This post has been a decade in the making. It was ten years ago this past February that I flew in to JFK for what was intended to be a three month American adventure, traveling across the US by plane, train and automobile and trying to blag my way into luxury hotels. If you’ve read The Upgrade, you’ll know what happened next: I fell in love with the country and decided to make it my home.
Ten years ago.
Earlier this afternoon, in the San Francisco mailbox I share with my girlfriend, her two children and our three cats, I found an envelope from the United States Customs and Immigration Service. Inside that envelope was…
…my green card!
“Welcome to United States”: With those four words it’s official, I am now a lawful permanent resident. I can live where I like, work where I like, travel away and back as I like, and enjoy almost all the same rights and privileges enjoyed by my friends who were lucky enough to be born here. (Almost: Voting is still off the table unless and until I become a naturalized citizen.)
It’s an interesting time to become a permanent resident. My friends certainly seem to think so. Over the past few months, as my final green card interview date neared, an alarming number of them on both sides of the Atlantic asked me the same question: Are you sure you still want to live in America?
I hardly need to spell out the subtext: Am I sure I want to live in a country in which the President routinely compares immigrants (at least those who don’t look and sound like me) to vermin? A country whose leader acts an awful lot like an FSB asset, determined to isolate it from allies and cozy up with dictators? A country which every day seems to creeps closer to a version of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead?
At a time when every liberal and their dog is threatening to move to Canada, can I possibly be as in love with America as I was ten years ago?
The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. This is absolutely still the same America I fell in love with a decade ago. The people are still the same people, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats mostly the same. What’s changed is the balance of power.
Ten years ago, the forces of Obama-style liberalism were in the majority and the ~63m Americans who would vote a reality TV star into the White House were thankfully denied that opportunity. Now the forces of Trump brand illiberalism hold the whip hand: The (minority) white nationalists and bigots feel empowered while those of us (the majority) who prize equality and social justice feel marginalized by the electoral college system. But at America’s core it’s still exactly the same country. If anything, it’s even better: According to Gallup, public support for same-sex marriage and immigration are at record highs. Support for Planned Parenthood is at its highest level since 2015 while support for stricter gun control is at its highest level since 1993.
The fact that the Trump administration is trying so hard to pack the Supreme Court with right wing justices is testament to the fact that they know Republicans are in the moral minority on social issues. The bigots know their only hope of reversing the tide is to force through laws that the majority of Americans oppose. I believe they’ll fail because I believe in the numbers.
None of which is the point of this post.
The point of this post is to share a little about my green card experience, and vent about something that has driven me mad for almost a decade: The absolute idiocy of the immigration “debate” in America.
In particular, I want to talk about “the line.”
You’ve heard about “the line”. You’ve heard about it every time Republicans, and a surprising number of Democrats, blithely insist that DACA recipients and those fleeing persecution in their home countries should get to the back of it. This line, so the rhetoric goes, is the only proper and orderly way for non-Americans to gain lawful residence. They should go to the American embassy in their home country, fill out a form and “join the back of the line.”
Except for one problem: The line doesn’t exist. It’s a lie. A trick.
For most would-be immigrants who want to live and work in America – including countless thousands of young people who have spent their entire lives living here without documentation – there is virtually no way to lawfully gain a green card. For anyone without money and connections, especially non- native English speakers, the process is so unbelievably complex, so constantly in flux, that they might just as easily “join the line” to live on Mars.
I have started multiple companies, raised millions of dollars in venture capital, written more than a dozen published books and countless thousand newspaper and magazine articles. I’m fortunate enough to have access to expensive lawyers, and was able to get letters of recommendation from some of the powerful people on the planet: The kind of rich white men who feature on Fortune billionaire lists and in Time ‘most influential’ issues. And yet, despite all these insane advantages, it still took a decade to get my green card.
The idea that someone who was brought to America as a baby, without documentation, could somehow leave the country and join some imaginary line for permission to remain is so far beyond offensive it’s barely visible with the naked eye.
On undocumented childhood arrivals, American immigration law is clear: If you’re in the United States without legal status for half a year or more (if, say, your parents brought you here as a baby without a visa) and you try to leave to join ‘the line’, you will be automatically barred from re-entering the USA for anywhere between three and ten years. Automatically. This isn’t a Trump policy: The bars were created under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act. So blame Bill Clinton for that one.
And even after that bar expires – after 3-10 years away from family and friends and in many cases children – there’s still no line to join.
(A quick note on the perennial ‘can’t you just find an American to marry you for a green card?’ question: True, it is marginally easier for someone legitimately married to an American to get approved to apply for a conditional green card, provided their spouse agrees to financially support them and they don’t get divorced. But even if approved, they still have to go through the entire painful process I describe below, with the addition of a so-called Stokes interview — a fun game show where the possible prizes includes jail and deportation.
Even for people like me who have always played by American immigration rules, the path to permanent residency is more like a mine field. According to a 2013 study by the Migration Policy Institute, the backlog to process the applications of those who have already been found eligible for a US visa is 19 years.
Reader, I beat the odds! Early last year, after eight years navigating various visas (including several so-called ‘extraordinary ability’ visas), I was finally deemed eligible – by dint of a decade of professional achievements – to apply for my green card. My approval notice for that first stage arrived when Sarah and I were on a plane back from New York. “Welcome home!” wrote my lawyer.
[perfectpullquote align=”left”]This is absolutely still the same America I fell in love with a decade ago.[/perfectpullquote]
The feeling of joy and relief was incredible, and lasted for perhaps ten minutes before it sunk in what came next.
What came next began with a medical: A full examination and barrage of blood tests by a government-certified physician. I was prodded, jabbed, cupped and jabbed again. I was tested for tuberculosis, various strains of syphilis and gonorrhea and even leprosy. Leprosy! The doctor was also required to assess my mental health: Whether I showed any signs of addiction or of posing a danger to myself or others. As the doctor pointed out as he administered the gonorrhea test, “You’ve been here for eight years, if this comes back positive then you got it from an American.” (It didn’t.)
Humiliating? Certainly. But it’s worth reiterating how incredibly lucky I was to even get to that stage: Even once you’ve been approved for a green card, the employment-based immigration system operates on national quotas. As a Brit, there were sufficient available green cards for my application to continue immediately. According to the (ugh) Cato Institute, a skilled applicant from, say, India might wait up to 150 years for a green card to be available. 150 years before they can even take the STD and psycho tests.
The medical having been completed and the results mailed to USCIS in a sealed envelope (to prevent me, not thieves, from opening it), I was then required to have my fingerprints taken for a full FBI criminal background check. I also had to obtain and submit my full British police record; a so-called subject access request which reveals every crumb of information the British police might hold on me. This includes any arrests, even if no charges resulted, and any expunged cautions, warnings or (of course) convictions. There is no such thing as “expunged” when it comes to US immigration law.
Even with a clean record, US law allows the immigration service to decide that an applicant has ‘admitted’ to a crime, even if they’ve never been formally charged (this is why celebrities who have talked about taking drugs often have problems getting even a temporary visa, let alone a green card.)
Then there’s the question of thought crimes. Late last year, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration will soon start collecting social media posts by immigrants and green card holders.
Green card holders and naturalized citizens will also have their social media information collected, with the data becoming part of their immigration file. It was unclear whether the monitoring would take place only in the application process or could continue afterward.
Never have I been so pleased to have quit Twitter and Facebook.
With the background checks underway, the real waiting began. Months and months of waiting during which time I was barred from traveling outside the country.
That’s another fun quirk of the immigration system, which makes applying for a green card entirely impractical for all but the most hardy applicants (and those with very understanding bosses): Green card applicants already inside the US are banned from traveling overseas while their applications are being adjudicated. Unless they have an existing work visa they are also barred from having a job, even if their employer is sponsoring their green card. Breaking that rule could result in deportation, and that 3-10 year ban from the US.
I was fortunate to already have an 01 visa which allowed me to keep working, but only for a single named company. I couldn’t write a quick post for Pando, freelance for a newspaper or magazine, or even set up a Patreon without running afoul of immigration law and risking my application being denied.
On travel, the USCIS warnings were clear: No international travel. Even crossing the border into Canada or Mexico would result in my application being considered abandoned and my being forced to start the whole process again.
The good news: Applicants can apply for so-called “advance parole” which allows them to travel while they wait for their interview. They can also request a temporary “employment authorization document.” According to USCIS, these documents are usually issued within 90 days. I applied for both, of course.
The bad news: USCIS is wrong. There is in fact a serious backlog in issuing advance parole and temporary employment authorization cards. Five or six months is more like the norm. And then there’s a printing backlog – as much as a month – for the cards themselves. That’s seven months where applicants are unable to travel, and (in many cases) unable to earn a wage.
Here again I was lucky to have an existing work visa. But in the past twelve months, I’ve had to miss countless important business trips and been absent for numerous huge family milestones back in the UK. Worst of all, late last year, a close family member was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery. My pending green card application barred me from traveling to visit her in hospital (Generously, USCIS would have allowed me to travel on an emergency one-off advance parole had she died. But that would have caused my existing application for parole to be automatically cancelled.)
So I sat, and I waited, and I tried my best to offer love and support via Skype – again incredibly aware of how lucky I was compared to others. I also watched in horror as Trump threatened to make more changes to the immigration system: To restrict the number of skilled immigrants, even to “close up” the entire country. I hoped and prayed that, with an arbitrary stroke of his Sharpie, the President didn’t render me homeless and unemployed just to appease his base. I laughed every time he insisted that he was pro ‘skilled immigration’ and clenched my fists at every new mention of ‘the line.’ This, after all, is the president who in his first week of office issued an illegal order to shut down the border, even to green card holders.
[perfectpullquote align=”right”]A skilled applicant from, say, India might wait up to 150 years for a card to be available.[/perfectpullquote]
Finally, almost twelve months after my initial green card application, having apparently convinced the USCIS that I posed no health or criminal threat to the United States, I was able to progress to stage three: The in-person interview.
It used to be that ‘extraordinary ability’ (EB-1) applicants didn’t need a green card interview. It was assumed that those with extraordinary ability had already been sufficiently vetted and were unlikely to be sleeper terrorists. Interviews were reserved for those applying for their green card after marrying an American, to help detect fake marriages. Then, in August of last year, the Trump administration suddenly changed the rules: From October 2017, every green card applicant would have to undergo an in-person interview, under oath.
You can imagine the pressure this put on an already underfunded system. Almost overnight, average green card processing times skyrocketed.
My interview took place last month in San Francisco at the local USCIS field office. It began with me being sworn in: My answers were all given under oath, under penalty of perjury. One lie, or the appearance of one, and it was off to Guantanamo. Or probably London.
I was asked whether I was or had ever been a communist. Whether I had ever been a drug dealer, or paid for sex. Had I ever been a member of a political group of any kind? The questions went on and on– a string of nos, with just the occasional yes thrown in to make sure I was paying attention. All I could think as the interview progressed was how difficult it would be for someone who didn’t speak native English to answer questions like this one from the standard application questionnaire…
Are you engaged in or, upon your entry into the United States, do you intend to engage in any activity that could have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States?
Could I answer that question in French? Or German? (And, by the way, how would Donald Trump answer it in English? By my reading, pretty much every answer the President gave this week at the Putin press conference would render him inadmissible to the United States.)
The q&a complete, the officer looked over my medical results, and examined my personal and professional history for the hundred and fiftieth time before finally, wonderfully…
…nah. I’m just kidding. More waiting.
The agent explained that she was ready to make a recommendation (she didn’t say what that would be) but it had to be approved by a supervisor. “How long might that take?” I asked as politely as I possibly could.
“It could be a couple days,” the examiner responded. “Or as a much as six months. ” (For what it’s worth, the Internet is full of stories of people who waited a year or more for a final verdict, before finally being denied.)
I should make clear at this point that the officer who interviewed me was incredibly helpful and friendly. I have no idea if my experience would have been so pleasant if I were from, say, Pakistan (the Internet is full of those horror stories too) but in the case of that particular officer at that particular field office I believe it would. In fact everyone in the San Francisco office was unfailingly kind and efficient — a new (almost) immigrant couldn’t wish for a better (potential) welcome. I obviously can’t speak for any of those USCIS workers in San Francisco, but I would guess they’re almost as frustrated as I am at how horrendously inefficient and occasionally cruel the immigration system has become. None of them seemed like someone who enjoyed ruining lives.
In the event, I received my electronic approval notification last week, while I was backstage at a Microsoft event in Seattle: The same day that Donald Trump was trying to alienate the US from its NATO allies and right before he traveled to the UK to destroy the special relationship. The notice said my green card would arrive in the mail in a few days. And so it did.
I’m finally home.
And yet. Even though the past ten years have made me something of an expert in how screwed up the immigration system has become, this is the first time I’ve felt even remotely comfortable writing about it. In that time I’ve written openly about my former alcoholism, my romantic and professional disasters and any number of other things which most people would consider difficult to discuss. But immigration: No way.
That should tell you everything you need to know about how terrifying and uncertain it was to be an alien in Bush or Obama’s America, let alone Trump’s. Even for someone as insanely privileged as me – white, British, with access to the best lawyers and practically unlimited capital – the risk of drawing the negative attention of USCIS was simply too great. No wonder most immigrants I know who have successfully navigated the system don’t want to talk publicly about how they did it.
Which leaves the debate to politicians and natural born Americans, most of whom will ever have any first hand experience of the policies they’re arguing about. They can talk about joining the back of the line, or the importance of skilled vs unskilled immigration, or the dangers of “chain migration” safe in the knowledge that they will never, ever be affected by the laws they ultimately pass. It’s hard to think of another piece of critical domestic or foreign policy where that’s the case.
This is the point where I’m supposed to offer my solution. The truth is, though, the immigration debate is so divorced from reality right now that it’s hard to believe there’s anything any of us can do or say to fix it. A good first step is to support the work of groups like Define American (and countless others) who are working to improve the lives of immigrants who don’t have the advantages I have. For a longer term fix, I’ve heard good things about voting in the midterms (something I’m still not eligible to do. When it comes to participating in American democracy, I still have roughly the same rights as my cats — and Toodles, Barracuda and Jasmine don’t have to pay taxes.)
Here’s what I do know: It has never been more important to speak out in defense of immigrants, minorities, women’s rights, and a thousand other subjects, not to mention American democracy itself. The next couple of years are going to be absolutely critical for everyone who calls America home.
I’m proud to officially, and finally, count myself among them.