From the other side of the aisle, so to speak...
I'm American and my husband is British. We live in Alabama. What this does is puts us into the area of the country served by the Atlanta INS office, which was recently rated the slowest in the country for processing green cards. (I don't have the source for that, but I saw it on CNN not too long ago.)
I have never been more ashamed to be an American than during our time dealing with the INS. For a nation of immigrants, we sure don't seem to want any more.
You must bring money with you from your home country. You cannot legally come to the United States and try to make a life for yourself. The filing fees alone ensure that. Add to that the medical tests, and the lawyer fees that might as well be required--we're two college graduates and we couldn't understand all the paperwork--and you're talking about easily over a thousand dollars to file for permanent residency. And considering this includes the knowledge that your husband isn't guaranteed a work permit, so he can't even look for a job, the cost involved can be daunting, indeed.
And here's the kicker: the conditional green card is for those who have been married less than two years. So theoretically, they are supposed to be able to accomplish this process fairly quickly, and then you go through a second process for a permanent one. Well, we've been married over two and a half years, and we haven't even been interviewed yet. My husband had to get a second set of fingerprints because the first ones are now too old for them to use, because they took too long.
We were very fortunate that he was on a student visa originally. A student visa has a provision called "optional practical training" that allows for a year of work in the immigrant's field of study after graduation. So, while I couldn't send him off to the local Mickey-D's to flip burgers, he was able to find a part-time job an hour away. (Let's just say that the opportunities for his field in our town are limited.) Since then, he's been able to get a work permit, due largely to the fact that he had already been here on the student visa, I think.
Work permits expire every year, so we've already had to make two trips to Atlanta to get his renewed. That involves a 4 hour drive each way, plus time off work, plus a night in a hotel since we always have to be at INS first thing in the morning. The last time, we had to go there without an appointment (because they had been so backed-up they quit giving appointments!) and ended up waiting for five hours. We were separated and treated like cattle. They make the lines look shorter by only allowing one person for each group to stand there. They didn't have anywhere for the rest of us to go, we just couldn't stay there, or there ... or over there. And when they run out of chairs, you can't sit on the floor. The comment about "this being a place of business" would have been more believable if any INS officer had actually been seen working!
These are only things I can tell people that are going to be in this position. IANAL, but this is the best I can tell.
- Get a lawyer. A good one, with references. If you're lucky, this will help you avoid problems, and it gives you a person to ask questions of at various stages of the process. These two things make a lawyer well worth the expense.
- Count on the immigrant spouse to not be able to work. Budget, budget, budget.
- We were also college students. If the in-laws don't like the immigrant spouse, this is bad. You will probably need them, so don't piss them off. My parents were able to co-sponsor my husband. They also paid for the wedding, which will help show the INS that they believe the wedding to be in good faith. Written statements also apparently help.
- Get everything in both names, or start splitting some up. The lease or mortgage should be in both names, period. For utilities, put some in his and some in hers. Consider joint banking accounts and/or loans. The important thing is showing financial entanglement, especially if there are no children or name changes involved.
It's really abysmal the way we treat immigrants to this country, especially those that are here for family. I am a U.S. citizen by birth, and I sometimes feel that I sold my soul to the INS when I got married. Don't get me wrong: I don't regret it, but I also know that some "real" marriages don't last this long, even without the INS pressure. I'm curious how many marriages this process has indirectly broken up, especially over the expense and working. How many men do you know that wouldn't mind their wives being the sole breadwinner? And money is almost always tight for newlyweds and is the source of most conflict. This is a big financial drain.
But there's light at the end of the tunnel. Once the paperwork is done, you should have your final green card. We'll have his eventually, too. Good luck!
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