This is a guest post from Andrea. Andrea lives in the backwoods of northern Virginia with a small menagerie, where she fritters her life away reading, hiking Civil War battlefields, and surfing the internet when the weather allows her primitive satellite connection to stay up. She’s involved in social justice, battlefield preservation, and is crazy enough to try going to school full time while holding down a full time job that requires a 100 mile daily commute. You can catch her blogging this idyllic life over at the Manor of Mixed Blessings (posts there have no redeeming social value).
I was pleased and honored when s. e. invited me to write a guest post here on immigration. As a little background, I am currently to engaged to a wonderful British man, and we’re smack in the middle of the process for getting him a K-1 Fiance visa so he can come over here and we can get married. So not only is immigration much at the front of national discussion these days, with the passage of Arizona bill SB1070 and an anti-immigrant ordinance in the town of Fremont, Nebraska, it’s pretty well consuming my personal life as well.
One of the things I hear a lot in any discussion of people who come here illegally is some permutation of “Well why don’t they just do it legally?” If they know that I’m currently going through the immigration process with my fiance, people will often ask “Doesn’t it make you mad that you’re going to all this trouble and people are just coming over here illegally?”1 The answers to these questions are, in reverse order, “No, I am thankful that we are able to do it legally fairly easily” and “Wow, you have never dealt with immigration, have you?”
My fiance and I represent a pretty much ideal situation for an intending immigrant, so despite all the frustration and waiting and angst, we do in fact have it easy. First off, I am a US citizen. If you do not have a family member or fiance(e) who is a US citizen and willing and able to sponsor you for immigration, things just got much more difficult for you. It is harder for a lawful permanent resident to sponsor someone than it is for a US citizen to do it. If you have no qualifying family members here in the US, and are not famous and do not have a degree and/or experience that qualifies you as “skilled” plus an actual job offer, then you are pretty much screwed.
I’ll repeat that: you are pretty much screwed. There is no real way for someone who just wants to come here and get a job, any job, maybe a couple of them, and work hard and save money and live in a country with clean water and pretty good schools and at least nominal laws to protect the workers to come here unless that person has a qualifying family member who is a US citizen or a lawful permanent resident.
Secondly, my fiance and I have a whole heap of privilege: we are white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, and relatively affluent. This matters in a lot of ways: most of the “high fraud” countries are populated by people of color; transpersons may not have documentation that matches their gender presentation and the US does not recognize same-sex marriages or partnerships at a federal level; anecdotal evidence suggests that the Embassy where the final determination on the visa is made will be much more skeptical of the support requirements if either party has a disability, plus buildings you must visit may be inaccessible and let’s not even get into the spoons required to get all the paperwork filled out correctly and the packets assembled; and finally this process is not cheap. If you are not in a position to be writing checks to the government for between $300 and $1010, let alone able to afford international vacations, travel to the US embassy or consulate where the intending immigrant will interview, and the money to order some necessary paperwork, you are screwed.
Just for clarity, here’s a breakdown of the checks you will be writing to the US government or other entities in order to get your alien fiance to lawful permanent residency:
- Cost to file I-129F petition: $455 to USCIS
- Cost of medical exam for visa: $298 to the panel physician
- Cost of visa interview: $350 to the US Embassy or Consulate
- Cost to adjust status after marriage: $1010 to USCIS
- Cost to remove conditions on residency (2 years later): $585 to USCIS
- Total cost of a foreign fiance becoming your spouse and an unconditional legal resident: $2698
There is no payment plan for these costs. None of them are refundable, you could get all the way up to paying $1010 to USCIS to adjust your new spouse’s status from “K-1 Non-immigrant” to “conditional residency,” be denied, and you are out all costs. Of course, you can appeal that decision. It is going to cost more.
Furthermore, to sponsor an immigrant at all, you must earn more than 125% of the Federal poverty level for a family of the size yours will be once you add the immigrant. So for me, because I have no dependents but myself, I must earn 125% of the federal poverty level for a family of two. If you don’t meet this income guideline through either a paycheck or assets, you can ask someone else to sponsor your relative. Technically speaking anyone can do it, but the Consulate or Embassy is likely to be skeptical if this person is not a close relative of the person submitting the petition, because they feel it is unlikely that a near-stranger with little interest in the petitioner’s happiness actually will support the immigrant, if need be, for the three years required by law. During that three years, the immigrant is not eligible for any public money whatsoever: no food stamps, no Medicare, no other government benefits.
Thirdly, the United Kingdom is a “low fraud” country according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, INS). This means that the bar to prove that our relationship is “real” and not an attempt to, say, just marry someone so he can get a green card, is set that much lower. Still, for our I-129F packet, Petition for Alien Fiance(e), we had to provide proof that we had met within the past two years2 (that’s where the cost of international vacations comes in) and proof of an ongoing relationship. This meant I had to provide USCIS with a lot of personal e-mails, chat logs, and letters that neither my fiance nor I had written with the idea of a government audience in mind.
Which brings us to fourthly, both of us speak, read, and write English fluently, since it’s our first language. His birth certificate, passport, and police certificate are all in English. This is an advantage, since all items submitted must be translated into English if they’re written in another language, and the translator must supply a statement swearing that the translation is true and complete. If neither party reads and writes fluent English, they’re going to have to find and possibly pay someone to translate things like birth certificates and proof of their relationship.
Finally, as I touched on briefly above, my fiance lives close enough to the London Embassy that it is a day trip for him. If you are from, say, Mexico, you may not be so lucky. The only place in Mexico that processes K-1 visas is the US consulate in Ciudad Juarez, directly across the river from El Paso, Texas, which means it is at the northern end of Mexico. If the intending immigrant lives in, say, the state of Chiapas, which is all the way at the southern end of Mexico, there will be the cost of the trip to Ciudad Juarez on top of everything else.
There is one more advantage that my fiance and I have that’s not one most people would think of. I was in the Navy for a little over nine and a half years. My veteran status doesn’t give me any preferential treatment as far as sponsoring my fiance goes, but it does mean that I am familiar and comfortable with dealing with the federal bureaucracy. I know that government forms are nearly always available online these days, I’m able to easily discover which particular agency has which forms and interpret the government-ese instructions on which ones I’ll need. I know how to fill out government forms, including the fact that when they request supporting documents, there is no such think as overkill. This familiarity and high comfort level means that we’re immune to a thousand and one immigration scams out there, from the people who offer to sell you “a complete immigration packet” for $49.95, consisting of forms and instructions that are available for free online (albeit in English) to the million and one immigration lawyers who for fees ranging from $1000 to $5000 promise to see you through the process3.
One of the most isolating qualities of this whole process is that most US citizens I speak to seem to be totally ignorant of the obstacles to even the easiest form of immigration. For a little while after I first announced my engagement, people would ask “So when’s he going to be here?” and I would explain to them, slowly and patiently, the process. Their eyes would bug out of their heads when I started detailing the time (6-9 months to get a K-1 visa, 2 years of conditional residency, then after three years of lawful permanent residency, he can decide if he would like to be a US citizen) and money it takes. Later they would progress to asking “so when’s the wedding?” and I would patiently explain all over again that I had no clue because USCIS had our petition and it still had several stages to go through.
These days, people mostly don’t ask me those questions anymore. It’s almost 4 months since USCIS received our petition, and it’s now at the London Embassy while we collect the documents my fiance will require for his visa interview and schedules his medical exam. Meanwhile, thousands of people who want nothing more than to come here, to work hard, and to build a good life for their families are either languishing in immigration hell or barred from legally immigrating entirely. Google “ciudad juarez violence murder” and tell me if you’d rather raise your children there, or across the river in El Paso. Google “china factory suicides” and tell me if you think you’d rather work there, or here. Read up on the horrifying lack of clean water in much of the developing world, or the educational deserts where sending children to even the most basic schooling is an impossibility, and tell me that the United States doesn’t begin to look like the promised land. Are we perfect? Not by a long shot. But we have laws designed to protect workers, we have free public schools, we have water that’s safe to drink and sanitation systems to keep it that way. And yet the very people who would benefit most from being allowed to immigrate, to live and work here, are kept out by a combination of law and incomprehensible bureaucratic process.
One reason that USCIS is so worried about fraud is that our current immigration system means that the best hope for a family is for one of its children to marry a US citizen and then acquire citizenship ouself. At that point, after the five years it will take for citizenship, the immigrant can sponsor ou parent or parents. Once the parents are in and have citizenship, another five years down the road, they can sponsor their own parents and children, one by one. But all of this hinges on a family member’s ability to attract a US citizen. Russian “mail order brides” have been a sad and sick joke for decades now, how long will it be until Mexican women are also trafficked this way? Thai women and Philippinas? Women are disproportionately affected by this, most likely to wind up with their families’ hopes of citizenship and a safer, cleaner life pinned to them. No pressure.
- This is but one of the many fun questions people will ask if they find out I have a British fiance. My favorite has to be “Does he have an English accent?” I always want to respond with “No, he was born and raised in England but miraculously sounds just like somebody from Richmond.” My least favorite question is “Does he talk funny?” Compared to whom, might I ask. ↩
- You can try to get a waiver for this requirement, if you and your fiance are from a culture where it is not customary for you to meet, or if meeting in person would represent an undue hardship. Good luck with that. ↩
- I am aware that there are some good immigration lawyers out there, who are genuinely helpful and do a good job. However go click around on the forums at www.visajourney.com and you will find many a story of lawyers who took someone’s money and then proceeded to send the wrong forms to USCIS and just added another layer of delay, or worse yet, whose incompetency resulted in a denied petition. I am therefore extremely wary of any immigration lawyer whose name turns up in my Gmail ads. ↩