Can we talk about what the green card process actually entails?
There is so much talk these days about immigration. It is a touchy subject for many (myself included), but immigration law and processes are so complex and convoluted, few people can speak to the facts about the complexities of it.
My British husband received his green card a few months ago, though the actual card has yet to arrive in the mail. It was a long, expensive, confusing and stressful process, and still, is not quite over.
Many people assume the American immigration process can be all of these things, but still many more – including dear family members – think I can just fill out a few forms and arrive at the airport, with my foreign husband in tow like my carry-on luggage.
Many seem to view immigration as a bit of a leaky strainer – something with holes through which people flow through easily. This is not the case. A popular view is that it is in need of a good tightening – of more thorough vetting.
So allow me to share what the process for getting a green card actually looks like, because unless you’ve actually been through it yourself, why would you know how it works? And if immigration is something you have an opinion about, you should understand what it is you’re supporting or opposing.
Getting to Zero
My husband is British, but we were living in a third country, Egypt. This meant that we had three stages in our process: the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) Stage, the National Visa Center (NVC) Stage, and the Embassy stage, plus additional screening upon landing.
It sounds straightforward, but getting to a place of understanding it is not. We spent at least 40 hours or more researching and asking questions throughout. We consulted online forums, personal blogs of people in a similar position to us, and made phone calls to government offices. Just getting to a place where we could map out our starting point took hours of whatever spare time and energy we had left at the end of long days working with vulnerable people.
Also, you should know, that applying for a spouse or family member is the easiest and most straight forward avenue of becoming a US immigrant. What I’m sharing with you here is the easy version.
If a couple has been married less than two years upon the receipt of the green card, they receive a conditional green card. When they hit two years of marriage, they pay another fee and fill out more paperwork to get the full permanent residency. This helps weed out sham marriages, and is part of the reason why we waited until we were at least a year and half into marriage to start the process.
So, for the first stage, I submitted a comprehensive application, establishing our relationship, and petitioning the government to let me apply for my husband to come live and work in the US. This includes a main application, a money order for $420, a copy of my birth certificate and passport, biographical information sheets about both of us, including any and all travel we’ve done, complete work and address histories, a certified copy of our marriage certificate, and any and all proof of joint property ownership, joint tenancy, and co-mingling of finances to prove the bona fides of our marriage.
It takes anywhere from a few weeks to eight months for USCIS to process this information. During this time, many petitioners are contacted for further evidence or documents. We, thankfully, were not, and four months and twenty days of uncertainty later, we proceeded with our application to the NVC.
The NVC stage, along with another fee, includes extremely extensive, intensely personal documentation, and we spent months compiling together all that we would need. This included proving my US domicile and proof of intent of settle in America, and a background check from each country that my husband had lived in for more than 6 months, citing that he’d had no arrests or convictions.
We’d met in South Sudan and before we left, thankfully, another cross-cultural couple recommended we get a certificate of good behavior from the police department. We did, and we are grateful. If the other couple hadn’t warned us, my husband would have had to make a special trip to South Sudan for it, at huge personal expense. Financially, but also otherwise, as South Sudan remains unstable and at war. If we hadn’t already had it, I honestly don’t know what we would have done.
Bearing the Burden
This stage also required an Affidavit of Support. This is a declaration that I will be responsible for supporting my husband and have the means to do so if he is rendered unable to work. The income requirement is the official poverty threshold plus 20%. Hypothetically, if he were to become a ward of the state before he is a citizen, I could be sued by the state, having sworn that I would ensure he would not rely on public assistance. (Green card holders are not permitted to access government public assistance and services.)
The NVC stage also included a letter from my current employer, complete tax returns and W-2s for the previous year (plus declarations for the two years prior to that), a year’s worth of bank statements, recent pay-stubs, and evidence of any assets.
(Yes. I needed to release more of my tax returns to the US government to get my husband a green card than to become President.)
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Once all this is sent off, another fee is paid, and another application is filled out by the hopeful immigrant – more than 6 months from our first application, my husband was only now actually applying for his visa. During this stage, many people are contacted by the NVC for additional paperwork or evidence. We were pretty thorough in our preparation, and thankfully faced no further delays.
After a few more nervous months, this was approved, at which point they sent all of our paperwork to the US Embassy in Cairo, as per our requested location, and we were given an appointment date, much to our relief.
Once we had this appointment letter, the wheels began moving more quickly. My husband had to get a medical examination at one of the two approved clinics in Cairo. This, again, was thorough—an x-ray, analysis of complete medical history, immunization records, blood and urine tests, and testing for HIV, TB, and gonorrhea. Public health concerns arising at this stage can become grounds for denial.
A few weeks later, we attended the interview at the US Embassy with all of the original or certified copies of all of the evidence paperwork from the prior stages. (Paperwork that we’d been guarding very carefully, and kind of obsessing over. I had lots of anxiety about this binder, and for the entirety of the week before the interview, I carried it with us everywhere we went.)
At the embassy all of the paperwork was looked over thoroughly, and we answered several questions regarding each document, and about our relationship, work, and travel histories. Then, a second interview, with my husband holding up his right hand and swearing to the whole truth of all of the papers and answers to questions, to the best of his knowledge.
This stage is the most daunting – even if all the paperwork is correct, an interviewer can deny or delay, putting you into administrative processing if you haven’t satisfied the embassy with your answers.
Thankfully, they were satisfied with ours, and my husband was approved. We handed over his passport for processing, and fifteen days later, 283 days after we started the process, we had it back with the temporary green card and a sealed up packet to hand in to US immigration upon landing. At this point, the applicant has six months to relocate to the US.
The Last Hurdle
But—not over yet. We left Cairo for the US six days after receiving his passport back. Our itinerary included a short layover in London Heathrow, and as we went through immigration there, my husband was flagged because he was traveling on a new immigrant visa. We were taken off to the side by a US official, and questioned extensively again, going over his travel history and any and all countries he had ever visited.
Upon landing in the US, he went with me to the American Citizen’s line, then was taken into a room and questioned by secondary screeners. Even with the approval of two federal agencies and an embassy, he could still be turned away at the border by the immigration officer for any reason. During that interview, he was asked for social media handles, whether he was in any WhatsApp groups, and for his e-mail addresses while his documents were reviewed again.
After 20 very nerve-wracking minutes for me in baggage claim, he walked out, face beaming – he was in. We were home.
Here and Now
Now, we are here in America, at the tail end of a long, exhaustive and exhausting process. My husband is now a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR for short). He can’t work for the US government or any of its agencies. He must notify USCIS whenever he changes addresses. He doesn’t technically have the same constitutional rights as me – meaning if I decide to go to any protests, he’s not coming along. He is permitted to apply for citizenship after three years of good behavior in the US, or must renew his residency after ten years. Not that he’s planning on it, but if he were to, say, get a DUI, he could be deported, or for anything else considered “moral turpitude” – which, yes, is somewhat open to interpretation.
Again, being the spouse of a US citizen is one of the easiest immigration routes. The process for refugees, for example, is a longer, more rigorous route through not just 2, but 6 federal agencies and with grounds for refusal that are substantially stricter. (For example: For a family seeking asylum, it came up that they gave an orange to a border guard from a terrorist organization, as they were fleeing their country. They had another 6-month delay in the process as it was scrutinized whether or not this counted as supporting a terrorist organization.)
We know, because we worked with refugees going through the process in Egypt. No one is let in on a whim, everything is extremely scrutinized, and even expedited cases take at least years. Other people can wait for more than a decade. As David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee has rightly said, refugees are the “most vulnerable and most vetted people in the world.”
Please rest assured that my husband, and our refugee friends, have been thoroughly, extremely, exhaustively vetted to be here.