Thinking of immigrating to the US? Been there, done that, and escaped. A self-proclaimed American sceptic, I tried to keep an open mind, but here are my honest reasons why I ran away from good ‘ole US of A.
First of all, keep in mind I moved to the USA two weeks after Trump was elected, which was a time of deep political turmoil in the country. It only got worse once he was actually inaugurated, and I was even told by the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) that I should expect further delays in the processing of my application given the new administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
Secondly, I also moved to California, a very democratic state, whose Governor vowed to defend the state against the new President. Despite the fact Southern California has a huge number of supposedly illegal immigrants hopping the Mexican border (hence Trump’s famous wall proposal), I think I moved to one of the most pro-immigration, rational and moral states in the entire country.
And thirdly, you should know that the USA views a green card as a “privilege” and not a “right”, and it is seen as the first step to becoming a US citizen and therefore has certain obligations which you must fulfill. So you better be pretty damn serious about living in the US before you apply.
You’d think the fact I was about to marry a US citizen would give me a head-start on the immigration process, but no. That miracle only happens if you marry a US citizen outside of the States, and your spouse brings you to the country to live, or if you’re resilient enough to already live and work in the US, and just want to stay indefinitely. Here’s what you should know BEFORE you decide to marry and live with your US fiancé in America:
- It is very expensive.
Your US spouse (now your petitioner), has to petition to bring you to the States to marry, and in 2016, this cost $340 just to file the form. Once approved, you will have to attend a medical exam at a US embassy approved medical practice (which is in London, for those applying from the UK). This costs a further £290, and it is very invasive. Make sure you have a record of your vaccinations with you, and if you’re missing any from the required list, DO NOT do them there as it will cost you around £100 each. You will have the choice to wait until you’re married and applying for your green card in the US, which is what I did, but again, DO NOT do this. I paid $40 for a flu vaccine, and then I had to pay $150 to have an USCIS approved doctor sign the declaration that I’d indeed had my flu vaccine and now met all vaccine requirements. If possible, have all vaccines done in the UK or your home country BEFORE the medial exam.
Once your K1 visa (fiancé) application has been approved, you are free to travel to the US and you have 90 days to get married and apply for your green card. It is not very expensive to apply for a marriage licence in California, at least; we paid $90 in Riverside county. Once married, you then have to apply for your green card (adjustment of status). You can thankfully apply for your temporary employment authorisation card at the same time at no extra cost, but USCIS raise their fees every few months, so get your application sent off as soon as possible! When I first moved, the green card application was only $800, but a month later when we applied, it had gone up to $1,140. If approved, you will be given a probationary green card for two years, and when it is time to upgrade to your full residency card, you will have to pay a further $600, but this is only 2017, so who knows how much that will increase over the next few years.
- You cannot leave the USA.
Yep, you read correctly. Once you arrive at the airport and present your documents and visa to Border Patrol, they draw a line through your visa rendering it in invalid and you are handed a piece of paper saying you should not make any travel arrangements outside of the US whilst waiting on your green card, as you won’t have a visa on which to return to the States, and you must be present in the US for your interview, which can be scheduled at any time, otherwise you will instantly be denied.
So as you wait at home all day with nothing to do, no friends of your own or no job, on your spouse who works long hours each day (which seems to be the American way), and the homesickness and loneliness kicks in, your thoughts naturally turn to visiting your home country. So you talk to USCIS and are told that you will only be granted Advance Parole (yes, they call it PAROLE), if there is an emergency at home, or if you are doing humanitarian work abroad. You need a lot of evidence to be able to get “parole” and it can take up to four months to hear back from USCIS once you’ve applied (one small mercy is that it’s free to apply). Naturally, if you do leave in the event of an emergency, you can contact the US embassy in your country and apply for parole from there. Either way, there is absolutely no guarantee you will be granted permission to leave the wondrous USA or even be allowed back in by Border Control with your parole document.
If you survive the first round of indentured servitude, and you are granted your work permit (which usually comes months before your green card), you STILL aren’t allowed to leave. It even says on the card that it is “not valid for re-entry to the US”. (Although, if granted Advance Parole, this is printed on your work permit card). Still, if you find a job, life in ‘Murica is a little better, and if you get through it, and are finally granted your green card (congrats if you do!), you will be pleased to discover you are…STILL NOT ALLOWED TO LEAVE. Well, technically, you can now travel abroad for six – tweleve months but you will have to tell USCIS beforehand and apply for a re-entry visa, and you are absolutely not allowed to work abroad. I believe you can get away with staying out of the country for up to two years if you notify USCIS prior to leaving and present intention to return to the US, but you need to keep evidence that you still live in the US (filing your US taxes, paying rent and bills in the US, keeping in contact with US family), to present to Border Patrol and USCIS when you return. If immigration believe you are living abroad and using your green card to re-enter the country to visit or to simply imply that you still live there, they will take it away and you can be banned from returning to the US for up to 20 years.
From my own research into the prison sentence that is the American Permanent Residency Card (green card), I have found that the only way to be able to leave and work abroad as you please for as long as you want without telling the authorities, is to become American (and for some countries, that means renouncing your native country), and that takes SEVEN YEARS. Kudos to anyone who wants to do that!
- You have no rights.
Whilst you await your almighty green card and work permit, which can take anything from 6 months to a year, you are a nobody. You won’t be allowed to apply for a driving licence or state ID card because you have no proof that you’re being granted a green card in the future and the K1 visa expired or has a short expiration date. You can drive in the US on your foreign licence until you get a green card though, but if you did need a US one or wanted a US ID, you won’t be eligible in most states. Without a Social Security Number (which you can’t get without a work permit), you won’t be able to get your own health or dental insurance, unless you’re lucky enough to be added to your spouse’s plan. (The chances of this are slimming with Trump in power, and some companies do not like to insure immigrant spouses without their green cards).
You are also not allowed to open a bank account, and a lot of banks won’t allow your spouse to open a joint account for you both until you have your SSN. Same applies for a phone contract; your spouse will have to take out a new line rental in their name for you. It can be extremely frustrating, and all you want is to leave and have your life back; be someone, have a purpose. I wasn’t even allowed a library card without a US issued ID! My advice is to try and volunteer (if you have access to a car or public transport), which can take time as they generally need a SSN to complete a background check. It is possible, though, and it will give you something to put on your CV and occupy your mind a little!
I wrote this not to insult the US or put anyone off visiting or moving to the country, but simply to inform and advise anyone thinking of doing so. If I had known half of the things about the immigration system that I know now, I don’t think I would’ve wasted all that time and money.