Guest Blogger and Green Card Holder D. Fournier is back for a special blog post that aims to (simply) explain the complicated cluttered experience of a Canadian legally obtaining a green card. A box of wine and an American flag is encouraged for this reading.
It’s hard to believe that three and a half years have passed since Mike and I moved to the US. During that time, so much has happened personally and professionally. One important milestone is that we became Permanent Residents (i.e. we got our Green Cards) this past March. This is a big event for any non-citizen living or working in the United States, as it means that you no longer have to worry about work visas, your spouse can also work, crossing the border is much simpler, and you have to worry less about the government changing the rules and throwing you out.
When we were first thinking about moving to the US for my job, the immigration attorneys told us it would take 1-3 years before we would get our Green Cards. They were certainly right. What they failed to convey was the bureaucracy, complexity and countless visits to the border that this whole process would require.
I’d like to give you a little glimpse into what we had to do to become permanent residents. This was not an easy process, as the immigration system in the US is built on arcane and antiquated rules requiring desperate modernization.
Step 1 – Obtaining a work visa
Like every foreign national, in order to work in the US, I needed a visa. My employer first sponsored me for a TN-1 Visa (NAFTA Visa), which was relatively simple to obtain as I met the criteria. I had to provide the attorneys with a bunch of information on Mike and me, the attorneys filed the paperwork with immigration, and within a few weeks I had my Visa. The challenges started when Mike first crossed the border without me. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should have been given him a spouse Visa (TD-1). This would allow him to stay in the country until my visa expired (which was three years). Instead, the CBP officer at the Alexandria Bay Border crossing didn’t think he could give it to a same sex spouse (this was after same sex marriages were recognized legally in the US). He issued Mike a visitor visa (B-1) which allowed him to stay for six months. This was wrong for many reasons, but we won’t get into it here. Fortunately, after more consultation with the immigration attorneys, we crossed again at Ft. Erie. I was with Mike and this was a much bigger port. Mike was given a TD-1.
Note, every time we cross the border, we need to carry all our visa paperwork, not just our passports, as CBP officers can ask for that information. I always had a thick binder with everything they could possibly ask for including our marriage certificate. This preparation became invaluable several times.
Additionally, CBP agents stamp your passport (always when crossing via air) and occasionally via land. When they stamp it, officers write the expiration date in the stamp. You’d think they would write the same date and just copy the last stamp put or what’s on the paperwork. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and they don’t. This caused several issues down the road as every CBP officer seemed to do things a little bit differently (and would criticize the other officers for not doing things properly).
Step 2 – Changing the work visa
Our immigration attorneys advised me that I should obtain an H1-B visa prior to applying for the Green Card. I won’t get into the specifics as to why, nor why other visa types weren’t applicable. Let’s just say it’s complicated. What this did mean, however was that we had to repeat step 1 with a little more complexity. For H1-B visas, you need to enter a lottery, as there’s a limited number of visas available every year. If you win the lottery, you get an H1-B. If you don’t, you must wait a full year before you can apply again. I was fortunate enough to win the lottery on the first try and by October 2016, I had my H1-B.
Upon obtaining the visa approval, we had to cross the border again with our paperwork to get the visa stamp updated. This time I was on an H1-B and Mike had an H4 spouse visa. With an H4, spouses are not allowed to work (except for a small percentage – more on that later). No issues with the spouse visa this time. The visa expiry date issues continued to be pervasive and we had numerous stamps with varying dates in our passports. On one occasion we had to go back to the Philly airport to get the date adjusted because it would cause issues for our Permanent Residency application.
Step 3 – Update the H1-B
As soon as I had my H1-B, I wanted to begin the process to apply for Permanent Residency. Unfortunately, around January 2017, my job changed slightly. I had more responsibility, and this required the H1-B to be updated. As a result, more information had to be provided to the immigration attorneys, my employer had to file info on my updated role, and we had to wait for immigration to approve the changes. This led to many months of additional delays.
Step 4 – Apply for Permanent Residency
If you’re still with me, we’re almost there. Just a few more bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
In the fall of 2017, the permanent residency process began in earnest. There are different ways to apply for Green Cards, in my case it’s called the EB-2 route. This means that my employer must make a significant effort to prove that they can’t find a qualified American to fill my job.
To do so, my employer had to post the job in a conspicuous place in the office, online and in TWO SUNDAY NEWSPAPERS. My boss had to evaluate resumes and interview candidates. This took many many months and a lot of effort on my supervisor’s part. Additionally, my employer had to obtain certification from the Department of Labor stating that the process was followed and that the salary I’m being pad is adequate. Had my supervisor found an American who could do the job, then my employer would have to give the job to the candidate. I was lucky this didn’t happen.
Once this was complete, then the actual Permanent Residency paperwork could be prepared. In this case a lot more documentation was required. There was the usual information we needed to update the attorneys with such as time in the US, trips abroad, etc. We also had to fill out a form which attested that we were good people. For example, we attested that we never committed genocide, had never engaged in prostitution, the drug trade, organized crime, murder, and weren’t planning on doing all those things. We also had to go to a specified physician to do a medical examination, review of vaccinations and in my case, get a Tuberculosis test.
We had to have our biometrics (ie: fingerprints) taken and go through an FBI background check.
Finally, by June 2018, our application was ready! The immigration attorneys submitted everything, and we were hopefully going to complete the process by the end of 2018.
Step 5 – A good surprise
In late August of 2018, after arriving home soaked from a visit to the Philly Zoo, we found two envelopes from United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). In it were two Employment Authorization Documents. One for me, and one for Mike! This was a very big deal, as this allowed Mike to work in the US, even though he wasn’t yet a permanent resident. Remember how I said, a small percentage of spouses on H4s can work. An Obama-era government rule allows the work authorization while you’re waiting for Green Card approval. Having this authorization meant that Mike could apply for a Social Security Number, start his business and take on contract work. After 2.5 years of not being allowed to work, he now could.
It was a welcome and overwhelming surprise for Mike. The work restriction was emotionally and professionally draining. During those two and a half years, Mike had to decline interesting opportunities including being a contestant on one of his favorite TV shows. This restriction was no more!
Step 6 – Wait, wait and wait some more
The last step in the Permanent Residency application involved waiting for the interview with an Immigration Officer. Scheduling and obtaining this appointment is not like anything out in the consumer world. This is all about the Government’s time and not yours. Instead of being able to go online and select an appointment time and date where you are available, you are assigned a date and time via the mail. If you can’t make it, you need to write back and wait. It would have been more efficient to post our appointment times in TWO Sunday Newspapers.
We received our appointment notification in mid-September 2018. I was hoping that it would be in a few weeks like our bio-metrics appointment. Unfortunately, it was scheduled for Nov 3rd, right when we would be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a cruise. Given the importance of this interview, most people would just cancel their plans and go to the interview. We couldn’t for a variety of reasons, and we thought the rescheduling process would have been easy.
Of course, nothing is easy with immigration. The attorneys notified UCSIS of the request for reschedule right away. We were hopeful we’d hear back in a few weeks with a response. What we didn’t know was that our request for interview basically went to the bottom of the pile, and so we’d have to wait up to three months for an updated appointment.
After significant persistence and a few requests for check-in with our attorneys, we finally received notice in January of 2019. Our interview was scheduled for February 2019. When we received the notice, I was ecstatic because we finally knew something. There was no more waiting and we wouldn’t have to keep rearranging plans in case we had an appointment pop-up.
The government needs to modernize how it books appointments.
Step 7 – The interview
I was very nervous about the interview. What would they ask? Would they test political beliefs? Would they separate Mike and I? What was it that they were after? Our attorneys gave us a briefing on what to expect, which was pretty much the mundane review of the application. But I was still very nervous. Mike of course, was relaxed and his usual positive and fantastic self. He would say “what have we got to hide? I like interviews. Should we dress in Red White and Blue, or maybe green for Green Cards?” We ended up going with green.
When we walked into the Immigration Officer’s office in February, with three file folders full of paperwork and documentation, I had to take a moment to calm myself down and breathe. This was the final step in our immigration journey. Fortunately, we had a great and friendly Immigration Officer (Yes you heard me right). She put me at ease very quickly. She was very competent. She would ask a question, then banter a little, then would ask the same question a little differently. She was testing us, our knowledge of each other and our relationship. She also went through and reviewed at length our application, and the form that asked if we were involved in prostitution and genocides. Still no plans for murder or dealing drugs.
Within 24 hours of our interview, we received notice online that our application had been approved! Contradicting the entire timeliness of the process, we were told it would be a few months before we received our physical cards, yet a short few weeks after that we had them in hand. We were Permanent Residents of the United States! This part of our American journey, stress and adventure were finally over!
So what now
We decided that we wanted to celebrate becoming permanent residents in the most American way possible. What is America? How should we do it? Eat an apple pie? Go to a baseball game? Install an American flag? Enlist in the military? We both paused, looked at each other, smiled, and said … (More on this in a future blog post).
We’re happy that we are now lucky enough to have Green cards, and that the process only took 3 years. What that means is that now Mike can fully spread his happiness, answer any Netflix casting calls, and work (check out happyfactoryinc.com). I can move positions within my company without issue. We don’t have to stress every time we cross the border and we won’t be asked for our papers. And we can now vote in local and statewide elections, yet still have zero say in federal elections or matters.
I say we’re lucky because we are. Even though our process was complicated and confusing, for many others it exponentially more stressful, complicated, frightening and expensive. For Chinese and Indian nationals, it can take 10+ years to get Permanent Residency, if not a lifetime. I’m not exaggerating. The current system sets up quotas by country which creates a lengthy backlog for Chinese and Indians. There’s no backlog of Canadians trying to come over.
We got ours just in time. The current US administration is working to reverse the Obama-era rule that allows spouses who have been approved for green cards to work while waiting for their Green Cards to arrive (i.e. back to the decade wait above). This will result in some H4 visa holders having quit their jobs and creating strife for thousands of families.
I’m not even hitting on the plight of DACA recipients and refugees.
What’s clear is that the legal immigration system in the US is in desperate need of reform and modernization.
A big thank you to my employer for sponsoring this process which was certainly expensive. To the immigration attorneys who were with us through the complicated ups and downs. To our friends and family who supported us, and listened to our concerns. To (some of) the CBP and Immigration officers who were friendly and put me at ease. To my husband for uprooting and upending his life. And finally, to the movie theatres who kept Mike busy for these past few years. God bless America.
Song of the Day: Our favo(u)rite Canadian sings God Bless America