couple of rounds of graduate school, internships, and time back in his home country, we got married in the summer of 2014. He was in the US on a student visa at the time, which was great because otherwise we would have had to apply for a fiancé visa just for him to travel to the US for the wedding. I took his last name, so we did all the name change paperwork first and then started on his residency application around November – December. There were three different forms we had to fill out:

  • Petition for change of status (from student visa to resident) (fee for filing: $640, plus $85 for the medical appointment)
  • Employment authorization (fee: $410)
  • Petition for Alien Relative (fee: $535)
    • Affidavit of Support as part of the Petition for Alien Relative

It took us a couple of months to put all the forms and corresponding documentation together. One of the first steps was getting an appointment with a specially designated medical center who could do the biometrics exam – ensuring that my husband was healthy and did not have any major communicative diseases. My husband obtained copies of his birth certificate and high school diploma from his home country, both translated by someone with international certification and with an apostille mark (the international equivalent of a notarized document). We had to gather evidence that our marriage was bona fide, including notarized letters of support from people who had witnessed our relationship, pictures, a shared lease, etc. In terms of difficulty, it was about as complicated as filing self-employment taxes, but doing it three times for the different forms. Also, on two of the forms my husband was the “petitioner” (the change of status and employment authorization) and on the other form I was the “petitioner” asking the government to permit my spouse to immigrate. Maybe this doesn’t sound too bad, but when we were trying to pull together stacks of paperwork and figure out who needed to sign what and where…it got confusing.

The hardest part was proving that I would be able to support my husband financially. We had to demonstrate that we could maintain our household of two people at 125% of the federal poverty limit. As a grad student, my income would have put us just over the line (as long as we didn’t have any children!), but it wasn’t guaranteed for more than two more years. We therefore asked my dad to serve as a secondary sponsor. He also had to submit documentation showing that he could maintain his household plus ours at 125% of the poverty line. As a secondary sponsor, he didn’t have to be related to the immigrant, but he did have to agree to be legally liable for the cost if my husband managed to obtain a number of government benefits (unemployment, etc) despite being excluded from those programs as a permanent resident.

Our first attempt at filing was returned to us because we didn’t give sufficient evidence for this financial support. The letter was somewhat unclear about what exactly was missing, but we obtained a letter from my dad’s employer certifying that his employment was expected to last for the foreseeable future and resubmitted the packet. Since it was now January 2015, we also filed our 2014 taxes and submitted those as evidence of our joint finances. Whichever piece it was, our second attempt was successful. We then had to attend an interview with immigration at their nearest office (Newark for us). The interview date and time were automatically assigned, and we were very lucky that it took place about 3 days before I left on a 3-week research trip. The wait between November, when we first submitted the application, and April was also an anxious time because any departure from the US while your green card application is in process is taken as an automatic withdrawal of your application (because if you wanted to live here, why would you leave?). If anything had happened to my husband’s family back in his home country during this period, he wouldn’t have been able to travel to be with them.

The morning of our interview, we headed up to Newark and waited along with all the other applicants before being called in. The immigration officer had our original application packet on her desk – they must have been sent to her from the central processing office. I was surprised that most of her questions were addressed to me, rather than my husband, asking if I knew things like his major in undergrad, his parents/siblings’ names, birthdate and city, etc. She then asked my husband similar questions about my family. We were pretty sure we were in the clear when she looked through our wedding pictures and commented that she liked my dress. At the end of that meeting, she informed us that she would approve our petition and that my husband would be receiving his green card in the mail within a couple of days.

All done, right? Wrong! Because my husband’s green card was dependent on our marriage, he received conditional permanent resident status. After two years (so…right about now) he became eligible to apply to remove that conditional status, by submitting more paperwork to demonstrate that we are still married. This requires another pile of papers and a $680 filing fee. If we had failed to submit this paperwork, his drivers’ license, work authorization, and green card would all expire two years to the day after he obtained residency, and he would become deportable.

After sending in the forms, we got a confirmation letter that it the application to remove conditional status had been received. The letter also stated that his conditional residency has been extended for one year (to allow time for processing the paperwork, I guess), and that he should watch the mail for future notifications of his assigned appointment time at an Application Support Center where his biometrics will be taken (photo, fingerprints, signature). The closest ASC is 20 minutes away and offers appointments M-F from 8 am to 4 pm, so I guess we better make sure he has some vacation time to use! Anyway, that's where we currently are in the process. We hope that his application will be approved soon and that he can continue to be a permanent resident. If all goes well, in another year, he'll be eligible to apply for citizenship.

As I said earlier, the entire process will cost us over $2,000 in filing fees. If we had decided to use a lawyer, that would have been an additional $1,000 (for a very straightforward case). It also involved a level of government involvement in my life that was far beyond anything I had experienced as a citizen – I’m not thrilled about the fact that a bureaucratic agency now holds original copies of my marriage license, birth certificate, etc. Also, this path is only open to immediate family members of US citizens (spouses, parents, children, and siblings). There are an unlimited amount of green cards given to spouses, parents, and minor children, but only 226,000 available for adult children and siblings of US citizens. My sister-in-law would love to immigrate to the US, but she’ll have to wait until my husband becomes a citizen (in another year) before he can try to sponsor her and hope she gets one of those slots. Currently, the waiting list is about 5-6 years.