Why Getting a Green Card Sucks

I actually wrote this around 15 years ago. And I just found it and thought I’d post if for my friend who’s about to (hopefully not) have a similar experience.

PART I (a Friday in mid October)

First you get up at 4:30 in the morning in order to get to Sacramento by 7:00, to be at the Immigration & Naturalization Service Office before all the Mexicans! Well, the Mexicans are pretty well organized, and a lot of them have beat you to it. Anyhow, at seven they open the doors, and herd everyone like cows to be slaughtered through a little maze. This maze part takes about an hour. At the end of the maze, you see an INS officer, who looks at your papers, gives you more papers, and gives you a little number from a machine. Then you go and sit in the waiting room, which by now has nowhere to sit because your number is 62. At this point the time is now 8:00, and they are on number 6. Two hours later, they are on number 22. the office closes at 1:00, because they are government workers and probably need to have a nap. Anyway, at 12:15, the number display thing that tells you what number they’re at suddenly shuts off, and it appears as though they won’t be doing the number thing anymore. This is very frustrating, as the number it was on was 59. Also, there is no one you can really ask what’s going on except for a chove security officer with a gun, who you know won’t know the answer anyway. Luckily, at 12:45, they turn the number thing back on, and it says 62! You spring into action, and go to the desk with all your papers. At this point the surprisingly pleasant INS officer asks you if you had a nice breakfast. He then proceeds to tell you that your papers are not in order, and that your wife doesn’t make enough money to prove that you won’t become a burden on the American people, and start collecting social security, and using food stamps. This is all very ironic, don’t you think, because the main reason you want this little card is so that you can work and make money so you don’t have to go on social security and collect food stamps. So, after sitting in a room all day in very uncomfortable seats, or the floor, depending on the time, with your ass asleep the whole time, you find out you’ll have to do it all over again. The only thing is that you have to convince your legal American uncle and aunt to sign a form in front of a notary public, stating that if you should decide to go on social security, or use food stamps, in the next ten years, then they will pay the bill. You then decide that the next time you go you will get up at 2:00 in the morning, and bring a cardboard box to sleep in, and make sure that you’re number 1 in the line for the slaughterhouse-style maze. To add insult to injury, this entire process, when correctly done, will cost you just over $450. Americans don’t know how good they have it!

PART II (Monday, November 2)

you get up at 4 in the morning on Monday, and you’re pretty excited because you have the signed affidavit and all looks like it will go very well. You manage to leave the house by 4:30, and are actually having a pretty good time as ‘Livin la Vida Loca’ comes on as you hit the freeway. Livin la vida loca indeed! the sun is just rising as you drive down J street in Sacramento. As you pass the INS office you see a large line of people and are annoyed that although you are there half an hour early, they’ve all still beat you to it. After parking the car, you quickly get in line, and wait. An hour or so later, you get your number, and are pretty pleased with yourself, because this time it’s #24, which is actually a whole lot better than #62. Patiently, you sit in the ripped uncomfortable chair for about two hours, watching the little red numbers slowly climb up to 24. While waiting, a Chinese lady from France tells you about a special gift that she and her husband want to give you, if you will just give her your phone number. You resist, and resist, finding out eventually that the special gift is stock options in some company. You’re glad that you didn’t give her your phone number. Finally the bell dings and 24 pops up on the display. You gather your papers and proudly march up to the counter. The INS lady looks over everything and all seems to be going well until she says: “This uncle of yours, is he an American citizen?” “Yes, of course,” you say. “Do you have proof?” she says. “Well, no, not really. How about his social security number?” you say. Apparently that’s not good enough, because you notice that she’s already filling out a paper that at the top says: things to bring with you on your next INS visit. “don’t you think that the fact that he’s the president of the university indicates that he’s an American citizen? Do you think they’d give just anybody that job?” you stammer. Here’s the part that really sucks. She says: “It doesn’t matter what I think.” You almost slap her with your passport, but manage to contain yourself, because remember, there is a chove security guard with a buzz cut and a pretty big gun over in the corner. you make her promise that the only other thing you need is a photocopy of your uncle’s passport and all will be fine. She confirms this and says nothing else. (note this last statement, as it is important in part III of the story) without further ado, you find yourself leaving the INS office, vowing to only return one more time.

PART III (Friday, November 6)

You get up at 3:30 in the morning, and can’t believe that this is the second time this week that you’ve done this, and the third time this month. By 4:00 you’re on the road, and feeling very positive about the time you’re making. As Cher is asking you if you believe in love after love, you daydream about holding that little INS number that says #1 on it. You exit on to J street, and the sun has not even come up yet — it’s actually still dark! As you pass the INS office you see that there is nobody waiting in line in front of the building! You quickly pull into the parking garage (as they call it in this country — when you say parkade they think you’re talking about butter) Anyway, you park the car, and quickly dash over to the office ready to position yourself in the very front of the line. As you near the door, you see a sign taped to it that you don’t remember seeing in the past. It is written in felt pen on four sheets of paper, taped together. This is what it says: this office will be closing on November 5, and will re-open at 650 Capital Mall on November 15. You laugh a silly, sort of insane little laugh, and almost throw a really big rock through the window. You manage to stop yourself, because you know they won’t give you a green card if you do that. As you walk back to the car, you start thinking about that sheet of paper the INS lady gave you on Monday that said: things to bring with you on your next INS visit, and you wonder why she didn’t bother to mention THAT YOUR NEXT INS VISIT WOULD BE IN A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT OFFICE!!!! “AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAHHHHHAHHA,” you say.

After the two hour drive home you’ve calmed down quite a bit, but have developed a nervous tick, and are giggling like that guy in the pink panther movies who hates Cluseau. You arrive back at home just before 8:00, and your wife is still in bed. She sleepily looks up, confused to see you. You tell her the whole story, and she can’t believe that you went all the way to Sacramento and back while she slept. She feels sorry for you. You crawl into bed and dream of part IV of the story, where you strangle the INS lady with the American flag that was next to the chove security guard, and then light it on fire………….

PART IV (Monday, December 6)

You’re on the freeway by four o’clock, and Britney Spears is saying something about being crazy. You are crazy, you think to yourself. You arrive at the new INS office at 5:45, and are very pleased to be one of the first people in line. So far all is going very well, other than the fact that you are freezing (its California, what’s going on?), and that an enormous flock of black birds is circling the building looming about, creating a Hitchcockian mood. At seven they open the doors, only after explaining to everybody that we have to remove anything that is metal from our person, in order to go through the spiffy new metal detectors (which give the chove security guard something concrete to do). You walk through the detector, almost losing your pants, because you have removed your belt (as instructed), because it contains metal in the buckle. This is, of course, only the first step in being treated as inhumanely as possible. You get your number after only 15 minutes or so in line, and are very pleased to discover that you are number 007! You have a license to kill, and are ready to use it! The waiting room is now bigger and quite church-like, featuring benches that rather resemble pews. You sit and pray until your number is called. As you come up to window 1 you realize that its the same INS lady who you wanted to slap with your passport in parts II and III. You remain calm and even manage pleasantries like “nice new place you have here”, and so on. She begins shuffling papers and stapling things into bunches, and all seems to be going great when suddenly she says, “what are these?” She is referring to the W2 tax forms provided by your wonderfully supportive uncle. “they’re W2 forms”, you say, cheerily. “well, I need his income tax returns, not his W2s”, she says. You keep your calm, and proceed to remind her about the last time you saw one another, and how she had said that all you needed was a photocopy of your uncle’s passport. There was no mention of improper tax papers. You even use the piece of paper that she filled out and signed as a visual aid in the demonstration. Then she hits you with a doozer: “that may be what I told you then, but I’m telling you now that you need his income tax returns,” she says. “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR F@*#ING MIND, YOU CRAZY BITCH!!?!?!!,” you say very loudly in your head. Fortunately, your internal censor is in high gear, and you manage to contain yourself. You explain your long commute and the many times you have made it, and eventually arrive at having to somehow get your uncle’s income tax returns faxed to you. While this still is a major hassle, you have made some ground, because after getting the fax, the INS lady will let you back to her window, without having to get another number (which by now is somewhere around #126, and they’re still serving #009) Having been given no information about where the nearest fax machine is (you asked, she shrugged), you head off to the old INS office, because you’re sure that the place next door is fax compliant. Turns out it is, and you quietly wonder how someone can work next to a place for so many years without knowing anything about it. You call your wonderful aunt, and she whips into high gear, and only 15 minutes later you have your fax, which costs you $12. You try not to think about how good a $12 bottle of wine would taste right now (it is after all only 9 am!)

You return to window 1 in the INS office, and you are finally on your way, sort of. While the income tax stuff looks good, it appears that you no longer have the application for work permit form. You are convinced that the evil-satan-INS-lady burned it up when you weren’t looking. Regardless of what you might think happened to it, she sends you off to the so-called ‘forms room’ to get another one. After some searching, it becomes apparent to you that the forms room is in fact the ‘waiting-in-line-for-a-number’ room. You decide to employ a tactic you’ve seen others using: quickly dash to the window, butting in front of the people in line, pretending that you have every right to be there! Amazingly, this works (probably because the INS guy at the number line recognizes you and is starting to feel a little sorry for you.) Finally, you have all your papers and your application is under way! You return to window 1 and the evil-satan-INS-lady finishes her part of the job. She sends you to the cashier, where you pay for the privilege you are about to receive. It costs you $450.

At this point in the saga it is important to clarify some things. The only thing you really will get today is your work permit (which is really what you want anyway), the actual green card is not issued till about two years from now because the system is so backed up. In two years time you will have to go in for a little interview with your wife and pretend you’re Gerard Depardieu!: “Her favoreet parfoom ees de meests of Akreeka- No wait- I aulways forget zat one!”

Back to the story. You’ve paid your cash. All the papers are kept by the cashier except for the work permit application which is returned to you and you are told to put it in the tray at window 7 and wait. You’ve seen things sit in that little tray for hours, so you decide that this would be a great time to go get yourself some coffee and a donut at the snack shop, which is actually in the INS building itself. This should have been your first warning. Your second warning should have been that of the five available coffee dispensers in the snack shop, not one of them contains an iota of coffee! After alerting the very slow, cross-eyed, narcoleptic snack shop attendant of the coffee situation, you get to watch him spent a good 15 minutes toasting a bagel and spreading a little cream cheese on it, before he attends to you. The only good part is that you end up having a nice chat with the man who the bagel is for, who happens to be an American. It turns out his wife is upstairs also waiting for her paper to magically do something in the tray at window 7.

Once back in the waiting room you sit for a few hours until finally someone appears at window 7, puts a little stamp on the paper, calls your name, and sends you to yet another room. This room is the work permit/ citizenship room. It is filled with people waiting for their citizenship interviews. You meet back up with the bagel man, and his wife, and start to chat it up. Not only does she end up being Canadian, but she’s from Edmonton! You spend a delightful hour chatting with them sharing INS horror stories. (and the occasional ‘why the stampede sucks’ story) You feel very proud of yourself when they tell you that they have hired a lawyer to get them this far and it has cost them $3000! They are dumbfounded and amazed that you’ve done it all yourself. $450 dollars suddenly seems not so bad. Your conversation is interrupted by the occasional INS person poking their head out a door and saying: “Peppito Sanchez?” or “Ching Dow Pei?” or “Flordelina Hidalgo?”

Then, an INS lady pops her head out and says: “Is there anyone here who speaks English and Spanish fluently?” You raise your hand and are selected by the INS lady, and invited through the door. It turns out you’ve basically volunteered to act as an interpreter for a 61 year old Mexican man named Eduardo Flores. Eduardo is about to do his citizenship interview and test. How exciting! You have to raise your right hand and swear that you’ll truthfully translate and all that. The whole thing takes about a half an hour and you are translating the whole time. You are relieved that it is not much longer, because trying to translate questions like “who signs a bill into law?”, or, “will you bear arms for this country, should it be legally required of you?” is actually pretty taxing. You are, however, not as relieved as Eduardo who upon learning that he has passed the interview, exhales deeply, patting his chest, exclaiming the occasional “Dios Mio!” and “Gracias a Dios!” You have helped a man become an American citizen. What a day!

You are booted back to the waiting room , and after a few more “Slobov Moloviski’s? and “Gianlorenzo Albertini’s?, you hear the magic words: “Jason Esteban?” Your photo is taken, you are fingerprinted, and but a few minutes later you have a shiny new employment authorization card in your hand! Horray!!!!

Now, now, don’t get too excited. Remember, the green card doesn’t come for two years! Sure you can work. Here’s the new problem: every time you want to leave the U.S. during the next two years, while your application is pending, you have to ask the INS for permission! That’s right, permission. YOU WILL COMPLY. Every time. What’s more, they call this permission ‘advance parole’! Like you’re in some kind of prison! The land of the free, my ass!

So, you will probably be making yet another visit to the INS office, so that you can go home for Christmas. It is a possibility that eventually you can ask permission by mail, but its too late now. You probably have to ask 18 years in advance! So, while this is the last installment (at least for the next two years) of ‘Why getting a green card sucks’, you can all look forward to ‘why getting advance parole sucks’, coming soon.


Currently deciding if writing this instalment could get me into enormous legal trouble.

PART V (Mid December, 2000)

Just before Christmas you get a letter in the mail informing you that you are required to do two things. The first is get fingerprinted, the second is appear in Sacramento with your wife for an official INS interview.

Surprisingly, the fingerprinting part goes rather well. You go to the appropriate office in Sacramento and spent only about an hour in the waiting room. The INS has recently acquired new computerized machines to do ink free fingerprinting. You are amazed by the superb technology that allows you to see your own giant fingerprint the size of your head in clear beautiful detail on a screen in front of you. You immediately think of all kinds of exciting art contexts this machine could be used for, and try to share your excitement with the machine operator, who gives you an “oh, you’re an art student,” kind of look. Aside from a less than enthusiastic INS person, this experience has been your best INS experience to date. This, of course, will not last.

The letter informing you about your interview gives a list of things you will need to bring with you on that fateful day. Interestingly enough, considering they had an entire year to tell you about this appointment, the INS chooses 2 weeks before Christmas to tell you that you have to come to Sacramento on the 9th of January. Because your sister-in-law is about to give birth, you basically ignore the letter, and decide to deal with it after the festive season. Upon returning home in early January, you decide to look into the items listed on the letter. Most items seem doable: tax returns, bank statements, paystub copies, passports etc… At the top of the list is the I-693 Medical and Medical Supplement. After about half an hour on the INS helpline, you are still not sure what exactly the I-693 is, but you do know that the University health clinic (which is free) is not authorized to do it, and that you have to go to the Urgent Medical Clinic.(which will cost you $100) It is now January 4th, and you are beginning to worry about whether the results from the many medical exams you are about to endure will be back in time for your January 9th appointment.

In addition to checking all your immunization records to see if you are clear of Td, Polio, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Hepatitis B and Varicella, you have to be tested for HIV, Tuberculosis and Syphilis. Your phobia of needles makes this part a little difficult, especially the part where they inject a little serum bubble thing just below the surface of your skin for Tb. Then a doctor comes in to do the general physical examination. Here is the INS list of things the doctor is searching for:

Chrancroid, chronic alcoholism, gonorrhea, Granuloma Inguinale, Hansen’s disease, HIV, insanity, Lymphogranuloma Venereum, mental defect, mental retardation, narcotic drug addiction, previous occurrence of one or more attacks of insanity, psychopathic personality, and sexual deviation.

You are, of course, terrified. Interestingly enough, all the doctor does is listen to your lungs, check your reflexes, make you touch your toes (which you can’t do, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem) and finally, in a sort of drunk driving type test, extend your arms and close your eyes keeping your arms extended, palms up. Somehow, these four things prove, among other things that you are not sexually deviant, or have never had an insanity attack. (however, parts of Green Card pt IV certainly put you close!) You are relieved when on Saturday the 6th, all your lab results come back, and you have all the appropriate documentation! You are also relieved that after all that sexual deviation you don’t have AIDS, or Gonorrhea! You are ready for the interview on Tuesday!

PART VI — THE FINAL CHAPTER! (this actually makes it suck less)

Your INS interview is scheduled for 10:45am. This is a nice change from getting up at 3:30 in the morning. By 8:30 you and your wife are on your way.

You arrive at the INS, and have the pleasure of waiting in a different waiting room than the one from all the previous times. You position yourself at the far end of the room, after reading the little sign telling you to wait until your name is called. As you are waiting, a tall, balding white guy wearing a nice suit, is constantly walking in and out of the room. His fancy shoes click on the floor as he paces about. He too is waiting for his interview. Apparently, he has little INS experience, because he keeps going up to the little window to try to find out when his turn will be. He paces around like he owns the place, and like he should be helped right away. The purpose of these interviews is mainly to determine whether or not a person has entered a marriage of convenience to be able to live in this country. You look at the at least half his age Asian woman who appears to be his companion, and wonder if this is one of those cases. This keeps you amused while you wait for your name to be called. At 11:15, only half an hour after the scheduled time, you and your wife are called into the rooms back behind the little window.

The INS lady leads you to a little office, and directs you to sit at 2 chairs facing her desk. The chairs are about 5 feet away from the desk, making the initial experience awkward and strange. Before you even get to sit down she makes you raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth and all that. Then you sit and the interview starts. She talks to you fist, asking you questions about where you live and your phone number, and where you were born, and your mother’s name. She’s very serious about it all, and you already feel as though you’ve done something illegal. She asks you your wife’s birthday, and you stumble a little because you’re not sure if its 1973 or 1974. You don’t feel really bad about this because she had problems remembering what day your wedding was when you were practicing on the drive down! Eventually she starts asking your wife questions as well. She wants to know about how you met and all. Stories are told of roommates and art students, and you are interjecting and making good teamwork out of the storytelling. This goes on for some time, and even stories about your pre-honeymoon to Central America are told. These stories are cleverly backed with demonstrations of passport stamps that match in both passports. The INS lady is impressed. She seems to be believing that you’re really married!

Everything is going smoothly, when suddenly the INS Lady asks: “Have you ever knowingly committed material fraud regarding and/or during this petition for residency?” You of course know the answer to this question to be “No,” and you say it. If there is anything you want to avoid during this interview is the topic of whether or not you’ve tried to scam the INS! (which has kind of happened — see ‘Why getting advanced parole sucks’ for more details) Earlier on, the INS lady had asked if we had any questions and we both did not. Your wife, however, deems this a perfect moment to ask a question of the INS Lady. “What exactly do you mean by material fraud?” she asks, as your life as an American resident begins to pass before your eyes. You lapse into a virtual coma as the INS Lady says something to the effect of, “Why? Do you think you’ve committed one?” The world becomes fuzzy as you observe your wife attempting to explain her question. At this point you are so far gone that all you can see is her making hand gestures as though holding a large object, say, a basketball. Your wife (who, being a science person defines material as being composed of matter) is apparently trying to get the INS Lady to define ‘material.’ You become convinced that you are in a Fellini film when you hear the INS Lady say, “you mean like this chair?” as she points to the chair, “no that’s not what I mean at all.” Eventually, the INS lady clarifies her statement to basically ask if you’ve misrepresented yourself to the INS, or lied about any particular visa. Because your wife has now made clear that material fraud has little to do with actual matter, she too is able to properly answer the question with a final, “No, we’ve never done that.” Much later at the celebratory lunch, you essentially congratulate your wife for confusing the INS Lady at one of the most vital parts of the interview.

After looking at bank statements and paystubs, passports and wedding certificates (which are apparently VERY different in Alberta than they are in the states) the INS Lady casually announces that she is going to approve your application. In what is possibly one of the most anti-climatic moments of your life, you stumble out the words, “you mean, I get my green card?”

“yes.” she says.

She puts a stamp in your passport, which will act as your green card for the next year, until the real one comes in the mail. With this stamp you are done. You can legally live and work in the United States! You can come and go as you please! Your days of border crossing hell are over! The icing on the cake is that because you and your wife have been married for 2 and a half years, your green card is valid for 10 years!

You and your wife go for a celebratory lunch in Sacramento, vowing never to return again, and you laugh and laugh and laugh.


I never did get my Green Card. If you can believe it, it got lost in the mail. We tried to tell the INS, and they didn’t really seem to care. Then 911 happened, and we moved back to Canada.