Lines, Paperwork, Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Visas

Moving to the United States can involve both figurative and literal lines. My first line was literal. Nowadays, the American Embassy in Port-of-Spain will let you make an appointment to come in and get your visa, but that was not the case during the summer of 1998. My long journey to citizenship, therefore, started with waking up before 4am to go stand on Woodford Street for 4 or 5 hours, after which my prize was to have my university education be at the mercy of whatever bureaucrat had been clever enough to get Caribbean posting. I’d heard the horror stories. Sometimes your assigned functionary thought your degree of choice was too esoteric —

How will you use this Orthopediatrics degree when you return to Trinidad? Do people here even need foot health?

And sometimes, they decided that you could just as easily study Physics at UWI St. Augustine. No need to leave your island, visa denied.

In the end, my functionary was totally pleasant, and I didn’t have any of those issues. Within a few days, I had the first of many passport decals that allowed me entry at Miami International, which is kind of like Ellis Island if you’re from anywhere south of Florida. Of course, that involves another line and another functionary with more power than compassion, but you have to get used to that when you’re an immigrant — sorry, a non-immigrant long-term visitor on a student visa.

In addition to a talent for standing in line, immigrating takes a fair amount of luck. I was lucky enough to graduate in 2002, which was during a brief and fortuitous overlap — it was still during the time when the US had a much higher H1-B (a skilled work visa, also for “non-immigrants”) cap thanks to the tech bubble’s hiring frenzy, but it was after that bubble had burst, meaning there was much less competition for those visas. Future colleagues at my consulting firm had all sorts of horror stories about the H1-B race, and I was lucky to have been spared those.

You better also be a pragmatist, and it would help for you to like math at least a little. I majored in Operations Research and Financial Engineering, which is how Princeton marketed its Applied Economics degree. After I quickly realized that Computer Science was not for me, I considered something closer to the liberal arts, but that’s a much harder road to travel when you need a deep-pocketed employer to give you the right to stay here. I certainly didn’t want to deal with going through more visa gymnastics to go to graduate school either. So practical degree it was! A lot of Americans make the same decision for non-visa reasons, of course, but I’m just saying that when you need permission to stay in a country, it seeps into every decision.

You better be good at paperwork, too, and have endless time for it. My applications for H1-B transfers over the years were literally hundreds of pages, and with incompetent immigration attorneys being a dime a dozen, I needed to double check all of it. And you better have the resources to correct inevitable mistakes. A couple of examples. When I first graduated from college, my employer-to-be arranged to use my F-1 (student visa) for a while before my work visa was set up. This is done through a facility called “Optional Practical Training”. So my being in the US was legal, even though the date on my visa had passed. But here’s the thing — there’s a difference between being able to BE in the US, and being able to ENTER the US, and when your family lives abroad, you want to be able to do both! As it turned out, I needed to get my visa extended to do the latter, and there’s no way to do that in the US. You have to pony up whatever money you need to get to an American consulate or embassy. In theory, you can just head up to Canada (hope you don’t need a visa to visit Canada, since they probably won’t give you one if you have an expired American visa), but that’s discouraged because the American bureaucrats there might not understand something… I don’t know, I guess if you are from an English-speaking country it should be fine. Anyway, otherwise you pretty much need to head to your home country to get things sorted out. So I found myself making a surprise visit to Trinidad in the early summer of 2002, and — remember, I’m a lucky bastard — fortunately I got my visa within a couple of days and was back to New York in plenty of time to start work. For many, that return home is a many months long affair.

Here’s another example. After a few years of consulting, I switched jobs to work at a bank. This job change was itself colored by visa issues, since I could only work somewhere that was willing to bear the costs of sponsoring my work visa. Lots of smaller places were out. But in any case, I had a new job, and my new boss was nice enough to let me take a trip to Argentina that I’d planned well ahead of time. Now, remember: your legal status in the US means you can BE here, but your visa is what lets you enter. So when you change jobs, they update your status in their back offices (I think?) but they don’t change the name of your employer on your visa. Anyway, after a great trip, I arrived at JFK, and, like most folks on visas, kept the chatter with the passport control folks to an absolute minimum. Then I went home. Then I went to work, and for some reason I can’t remember I was talking to HR about my visa, and I noticed that the “leave-by” date that had been stamped in my passport was rather soon! Long story short, by not volunteering my job change when I got to JFK (no-one asked about the employer), I had technically screwed up my entry and “said” that I was still working at my old employer. So, even though I had stood in all the lines and filled out all the forms and paid all the fees, I had potentially, by doing nothing other than not answering a question that wasn’t asked, made myself “illegal”, at least in terms of my passport. I still don’t really understand what happened. Again, I’m lucky — I was working at a Canadian bank and my boss, who is great, arranged for me to have a meeting at HQ, which allowed me to leave the US for a few days and re-enter properly.

None of this is to say that I suffered, or that the US immigration system ruined my life the way it does to so many others. It’s just to illustrate that even a privileged kid with lots of resources and ability to navigate paperwork can screw up visa gymnastics in potentially meaningful ways.

Finally, the story of my green card. In 2006, I got married to an American, just like in the movies! Just to be clear, we loved and still do love each other very much. A weird thing to say in an essay about immigration, but that’s the thing — the US government wants to know that, and thinks it can gauge it…. somehow. In any case, we got married, and I applied to adjust my status to “permanent resident alien”, which is romantic indeed (side note: marriage to an American does NOT get you citizenship, it gets you a green card. Big difference. Please learn your laws and stop annoying me). There wasn’t really anything problematic about our case. I had a good job and lots of time left on my visa. We lived together, and had for a couple of years. We had joint accounts, and many pictures of trips taken together, including a 7-day road trip through the Southwest — I mean, if we were trying to trick folks, we were really putting in the effort. So after a few months of paperwork (always) and waiting in figurative line (of course), we were called in for an interview out in Nassau County (hope you have the time and money to get to a random suburban office park, even though the INS has offices in Manhattan).

Now, here is how this is supposed to go. The standard interview for a marriage-based green card isn’t like what you have seen in the movies. You go in, show the interviewer your lease, and your vacation photos, and your kids and pets and joint checking and mash notes and wedding rings and whatever, and then the interviewer says, sure, you look married, and you go home and get your green card in a few weeks.

OR, maybe you go in with those things, but then your interviewer doesn’t ask you any questions, is weirdly hostile, insists that you violated your visa by leaving the country without “advance parole”, which you didn’t and you point out, and then he gets annoyed that you know more immigration law than him, and it’s not going great. Then he tells you that he can’t give you the green card stamp yet because your “background check hasn’t come in”, and you are irritated but willing to wait in line a little more.

Then, a few days later back in Brooklyn, you get a letter telling you that you have another interview in, I am not making this up, a year and a half from now. Confused, you ask your attorneys what happened, and they tell you that this means the interviewer flagged your marriage as suspicious. Your attorney will be flabbergasted, as on paper, there’s nothing that should be an issue about your case. You then think to yourself, hey, these attorneys are in D.C. and have never seen us in person. You point out that you are black, and your wife is white, and guess what? It turns out that that is a red flag for the INS, because it is always 1955 at the INS.

Anyway, I won’t go on too long here, except to point out that once again, all the waiting in line and filling out forms and following rules in the world won’t protect you from the incompetence, malice, and general lack of compassion that comprises our immigration system. Suffice to say that there was nothing we could do, but my visa had lots of time left, and we were able to wait the 18 months. The second interview, by the way, IS supposed to be like the movies — they put you in separate rooms, and totally dehumanize you to make you prove your love. My wife and I had better luck this time, though, and got an interviewer who saw that we were clearly legitimately married. Also, it had come out the week before that our original interviewer was a sex offender who was forcing women to give him oral sex in exchange for immigration approvals.

So, like, just wait in line, right?

BGI -> POS -> NJ -> NYC -> SFO

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