I’m A Not-Quite Legal Alien In The U.S. And It Sucks

This piece has been stewing away in my head for a long time. Six months, in fact. Six months ago, I arrived in Philadelphia airport–smelly, tired, and jetlagged–and fell into the arms of the man I love. The man I later married. I’m used to travelling; I’ve been in and out of the States several times. This time, though, I am here to stay.

I always knew–back before I even applied for my fiancé visa–what moving to the U.S. would entail. I’d caught a small glimpse of the process before, when I studied abroad in Pittsburgh for a year (which is where I met my future husband). I knew, vaguely, that it was hard to attain a fiancé visa, and exponentially harder to attain a green card. I knew I’d be waiting for months, if not a year, before the decision was made one way or the other. Spoiler alert: I’ve been here in the U.S. for six months, and I’m still waiting.

Other people seem to have a vaguer conception of this process than I did. They ask why I don’t get an automatic green card because I am married to an American citizen. The more astute ones ask why it’s not, at least, easier for me because I am British: one of the allies, American in every sense apart from my higher intake of tea and my failure to get to grips with American colloquialisms. Second spoiler: The answer is no. No-one gets special deference with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.

It always seemed as though it would feel “worth it”, though. And it is. It certainly will be. After all, two years of “I miss you”, of tearful pillows and pointless arguments and sleepless nights were finally coming to an end, and I could–can–be with him, at least. The man who, honestly, makes it all very much worth it. It seemed like no great sacrifice; my career, my education, could wait a year or two, if it meant all the confusion and restlessness finally drawing to a close. I stand by that, even now.

But–and of course, there’s a “but”–the wait is long and arduous. It creeps under my skin. And, furthermore, it is simply baffling to me that I was permitted to make a lifelong commitment to someone I love, without the certainty that I would be permitted to spend my life with him.

Let me explain. Our “reunion”, six months ago–for all its storybook loveliness and passion and endurance–became very unromantic in actuality. I came to the U.S., triumphantly waving my K1 fiance visa at the immigration officer, and got married within 90 days of my arrival, as per the contract. Sigh of relief? Not so fast. We hemorrhaged a good thousand dollars on three applications, for three separate documents. One is for a green card, and it is–as my dad would describe–“the big ‘un”. We spent weeks piecing together evidence of our relationship: not photos, not letters, but bank statements and plane ticket receipts and lease documents. It took us well over a month to compile a suitable amount of evidence for this, our Everest. We knew even then that the waiting period for a decision on this document was likely to be close to a year.

So we also put together two other applications, for interim work and travel documents. That is, they’re supposed to tide you over until you’re granted a green card, if you’re granted one at all. But these work and travel permits take months to process, too. That’s right: They take months to give you the green light to live like a normal, functioning adult member of society (temporarily, mind you). So what do you do in the meantime?

You wait.

And, like I said, I was prepared to wait. But it’s one thing to be prepared in theory, and quite another to be living the experience. That’s something we can all relate to. It’s a very strange, debilitating feeling to put your life in another person’s hands, and have that responsibility be shunted around from desk jockey to desk jockey. Your life on the line, neatly packaged in brown paper. Along with thousands of other lives, which–on paper–look exactly the same. A man with a stamp will stamp it and send it to a man with a bigger stamp … and so it goes on.

And you wait, sleeping soundly at night with your husband, but not letting yourself get too comfortable, not letting yourself breathe too deeply. You are constantly on edge, you always have a slightly bitter taste at the back of your mouth, because you might be told to get on the next plane home. Because you didn’t have enough evidence. Because you didn’t sign the forms correctly. The evidence you assemble, forms that you pore over for hours… hoping that if you get it right, and if luck’s on your side, you’ll get to spend the rest of your life with someone you’re deeply, madly in love with.

If not? Well. We haven’t thought that far ahead yet. We haven’t allowed ourselves to.

I do, of course, understand why this process has to be this way. We’ve all seen “The Proposal”. We know that some people marry American citizens because stateside living is, relatively speaking, pretty easy. We know that people play the system, that they do it for the wrong reasons. Damn right for the USCIS to be rigorous. In many ways, I stand by that.

Even so, it is difficult to swallow. When you’re doing everything you can to be honest, when you’re willing to work hard and contribute to society, when you’re doing it for the right reasons… then yes, yes, it is tedious. Yes, it is aggravating. Being forced to sit idly at home, without a job when you’re perfectly capable of working damn hard: that’s aggravating. Not furthering your education because you have neither the correct permit nor the right funds to do so: that’s aggravating. Knowing you’re not out of the woods, you’re not “safe”: aggravating.

People say that it must be great, having a six-month-long “holiday”. Perhaps it is, but holidays aren’t nearly as fun when you haven’t got any money to, you know, go out and do things. Or a driver’s license. Or a car. I’ve had a lot of fun in the past few months, of course, but I’ve also been frustrated at my lack of income, my lack of a real purpose in my day-to-day life—the sort of purpose that college, or a job, bring to the table.

I’ve also been homesick in a way that is more intense, even crippling, than I ever imagined. I was never one to pine for my creature comforts, for the familiarity of home, but something about the uncertainty of knowing when I’ll be permitted to go back to the U.K. presented a challenge to me that I never anticipated. I tried to bring my family traditions to the table, quite literally, when I made a Sunday roast dinner the way my grandparents might. The meal was a roaring success, but it was all wrong. There was no home-brewed cider, no clamoring of children, no jolly Dad clad in a ridiculous apron. I don’t miss England in the sense that I want to go back and live there, without my husband (or even with him), but I miss my family more than I ever thought I might. Gin and tonics, the smell of Saturday newspapers mingling with cups of tea, long dog walks through the English countryside. I miss it dearly. It would be comforting to know that, at least, the option was there for me to travel back home—to visit—if I wanted to. Instead, I am effectively being kept captive in the U.S. until my case is resolved.

But what is there left for me to do? As my dad would tell me after a particularly stressful exam season, “You’ve done your best, and that’s all you can do”. I have indeed done my best, and I’ve made a vow to do my best as an alien in America, with my husband, supporting him through his military career. That is what I came here to do, and as bleak as things may feel, it is heartwarming to finally have a real shot at what could—and will hopefully be—the rest of my life.

Being merely a name and a number on a vast waiting list of other immigrants is, ultimately, much harder than people would care to think. Anyone who is under the illusion that life is handed to immigrants on a platter is seriously misguided. Anyone who thinks it’s worth playing this game for a shot at an “easy life” is not only misguided, but making life far harder for people like me. The system could do with reform, the process could do with a fast-forward button, and the phone lines could do with a lot more staff on hand. But, at this point, I’m used to being on hold. I’m living on hold. And I will keep on waiting, because on the other side of this mountain of bureaucracy is, I hope, something absolutely worth waiting for.

Are you applying for, or have you obtained a green card? Tweet us your reflections @litdarling!

View Comments (7)
  • I have to admit, I laughed when I saw the headline for this piece: I am also a not-quite legal alien Brit in the US, I met my man during my year abroad, we spent 3 years living apart, and I wrote a piece related to the experience for LD. Since I attended graduate school in the US, I’m attempting to get a visa through adjustment of status but it’s very similar to the K1 process.

    So, solidarity! I’ve felt what you’re feeling. Not having an income, not having a license, and having no sense of purpose, reeeeally sucks. I graduated and moved to the same state as my other half in May, so I’ve been in this situation for 6 months. We’re actually STILL gathering all our documents as we had a lot that took over when we initially moved in together, such as getting furniture, and he works such long hours that getting anything official done in the M-F 9-5 timeframe was a huge challenge.

    The main thing that has helped me is volunteering. I have two regular volunteer gigs that I show up to every week, which gives my week some routine and lets me do something good for others. I kept putting it out there that I was looking for opportunities, and ended up teaching free creative writing classes to teens and retired folks. Even though I haven’t had a job, I’ve got a lot to put on my resume thanks to the last 6 months.

    I would also recommend joining a library! You can read for fun or look for career ideas. I actually kind of pretend I’m still in grad school and try to spend each day getting work done… I read, work on my novel, and I’m planning to learn web design soon. It has been hard to develop the discipline to do more than wallow and watch movies all day, but I do feel much happier than I did earlier in the year.

    Best of luck to you, and I hope your case is successfully reviewed soon!

  • I read this over at the (ridiculous) Huffpo, which I read in the morning for laughs. Your post didn’t make me laugh, but touched me deeply, because 27 years ago I was in precisely the same situation.

    I fell in love with a Dutch exchange student in my last year at Temple U. We were engaged and then he went back to the Netherlands to finish his degree while I started working. A year later we were married and the day after that we left to start our life on this side of the pond.

    I’d almost forgotten the soul crushing loneliness, the embarrassment of being perfectly able and willing to work, but not being permitted to work by law. I’ve almost (but not quite) forgotten being dirt poor– we used to save up for a few weeks and splurge on McDonald’s. I vaguely remember getting shingles because of poor nutrition and heartache and being way too proud to ask my parents to send me a ticket to go home.

    I got my permanent residence card when we were married for 1 year. Eventually I found work.It wasn’t easy with a degree in English Lit. I wound up working as a ticket seller at the railway. The next job was sales support for a ship manufacturer, and my last paying job was with a medical publisher. We’re still together; we’ve built a nice life.

    Wishing you all the best.

  • As a Britist student that has just returned from a study abroad year in the US (and hopes to move back), I just wanted to say how amazing your articles are, and how much they connected with me. May I ask what university you went to? I am at the University of Exeter, studying English with Study in North America, and i’ve noticed a lot of similarities. It’s great to see how someone with a SA year in the US has made it, and the hope that you have for the future.

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