Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Green card drama: Love vs. bureaucracy

911 Federal Building, Portland
This morning, Maty and I were compelled to endure the indignity of proving the legitimacy of our relationship in the cold and imperious eyes of the federal bureaucracy of the United States. We faced and overcame yet another hurdle in the long, impersonal and dehumanizing rigmarole of attaining Maty's 10 year green card. There will be more to come.

The way it works is this: the green card applicant (Maty) and spouse (your humble author) are summoned to the Federal building at an appointed time which is neither subject to negotiation nor scheduled with any consideration for the convenience of the subjects. Green card applicants are instructed (in bold type) to be prompt and punctual.

Because, although federal immigration officers apparently need not adhere to the same degree of punctuality, if you are not present in the large nondescript waiting room with the rows of tortuously uncomfortable plastic chairs when the unsmiling federal employee enters and monotonously mispronounces your name, you miss your chance and must reschedule for another appointment some months in the future.

Applicants are taken to another room and there subjected to a series of prying, vaguely offensive questions administered by stone-faced bureaucrats who divine from the given answers if the relationship between applicant and spouse is "real."

The entire process is a passion play, a clash between unfeeling, robotic process and form on the one hand, and actual human emotions (hope, love, fear, despair) on the other. Think of E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" or George Orwell's "1984."

When first we were married, back in January 2006, we began this process. We engaged an immigration lawyer to help us negotiate the mind-numbing bureaucracy in order to acquire Maty's temporary green card. This was the green card that is issued to spouses of American citizens upon proof of marriage and that are valid for a period of 2 years.

Our lawyer helped us considerably in expediting the process, intervening on our behalf when our federal interrogator became a little too obstinate. Unfortunately, our attorney doesn't work cheap. Having him do a little prep work and sit with us during the interview cost us around $1200! So when the time came for Maty's green card renewal, we decided to go it alone.

In the spring of 2008, we were informed by mail that Maty's green card would expire in July and that, in order to renew it and extend it for 10 years, we must complete myriad federal forms and submit them along with a check for ~$600 and documentation or photographs that provided evidence of the validity of our marriage. We did so. And, naively believing that our ordeal was over, we awaited the arrival of Maty's renewed green card in the mail.

But, no.

In early July we received notice that Maty's green card had been extended for a mere 6 months, pending further investigation by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. We were informed that the documentation and photos, the "proof" of our marriage, were insufficient. We were summoned to another interrogation in March. (Specifically, March 3... today.)

I was surprised. I know other American citizens who have married foreign nationals and they had never been called in for a second interview. But then, when I thought about it, those other persons had spouses from Germany or New Zealand or Ireland. I, on the other hand, have a Muslim wife from sub-Saharan Africa. Racial or religious profiling? Or mere coincidence? I'll leave that to you to decide, dear reader.

Well, Maty and I arranged to take time off from work today, since the time of our appointment was for 9am. We arrived ahead of schedule and sat in the aforementioned waiting room with about a dozen other miserable souls and awaited our summons.

By the book
Eventually, we were called forward by an unsmiling female who referred to herself as "Officer Peters." She took us back to a drab and dreary office, pulled a file containing the materials we had previously submitted from a drawer, and began asking us questions that were fairly personal and strangely at odds with the sterile white walls and indistinct desk.

Had we made any purchases together? Yes. We bought some major appliances for the kitchen and the laundry room.

Had we done any traveling together? Yes. We went to Burkina Faso together so I could meet my in-laws.

Is Maty involved with the family? Yes. Maty has been to all our family functions throughout Oregon, Washington, and Nevada for the last three years.

And so it went, for about 45 minutes. Officer Peters, no doubt the beneficiary of the very best federal training, remained imperious and cold, despite my attempts at penetrating her stifling professionalism. I noticed some children's coloring taped to a wall and asked if she had kids. "A lot of children come here," she said, stonily. "I have the coloring books here to keep them occupied." I asked her name. "Officer Peters," she repeated.

Admittedly, I was testing, seeing if I could find a crack in the wall. There was none.

Eventually, Officer Peters dismissed Maty from the room so that she could talk to me alone. When Maty had gone, she said "At the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, our main concern in cases like this is for the American citizen. We worry sometimes that citizens are being taken advantage of. There have been people who have been taken for a ride."

"In the beginning, I considered that possibility," I replied. "But I know Maty, now. She's sincere. What we have is real."

Officer Peters gave no indication as to what she thought about it. Her eyes fell to the desktop. She pursed her lips. I waited.  A moment or two passed.

Finally, she spoke again, as if no time had elapsed at all. "I'll give you a temporary card today. Tell your wife that she'll receive her permanent residence card in the mail within 6 months."

Holy Grail
Maty and I went out for lunch to celebrate.


J. Kevin James said...

Wow...Scary!! But, hey, congratulations on surviving that ugly process. I'm so happy for you two!!

Dan Binmore said...

I've been in that very room, had interviews in that same building. The funniest moment for me was being tested for my aptitude with the English language. I must say, compared to going through a similar process in Detroit it sounds like you had it pretty easy.

It's pretty much gravy for you know but make sure to apply for citizenship with a couple of years before that green card runs out.