Getting a Green Card

January 18, 2017

I’m not a lawyer. Don’t use this article as gospel for receiving a green card.

When I was married my husband and I had to apply for his green card. I had no conception of what a green card was, how we got one, and what having a green card meant. As an American citizen, I was completely in the dark in this respect.

Trump’s latest executive order affects many types of people coming into the country, including green card (or permanent resident card) holders, in addition to other sorts of visas (student visas, work visas, tourist visas, etc). There has been immense outrage over this over the weekend, and with good reason: the procurement of any visa is difficult, but for the green card, especially so. A green card holder is just one step down from citizen in this country, granted only after a long, intensive, invasive process into proving you are not a terrorist or an economic migrant. There are many who are content to only ever be permanent residents; growing up my French next-door neighbor preferred keeping her French citizenship to denouncing it and becoming a US citizen, so she would re-file every ten years to “re-up” her green card to continue living across the street in our suburb with her American husband.

To write off green card holders as potential terrorists in need of vetting after they’ve gone through this process isn’t rational, and I can think of no better way to show you than by simply talking you through what my husband and I did to obtain his.

A personal caveat: this is how my husband came to get his green card through our marriage. There are many paths to being a green card holder, and this is just ours.*

Filing Paperwork

The process begins by filing for a work permit (instructions), your social security number and your green card (instructions), all at once. The paperwork costs a great deal of money but there are often associated legal costs (there’s enough paperwork, and enough at stake, that hiring a lawyer is worth your while). Legal fees can run upward of $2,000 and filing the initial forms themselves costs ~$2,000 for the form fees themselves and gathering the supporting documentation. You and your spouse require passport-style photos, bank statements, photos of your marriage, translations of birth certificates (if not in English), copies of visas used for entry into the United States, and your alien number. The challenge when coming to apply for your green card is often having no idea where all this paperwork is, or which forms on the government sites you are supposed to file — which is why many hire lawyers.

In order to obtain a green card, you need to prove you will not be a burden on the State. The US Government has no interest in giving you a path to citizenship if it means you will end up on food stamps. This means that you (or your spouse, in our case) needs to make more money than the poverty line for two people. Your green card applicant is not allowed to work during this process, so you can’t rely on dual-income in filing your paperwork. If you can’t prove you will not be a burden on the State, you need to find a sponsor — someone willing to stake a claim in your case and say that they will ensure you will not become a burden on the State.

These forms are very long and very pointed in their questions.

Have you EVER, in or outside the United States: knowingly committed any crime of moral turpitude or a drug-related offense for which you have not been arrested?

Have you EVER been a member of, or in any way affiliated with, the Communist Party or any other Yes No totalitarian party?

Have you EVER: Within the past 10 years been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution, or intend to engage in such activities in the future?

These questions can be found in full here.

In addition to the actual forms filled, you must establish proof of your marriage. The easiest way to do this is by showing financial ties (romantic!), but this is why you’ll often hear people make reference to having to show marriage photos.

You send off what becomes a very large package of paperwork after making copies of everything, paying for verification of its arrival to contest claims that it didn’t arrive.

If you fail to fill out any of the forms properly for any reason, the State will cash your attached check for no refund. This is why many pay for a lawyer to review their paperwork: it is a lot of money to lose.

It then becomes a waiting game: you are not allowed to work until you’ve received your work permit. This took us a couple of months. You celebrate when you get the card, since it means you’re in the system. This card only allows you to work.

The Interview

In the event that your marriage is deemed improbable (likely fake), you will receive a letter with an appointment time in which you will show up no matter the circumstances to be questioned as the veracity of your marriage. Our marriage fell into this category, and we traveled during a snowstorm to our appointment. We were cautioned to memorize answers to questions such as What side of the bed is the alarm clock on and Which drawer does your husband keep his clothes in. The actual questions, in our instance, were vague invitations to talk about how. we met that we had a complete outpouring for. Our marriage was a real one, but what truly saved us was having known each other for a long period of time before showing up to this interview and being able to talk about each other honestly. The woman conducted the interview “passed” us, saying that:

“I am signing this as I believe there is a 51% chance you are married.”

As a result of this interview Brian was signed off for receiving a green card, but only a conditional one — which are only good for two years. This meant that we had additional paperwork to file to removal the conditional status in a 90-day window at the end of those two years.


A letter will arrival with an appointment time for when your biometrics will be taken. You must show up to this appointment under penalty of your application being abandoned — all money lost, paperwork put into archives. There are only so many locations where your biometrics can be taken in the country and you must arrive at your appointment. This has associated travel costs and is another logistical barrier.

At this point I’d like to pause: I cannot stress how challenging this process is from not only a mental standpoint (months of waiting in inaction) but also a financial one: this process is expensive. There are “gotchas” all over it financially. People scrap by to ensure they can receive this paperwork, it’s the most important thing they can do for themselves. I know Medium’s audience is disproportionately tech workers whose own green card stories, if they have them, are full of their own trials and tribulations; my husband and I’s trials were that we were poor during this process — I was a student and my husband was in immigration limbo. There is no one on our side in this story, and no country to go home; this desperation meant that doing this correctly and doing correctly were the only imperatives, the only recourse, the sole option.**

During the biometrics interview someone will take your photo and your fingerprints.

On the successful conclusion of all of these things you wait to receive your green card. We waited about six months.

When you get this conditional green card, you quickly begin preparing to apply for your “regular” green card. In our case, this meant that we gathered and sent all of our financial data that we could gather. We completely commingled financials on the recommendation of our lawyer, as it was the easiest way to prove a “real” marriage. You send off another stack of paperwork.

With your green card, you are allowed to travel internationally. You must bring your passport from your country of origin but only show your green card to airport officials (otherwise they legitimately get confused; this is a good way to get pulled over into additional screening). International travel is typically a double-check to understand how and where you’re allowed to travel: your own country’s laws vis-à-vis visas are potentially different than the laws for traveling with a US green card.

When you receive your green card, this is cause for celebration; a green card allows you access to more jobs than work permits do — many employers will discriminate against unskilled work visa carriers as filing the paperwork is confusing. You also have access to federal funding and scholarships as a green card holder for college.

That said, you don’t breathe easily for long if citizenship is the goal: more paperwork. Another round of research. Another large check. Another huge bundle in the mail.

This Country Did Not Want Us; Those Fearful of Terrorists Should Have Faith In It

I’ve tried to leave out the human parts of this story because I wanted to give you an unimpassioned glimpse into the tribulations of being a green card holder; without much commentary from me I think the process speaks for itself as being a complicated, painful, bureaucratic nightmare that affected our very ability to live in the part of the world where we had built our lives.

The green card process was a long process purposefully to vet would-be undesirable from our country: I assume the other side of this process included background checks into my husband. It also was very obviously a process meant to keep economic migrants out. The American Dream is one of freedom and economic prosperity, but not one we wish to share.

Now that we’re at the end, I can’t help but share: this process was grueling. It took years. It is ongoing. A bureaucratic screw-up meant that an appointment notice was sequestered by another governmental office and never got to us, and our application was considered abandoned and archived. It took five trips to the USCIS offices to fix, only possible because we lived close to Washington, D.C. Two-part last names without a hyphen (common in Central America) have broken airline forms, causing mismatches between airline tickets and documentation that have caused my husband to be flagged by security and almost not let onto planes. Everyone has periods of extreme stress in their lives that have made their hearts stop. Ours simply happen disproportionately in airports.

The total cost for our application came out to ~$14,000.

The fear from green card residents in this country is not unfounded. This process was not free for any of them by any metric.

Out president has said this is about national security. Okay.

Who will be a threat next?

* Other people’s processes tend to be pretty fucked too, though.

** We allow for asylum based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and social group; there is no home left for many Syrians.