The Journey to Citizenship – The Hard Ending
In my previous story about my Thai wife’s road to citizenship, The Easy Beginning, our fearless heroine and her feckless protector, were preparing to face the vaunted US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) or Immigration, for her interview to receive her permanent residency.
We had gathered all of our paperwork and photographs for the interview and we were now sitting in a large waiting area. A young and friendly officer came out and called my wife’s name. We followed her into an office and sat down on a couch opposite the officer. She has a warm smile and an easygoing manner. Over the next hour, she asked us questions and asked for documents which we readily provided, including some that were not listed on the form (thank you, my attorney, you more than earned your fee). For those readers who may ask why having all paperwork in order is important, you must realize that if you are missing one piece of information, it may take months to get a new appointment. Lucky for us, everything was in order and we actually started to relax.
Then the officer said everything was in order except for one small item. She noticed that my wife received her divorce from a Thai consulate and as the state of Virginia does not recognize these divorces, we would have to go back to the state of California where we were married and get a judge to produce another divorce document. My wife gave me a concerned look and I sat silent as the gears in my mind spun wildly as I tried to figure out what all this meant.
Catching myself in mid-spin, I told the officer we were not married in Virginia but in California. Well, she said, her voice becoming a bit more edgy, that doesn’t matter; this immigration office is in Virginia. Now my voice lost its friendly tone as I told her that since Immigration was a federal agency, what state we were married in should not matter. Now the officer was back on her heals as I reminded her that we had received a marriage license from California and hence, met the requirements for marriage. Now the young officer was in full retreat. She said she would have to get a clarification from her supervisor and left the office. I explained what was happening to my concerned wife. When I finished she let out hushed “crazy or what” statement. So the American Immigration system is even confusing to someone who has lived their entire life in corrupt Thai society.
When the officer returned, she had in tow a larger and older woman I suspected was the all-knowing supervisor. Neither of them looked happy. Without a hello or an introduction, the larger woman proceeded to tell us the same line as before: consulate divorces were not recognized in Virginia. I repeated my earlier arguments. Now the mood got ugly so I tried another tactic to lessen the tension. Look, I said, don’t all the states have different waiting periods after a divorce before you can remarry; Nevada has no waiting period, Virginia 6 months, etc. If we were married in Nevada, you would still accept our marriage, right? Now I had the advantage again but overgrown supervisor would not yield completely. The farthest she would go is I had to produce a letter that showed where in California law consulate divorces were accepted. End of interview. My wife started to panic a little, thinking I was disrespectful and that was why we did not get a PR or green card as it’s called here in the States. I told her not to worry, we had a good lawyer. In fact, we had a couple of good lawyers.
When we got home, I immediately called our immigration attorney and told him what happened. This very cool Japanese-American was just incredulous. He never in his many years of immigration law had ever heard of a request like this. When he regained his composure, he admitted he was not sure how to respond, as this was not his specialty in the law. He said what we needed was a lawyer who knew marital law. Like a divorce attorney I asked? Exactly he said. A couple of minutes later, I was talking to my divorce attorney; a pretty sharp guy who saved a lot of my financial resources during my divorce. I explained the situation to him and he, like our immigration attorney, had to vent for a few minutes before he regained his composure. He said that there had been, since the Constitution was written, the law of comity, which means that certain contracts and rights in one state, like marriage, convey to all others. He said he could produce a very complete letter on this with about a 2-3 hour effort or as I calculated in my head, US$800. I agreed and he said to pick up the document in a few days.
The document my attorney produced was a lesson in humbly telling someone that they are complete idiots. Lots of flowery language and copies of documents that Immigration has seen many times, but in the end, this 50 page package was worth every penny. Although the Immigration officer told me to mail this to them, I imagined the package going to the bottom of a long stack of paper on someone’s desk. But, I remembered that the Immigration security officers were not very discerning as to why people were coming into the office so I hatched a bold plan. I brought my wife’s interview letter along with the package from the lawyer to the Immigration office. I showed the security officers the letter and swore that the interviewing officer wanted me to bring this in personally. They were a skeptical lot but yielded to my desperate look. I breezed past the receptionist, assuring her I knew where I was going, and planted the paperwork on the officer’s desk. I left the building without incident. But when two months more had passed and still no word on my wife’s Green Card, I faxed off a letter to my Congressman pleading the worst kind of hardship at the hands of the evil gatekeepers of America. Less than a month later, my wife’s Green Card arrived in the mail and all was right with the world.
Five months later life got complicated again. My wife’s father in Thailand was very ill and was maybe seeing his last days. My wife asked if there was any way we could move back to Asia so she could be closer to her father. I sent a few emails to some friends in Singapore and lo and behold, they made me a nice job offer for an ASEAN position based in Bangkok. I would be paid in Thai baht but at close to 400,000 per month, my math showed I would be doing better than my current position in the US. We were all set to go when our immigration attorney brought some sad news; if my wife left now she would forfeit her Green Card and would have to start the entire process again when we returned. It seems she did not have real permanent residency, only semi-permanent residency for two years after the card was issued. This sort of government double-talk gave us pause and a few days later I called my friends in Singapore thanking them for the offer. My wife was very sad, as was I and my bank account, but she was heartbroken when her father passed two months later. For our immigration laws, Ronald Reagan was right, government isn’t the solution; it is the problem.
In the last 2½ years, during which my wife received her permanent Green Card without any hassle, she had to go to another Immigration office for her fingerprints no less than three times. By now, we were used to this trip and planned it so we could have an early lunch at Starbuck’s on the way home. Now, by pure happenstance, I was googling some nonsense when I discovered that my wife was eligible to apply for citizenship. I double and triple checked it and by God it was true. I quickly downloaded the form, filled it out, had the wife sign it, and attached a check for $500. Shortly after Obama was elected President and very much under the usual six months this process normally took, we received a notice that my wife was invited to take the citizenship interview and test in January 2009. I guess some Immigration employees were eager to please the new boss, whose Father was probably harassed by a previous generation paper-pushers and comity doubters. President Obama, you are welcome to reproach some of our current enemies but show no mercy on those who have unnecessarily stood in the way of good people trying to become good citizens.
Around the middle of this month, my wife decided that it was about time she started to study for her citizenship interview. This is really more than an interview; it consists of a written and verbal test on American history and government, and about the many items on the form she filled out on her application. This form contained questions like “have you ever been a member of a group that wanted for forcefully take over a government”. She didn’t understand this so I just told her to memorize the answer “no”, forgetting, of course, her sympathy for the PAD party. To prepare the students for the test, the USCIS was more organized in this effort. They had a nice booklet at their office with the 100 questions that would be part of the interview with answers and a little background information. With a little digging on their web site, I found some cue cards that you could download and print, which I did.
My wife decided to study this material like any good Thai student would; sitting alone in a room and going through the material by rote. I knew this wouldn’t work as she had no context in which to remember the answers. Even though she was a good student in university, she barely knew her own country’s history and government. So I invaded her privacy and volunteered to explain some of the questions. She agreed and soon we had a number of lively sessions of learning. She was an eager student and was amazed at some of the side stories of American history, like Lincoln freeing the slaves (“he could no that?”). After we had discussed at length all the questions, she started back on her solitary study of the questions and answers. Within a few days of the interview, she was scoring 100% every time I tested her. She beamed with pride. Still, she would have to do the interview by herself and this fact made for sleepless nights.
Two days before the interview, I received an email from our attorney saying no matter what the interview notice said to bring, we should bring our entire file just in case they asked for something weird. By now, this file was three inches thick. Also, one of her friends said we needed to bring two more passport photos. I re-read the notice and told my wife that this requirement was not on this form. She looked worried. Then the day before the interview, I was re-reading the USCIS web site again and there it was, a small blurb saying we should bring passport photos. No wonder illegal immigrants are afraid to get into the system; it has so many “gotchas” and stupid rules it would try the patience of Gandhi. We hurriedly went down to the drug store to get the photos.
The appointment the next day was at 2 PM. Still, my wife was up early and three hours before, started slowly primping for her interview, after which, she looked like a bright and perky Thai office girl. She insisted we leave one hour before the interview even though it only took 20 minutes to get there. No worries, I had all day off from work. We went through security and were directed to a large waiting room. An hour later, all the while she was clutching my hand, an officer called her name and in she went. The notice said the interview could take up to two hours so I settled in for a long wait. But 20 minutes later she came out with that big smile which originally captured my heart. She had passed but would have to return early the next morning for her swearing in ceremony. She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the door. She was eager to get out of there in case they changed their mind.
We again arrived early at the immigration office the next day. I was unsure what this ceremony would be like. There were conflicting stories from her friends. In any case, I wanted to get pictures. Normally, the security officers won’t even let you take hand phones into their office, so I was not sure how to get my camera in. I decided to just try it. When I went through security they barely noticed the camera. As it turned out, cameras were allowed for the oath ceremony. We were shown to another large waiting area along with all the other soon-to-be citizens. They were mostly non-whites, some of the women wore scarves, but as far as I could tell, and I do travel around the world a bit, there was no one predominate country. They were literally from all parts of the world in equal numbers. We were all waiting to receive the certificate of citizenship and after that; we went to another large room. Here, the new citizens sat in the front and family in the back. As we waited, a screen show with music played. One of the songs was “God Bless America”. I wondered how the Muslims and the Buddhists in the room liked that, or even if they cared; I know my wife didn’t. After everyone was in, a very friendly set of citizenship gatekeepers arrived. Soon the ceremony began and cameras started flashing. In 30 minutes it was all over. My wife was now a citizen of the greatest debtor nation in the world.
No matter how cynical or jaded I was during this whole process, I really was moved by all the excitement and smiling faces I saw during the ceremony. Everyone in the room was having a good time and speaking to strangers like they were old friends. I took a lot of pictures of my wife and even held the camera for some of her fellow new citizens. On the drive home I speculated on why there was so much happiness in the room. Were the lives of these new citizens going to change for the better, would they have more option in life, could they now get better jobs? Or were they just so happy they would never have to deal with our Immigration system even again. I wasn’t sure but I believed the latter reason produced more than a few smiles in the room. It certainly did for me.