Thursday, February 11, 2010

The land of the free, and the home of, um, me.

As of yesterday, I'm now a permanent resident of the United States of America.

I'm still somewhat in shock, as we weren't expecting it all to come through for another six months at least. It was all completed in just under three months, and that was with Christmas in the middle. But the upshot is that this is now my home, and I can stay here with Anna without worrying that they're about to send me back to Britain.

Let me just clarify something. I'm not an American citizen now. I just live here. I'm still a Brit, and will be so for at least the next five years. The earliest I could apply for US citizenship is February 2015, and there's no real necessity for me to do so. What this means in practice is that I get to pay my tax money to Mr Obama instead of Gordon Brown, but I can't vote in American elections and I can't serve in the US military. And I don't need to fill out a green visa waiver card every time I come into the US.

Oh, and when they say permanent resident, what they actually mean is it's permanent for the next two years. After that, I have to re-apply, and provided Anna and I haven't separated and I haven't committed any major felonies, my residency automatically gets extended to the rest of my life.

But basically, I'm here now for as long as I like, I can come and go as I please, and we're both so gloriously happy it's obscene.

How US immigration works

If you're interested, here's what actually happens.

We took advantage of legislation that says as a visitor you can apply for adjustment of status while in the US if you marry a US citizen, and stay here while they do it. We took advice from Dennise Hernandez-Gruber, a specialist immigration attorney, on what we needed to do. Yes, we could probably have done it all on our own, and saved ourselves some money, but frankly, it was worth it for the peace of mind. Being able to call up and double-check things whenever we wanted, and having someone who actually knew the system, was frequently a godsend. In the event, everything went unbelievably smoothly, so I'm happy we did the right thing.

September 2009: We got married, and started assembling paperwork. We got lots of forms from Dennise, and found a sponsor who would give the necessary financial guarantees. We had to provide documentary evidence of absolutely everything: our marriage, divorce certificates, birth certificates, children & custody arrangements, financial circumstances, and so on, as well as letters of support from people testifying that we were a genuine couple, copies of our private emails and Skype correspondence to each other, and so on. We opened a joint bank account and started using that to pay all the household bills, and put my name on the lease. I also had to undergo a medical test and have a whole bunch of vaccinations because they wouldn't accept the certificates for the ones I had as a kid in the UK. That cost a few hundred bucks. Ouch.

October 2009: we handed in the forms to Dennise, who went through them, found all the bits we'd missed, and made us come in and go through them again, with more supporting paperwork. And again. We also filled in more forms asking for permission to travel outside the US while the application was being processed.

November 2009: My visa expired at the start of the month, and we filed the paperwork a few days later. Now we were expecting a 3-month wait before anything would happen. I was advised not to take internal flights, as my only valid photo ID was my passport, and that had an expired visa in, which is just asking for trouble.

December 2009: We got a really fast response to the filing, and they gave me a biometrics appointment just before Christmas. They take your photo, retinal scan, and prints, in much higher quality than the quick ones they did at the airport. I was told to expect a long wait at the Orlando test center, but in the event I was there for just 15 minutes. They then told me to expect my initial interview in 3-4 months.

January 2010: my travel parole and employment authorisation card arrived just after New Year. This meant I could leave the US without jeopardising my residency application, and without having to worry about the fact that my visa had expired. A week later, my interview date arrived - for February 10! Now that I had all the initial immigration paperwork, I took my driving test. They told me to expect my license within 28 days, and it duly arrived in less than a week.

February 2010: at Dennise's suggestion, we assembled even more supporting documents. Photos of us together, joint bank statements, letters from friends who we've been hanging out with since we filed in November, and so on. She said that she'd heard reports that some people were getting approval at the initial interview, but realistically, we could expect them to ask for some more details and bring us back a couple more times for further questions.

Feb 10, 2010: the interview. First, they interviewed Anna for about 20 minutes. Their main concern was that I was just using her as a way to make it easy to travel in and of the US on business. They asked all sorts of questions such as what movies we'd seen, where we'd eaten recently, and about how we'd got to know each other. Then the guy interviewed me, and asked me the same questions (Avatar, Chipotle and Colorado Fondue, and the whole Neil Gaiman Comic Con story). He asked a lot of questions about how I got on with her kids, and why we wanted to live here instead of England, and whether I was planning to commit polygamy. He looked at the photos of last Valentine's Day, our trip to Scotland, our engagement, and our wedding, and then stamped my passport and said, "Welcome to the United States of America."

And with that, it was done. He gave me another small pile of paperwork, told me about the conditional residency stuff, and sent me on my way. I came out of the interview room with a huge grin on my face, gave Anna a hug, and did my best to hold back the tears of relief until we got to the car.

In retrospect

The entire process was surprisingly painless (apart from the jabs). The USCIS staff were all courteous, helpful and efficient. Mind you, immigration rates are plummeting, and the Orlando office is operating at a fraction of capacity. Bear in mind that 50% of the 18m inhabitants of Florida have arrived in the last eight years. Since 2001, over a million people a year arrived in this state: half a million of those were immigrants, mostly low-paid workers coming in to service the tourist trade and British retirees who've sold their homes for a place in the sun.

But in 2009, as the tourist industry collapsed and the UK housing market stagnated, the population of Florida actually fell. The immigration rate dropped to a few tens of thousands. As a result, there's no huge backlog any more, and they're not so worried about letting in too many people.

I want to say a very big public thank you to my sponsor, Robert Deck, and to our attorney Dennise. We couldn't have done this without them.

And lastly, a huge thank you to everyone who sent letters of support. They made a real difference. Not just to the immigration process, but to me and Anna. Those letters are some of the most heart-warming words you can imagine, and we'll be keeping those to look back on when we're old and grey together.

I still haven't taken it all in yet. But it feels wonderful.