Wednesday, December 24, 2008

There's No Sleeping at the INS!

Did you ever see the movie Green Card, with Gerard Depardieu and Andie McDowell? An American woman and a French man marry in order for him to get a Green Card. They spend much of the movie studying each others' habits, living arrangements, etc., so they'll appear to be a genuine couple. Ever think that it might present a realistic view of what it's like for an American woman to marry someone from outside the United States? Think again!

Bear in mind that the events I describe took place pre-9/11, so heaven only knows what the process is like now. It was also a grueling bureaucratic procedure that I've tried to push to the back of my mind, so the sequence of events is probably off, and I've no doubt forgotten many aspects of it.

Pretty much as soon as I'd proposed to B. we started researching what we'd have to do to get me into the country. Fortunately, we were both net-savvy, and there were online discussion groups full of couples who had been in, or were going through similar situations to us. We found out that, although tedious, the process was something we could do ourselves, without the help of an attorney, which would save us some money.

So first B. had to apply to what was then the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) - what is now USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) - for permission for me to come over to the US on what is known as a "Fiance Visa." We didn't know how long that would take to process, so we couldn't, of course, make any plans until we received the visa. When we received the go-ahead, we only had a 90-day window in which to get married. Yep, that's right - we had to plan a wedding in addition to planning for me to get over to the States within 3 Months. We got our approval in December 1998. I was over by Christmas 1998, and we were married in March 1999.

I have to say, even given the limited time we had, we had the best wedding! It fitted our personalities perfectly. It was held at a little tea-room which we had often visited together. It had a small art-gallery attached, so we had the wedding in the art-gallery and the reception in the tea-room. Unlike many couples, we actually got to enjoy our little wedding, surrounded by family and friends, one friend providing the music, another performing a song she'd written for us.

Of course, the immigration process was still not over for us. Once we were married, we had to initiate the Green Card procedure. Once we'd completed the paperwork and submitted the various documentation and filing fees, it was a waiting game, but one with some rules that we had to be aware of.

Firstly, if I wanted to work, I had to apply for a separate work permit. That was worth doing, because it takes a long time to get a Green Card. One other thing we had to take care of was something known bizarrely as "Advance Parole." This means that if we wanted to leave the country for any reason, we needed permission for me to do so, otherwise I would be considered as having abandoned my Green Card application and wouldn't be allowed back in the US. This has sadly happened to some couples, resulting in them being separated for months on end.

We were dealing with Newark INS. They did not let you make appointments to see them to get Advance Parole. All we could do is line up on the street at 4am with the several hundred others waiting to get into the building when it opened. They would only allow a certain number of people in during the day, so if we didn't get there in time, we were out of luck. When we eventually got into the building, there was a further wait during a shift change. Many people sat on the floor while waiting. B. actually lay down and rested her eyes for a while, during which time a security guard prodded her with his foot, saying "There's no sleeping at the INS!" Eventually we got herded into another room, which had its blinds closed. It'd all taken such a long time to get this far, that we had no concept of the time. We pulled the blinds aside a little to look outside and almost immediately a head popped up above a partition, telling us that we were not allowed to look outside! After going through all this, at least I had my Advance Parole approved, which allowed us to visit my parents in England.

Eventually, my Green Card came through. We were given an appointment at Newark for an interview prior to getting it. That was the closest we ever got to the situation portrayed in "Green Card." Our one and only trick question came when the woman conducting our interview asked Becky how I spelled my surname. I've spent just about my whole life spelling my name for people, so I started blurting it out, before B. shot me a look, and I realized that she was being tested. And she did get it right!


Lexie said...

First of all "Green Card" is one of my most favorite movies :D

But..oh my God, Graham! This story reminded me of my job! All this "sign here, sign there, go to the second floor, come back to the first floor, go to the second floor again, sign another paper"...and of course the never ending waiting for hours and hours! I guess there is bureaucracy all over the world, not only in Greece (even if we are the champions in this!)

It was really amusing and funny :)

Mouse said...

Never seen the film, but have to say, sometimes I wonder whether it's a pity we don't have tighter restrictions here. Goes from one extreme to the other I guess, and at least you have gotten to be with your soulmate :)

Alison said...

I married a man from Iran who was already living in LA. The movie "Green Card" is very similar to our story in many ways. We had to do the interview and they tried had to trick us. I think the movie is fairly accurate for Hollywood.

So happy for both of you that you passed the test.