Green Card: The Holy Grail
During my school years in California many Thai students I knew, those who were not spoilt brats at my university, worked illegally in Thai establishments — restaurants, bookstores, video stores, etc. Most of us were paid less than the minimum wage of $6.75 an hour. The wages could be as little as $3 an hour plus tips at a Thai restaurant. Many young Thai people applied to cheap language schools that charged $100 a week and issued them an I-20, the most important document when applying for a student visa, and then they would be working full-time and keep paying the language school fee without having to show up as the government did not strongly enforce the full-time student status requirement until after 9-11 when they found out some terrorists had entered the country on student visas.
Considering my status I figured it would not be worth it to work illegally and get caught and deported. Instead I went through all the trouble to apply for my work permit which would allow me to work for 20 hours a week when school was in session and full-time during school breaks. The process was long and costly. The fee of $130 in 2001 could’ve been spent on gas for my car for two months. I contacted the International Office on campus where, unlike many universities in the USA, they knew exactly what they were doing. They checked my eligibility, made sure I met academic requirements, acquired all important signatures and supporting documents, and filed the papers to the Immigration Office for me. It took about a semester before I received the work permit in the mail. Re-applying for each consecutive year was not any less complicated.
I started working at a law firm in the area. They made a copy of my social security card and work permit and I was pretty sure they ran a background check on me. Law offices by nature are not very trusting. About a week later I was hired and I worked there for almost five years. Because I had no legal training I was responsible for getting information regarding cases from Thai clients making sure the attorneys had all they needed to process the case, and translating documents and conversations. I thought I was lucky to work with them as I learned so much about US laws, especially immigration laws. The attorneys at the office were never economical with words when they answered my simple yes or no questions, or asked me to do something regarding cases. They would lecture me how the system worked and give me examples of cases to make sure I understood correctly. Now I am glad I wasn’t waiting tables at Thai restaurants. This is where I learned a lot about the Thai community of over 200,000 expats.
Thais in Los Angeles live there exactly the way they live in Thailand. The older they are when they enter the US, the harder it is for them to assimilate into American society and culture. They eat Thai food, watch Thai movies, mingle with Thais, and deal with things in the Thai ways. There are all kinds of businesses run by Thais and you can use their services without needing to use a single word of English. You can buy a car from a Thai salesman at a Honda dealership in Alhambra who assumes you cannot afford the car you are test driving. You can buy car insurance from a Thai broker in Thai Town who fails to tell you there will be a fee of $60 charged to you every year on top of the commission they are making from the insurance company. If you have a baby, you could take it to a Thai lady who would take care of the baby during the day for $200 a month until one day she puts your baby in a hammock and keeps rocking it without knowing the baby has its nose against the hammock and suffocated to death. That is a true story and was in the news. We also had a chiropractor who misrepresented herself as a ‘doctor’ and tried to sell her Thai patients a ‘Wonder Pillow’ for $2,500 that would keep your skeleton aligned while you sleep. People fell for it. I love the Thai community there. We had churches, temples, cemeteries, video stores, restaurants, markets, laundry, real estate brokers, lawyers, accountants, etc. You name it. You can get by from the day you enter the country until the day you die without knowing any English.
Our office dealt with Thai people and businesses all the time and we had our advertisements in major Thai newspapers. Part of what I did at the office was to check and see if the advertisements are placed properly in every issue. I had fun reading the advertisement and classifieds sections and would translate them for my co-workers who were Asian American girls and we would have a good laugh. There were openings for waitresses with specific qualifications: attractive, nice shape, personable, service minded. The owner could’ve been sued for discrimination but it’s the Thai community. No one turns anyone in, not unless you are two waitresses fighting over the same guy. That’s when you call Immigration and turn the other girl in for working illegally.
There were naturalized American citizens who advertised for someone who wanted to get married for a green card. We called them from our office phone with a blocked number to find out how it worked. The person who advertised said he charged everything in cash starting with $5,000 up front before getting married. You marry him and put his name on utility bills, etc. He would then move in and you pay for ‘family’ expenses and immigration fees. You would pay another $5,000 when you get your conditional green card and another $5,000 when you have the condition removed two years later. You can then divorce him. He said it would’ve been $18,000 total if he was female because it would have involved higher risks of being raped, etc. I said I heard Vietnamese people did it for less so I’d shop around and call him back. You’d be surprised how many illegal immigrants would pay for that, especially those who can’t get an old farang to marry them.
Getting a green card is a big thing in the Thai community. There are immigration cases at the office that are so fishy we could see through what was going on but boss said it was not our job to investigate or judge them. If they say it’s a marriage in good faith, we would need to take it at face value. I remember we received calls from Thai people from all over the US consulting with us about their horror stories stemming from their desire to get permanent residency. A cook in the San Diego area paid her employer $15,000 in cash so that the employer would apply for a green card for her. That was the money from countless years of hard work in the kitchen at seven days a week. The employer took the money but never applied for her. They knew she was not eligible but they took her money anyway. Another phone call that saddened us greatly was from a girl in Vermont. Her sister divorced her husband so that the husband can marry her, supposedly only on the paper, and apply for a green card for her. She ended up getting raped over time by the brother in law but would not go to the police for fear she would be deported. We also heard of some couples getting divorced on paper and traveling back to Thailand where each of them would marry someone for money and bring the new spouses back to the US. They made a fortune.
An American guy in our area went on a dating site and met a teacher from Thailand. She was from Surin. His eyes sparkled when he was telling us how her picture captured him at the first glance. He went to Thailand to meet her and suddenly fell in love with her. He came back to America and applied for her fiancé visa. He paid extra for us to employ our rush service. He had money and he was in love. Nothing could stop him. The greeting on his voicemail was something along the lines of, “Hello, this is John. Leave me a message and I’ll call you back. But if you’re Wipa, I love you so much and we’ll be together real soon.” We’d call him at odd hours from our blocked number just to listen to the message and giggle. It was too sweet. The lady finally came to the US barely speaking English. She was 45 years old and did not look like she was even half in love as he was. Maybe she was just a reserved old Thai lady.
A couple in North Carolina contacted us about applying for a green card. They lived in a trailer without a mailbox and had a small garden nursery. It was difficult to contact them through mail. We had to send documents to his sister’s house and it would take them forever to mail something back to us. However, the wife was nice and very attractive. Our white attorney couldn’t stop commenting on how pretty she was in her pictures. She was tall and slim with big eyes. I didn’t know how they met. It was not my job to ask. She worked in a well-established international bank in Thailand but she left everything and started her life with a guy who lived in a trailer. It must have been love. Her case went smoothly with the guy’s sister as a sponsor. She was educated and communicated well in Thai but spoke only conversational English. She made sure she had everything right for filing. She would send us a card every Christmas with their pictures. We heard about a hurricane in their area so I called her and asked if everything was all right. She was touched by that. They looked good together and seemed to be a happily married couple. Hope they still are. That was one of the first immigration cases I was on.
The very first case was a Thai lady applying for a green card for her Hispanic husband. The lady worked in a factory. She had been in the US for over thirty years. She worked in a factory and was naturalized through her previous marriage with a Thai guy. The new husband entered the country illegally by boat. The only way he could stay in the country legally is to marry a US citizen. The lady did not speak any Spanish, the guy did not speak any Thai, and BOTH did not speak English! We were puzzled as to how they communicated. It appeared to us that the lady cared about the guy so it probably was not a fake marriage, but how they communicated really dumbfounded us. A co-worker said they only needed to know ‘you’, ‘me’, and ‘bed.’ The boss had me talk to the lady and a Spanish speaking Cantonese girl at work talk to the guy and then we conveyed the message to the boss. They finally received their green card.
I remember a nice and fun college girl in the area. Her aunt had a big Thai restaurant in Riverside. She married her boyfriend from her community college. When they came to retain us for their immigration case they were so touchy and kissy that all girls at the office were eating their hearts out. They were in love. We managed to change her immigration status from non-permanent to permanent and had the condition on the green card removed two years later. Not long after she came to our office again wanting to divorce her husband because he was a loser and would not look for a job. This time she came in with a new Chinese boyfriend she wanted to marry when the divorce is final. It turned out that all three people were living happily in the same house and both men were friends. They were even roommates before moving in with her.
A young man who shared his last name with an owner of big five star hotels and resorts in Thailand was going to marry a white girl who was a single mom. She lived in a bad area of Hollywood with her little daughter and had trouble with her substance abuse ex-husband who always failed to pay child support. She looked messed up. He was an architect major who lost his full-time student status. This was an alleged ‘love story’ of a Thai guy so rich and a white girl so poor who seemed to have nothing in common. Things did not add up and we could not imagine how their paths crossed. They came to us for consultation. The guy asked the girl, “Are you sure you want to do this?” The girl nodded. The guy paid half of our fee saying they were going to get their marriage registered and would come back with the marriage certificate. They never came back. He never called for $800 refund since the case never started. I called him many times and he said he would come back and pick up his refund check and not to mail it as he was moving. He never came in for the second time. The money is still in the Trust Account waiting for him to claim.
The family of our long time clients in the North Hollywood area retained us for all kinds of cases: accident, adoption, worker’s compensation, and immigration. They owned a big Thai restaurant with a few locations in the Valley. The head of the family adopted a niece and then applied for a green card for her. The girl’s older sister was aged out therefore not eligible for adoption by Californian laws. She entered the country on her student visa, graduated a few years later and overstayed the visa for a long time. We told her the only way she could stay legally and not be barred from entering the country for another ten years was to marry a US citizen. A few weeks later she came to our office one day with a middle aged American guy. He was between jobs so financially he was not eligible to sponsor her. Her uncle who is the owner of the restaurant signed the Affidavit of Support. A few weeks later her male cousin came. He was recently married to a leggy smoking hot white girl who dressed a bit trashy. She had a long history of brief employment at various clubs including Hooters, and was making only $800 a month after taxes at the time she came in. I was working on both cases getting information ready for the attorneys to file, and I found that the Hooters girl and the middle aged guys from the cousin’s case were neighbors in the same apartment. They were only a few doors away. Someone must have recruited someone there. But what the boss said resounded in my head again.. We’re not there to investigate or judge them..
It never ceases to amaze me how many Thai people want to live in America and how far they would go to get the precious green card and the entailing US citizenship. My boss always said that Thailand is only good for you if you are loaded. I am not convinced by the statement but I am sure it rings true to many Thai people who have a hard time making ends meet. Most Thai people have no idea that life is hard everywhere and that you need to earn what you have. They think it will always be easy and comfortable. So be mindful when a Thai girl professes her love to you way too soon. She might just see you as a ticket to that green card.. the Holy Grail..
That's a really fascinating piece into the mindset of Thais in the US.