United States Permanent Resident Card (form I-551)
"But it's not green!" - Kevin Weedon
That's right, the green card is not green, it's a yellowish-white. Mind you, it isn't an unpleasant or dirty yellowish, it's almost exactly the colour of ivory piano keys, that sort of comforting hue that I associate with pub pianos. It used to be green, back in the day when it was apparently known as the Alien Registration Receipt Card, but in a series of attempts to prevent counterfeiting, it's undergone many, many changes, in more ways than the merely cosmetic. I am the proud owner of one of these, or rather, I'm the holder of it, as it grants me rights that can be rescinded by the government.
The USA, in common with most other countries, places limits on who can be within its borders, what they can do whilst there, and how long they stay. To simply visit the US from a friendly country like Britain, pretty much all one needs to do is get to the US and complete a form known as a visa waiver. This grants you the right to stay in the US for a limited time (currently three months), but it does restrict what you can do. It would be illegal to work, for example, and there are also other limits - the visit must be for tourism or business purposes, and if you have committed one of several crimes involving moral turpitude, you don't qualify. If for whatever reason you fall outside those criteria, you need to apply for one of a variety of other visas.
Then there is the thing about wanting to stay for longer. One can obtain visas for longer stays, each for a particular purpose, each with benefits and limitations. There are a bewildering variety of these, from work permits through extended stay visas to a "fiancé visa", granting permission to come into the US for the purpose of marriage.
When I first came over, following Christine's diagnosis with breast cancer, I flew in on a visa waiver, though we had been planning on my applying for the fiancé visa from the UK. The thing uppermost in my mind was to see her through the start of the treatment process, but when it became apparent that her treatment was going to be long and involved, we took legal counsel, got married and then applied to the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services to have my residency status changed from "visitor" to "permanent resident". As we celebrated our first monthiversary, I had slipped from being a legal visitor to being in a state that the Immigration Service would describe later as out of compliance, as though I were an appliance whose warranty had just expired.
I had to get back into a state of legal residence, and there is only one way to do that. You need to talk to the USCIS.
Immigration Services vs. DMV
There is, of course, a story behind this. There's paperwork, a lot of paperwork. And fees. The paperwork is sufficiently complex (not to mention occasionally arcane), and our need for me to stay sufficiently necessary, that we paid a lawyer to complete, check and submit the form on our behalf. There are, of course, a number of questions, and a lot of them are about any crimes committed, and whatnot. They need to know about every marriage, child, misdemeanor, whether I have been involved in acts of terrorism, genocide or torture. And, of course, whether I have used drugs or committed other acts of moral turpitude. It was this last one that caused us trouble. Not because we had, but that we didn't know what it meant. Then there was the fact that we have to swear that not only had we not committed AOMT, but that our lawyer had not. What the heck? He's a lawyer, what can I say?
Each of us had to collect various bits of paperwork. Birth Certificates, marriage licence (as well as previous marriage and divorce papers), tax documents, evidence that we were "financially co-mingled", utility bills and the list went on. Finally, fees paid and paperwork submitted, I had to submit to having my photograph and fingerprints taken, then we had the dreaded green card interview. Now you may have seen the film "Green Card', and the scene where they are memorising all the personal details about one another. Well, we sort of worried about that. Do I know what face cream she uses? Nope. Didn't then, don't now. My best answer would have been "something natural", maybe "Burt's Bees". Thankfully, that never came up. What did come up surprised me.
Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
Have you ever used drugs?
Did you inhale?
Only nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide.
Have you ever committed an act of moral turiptude?
Well, I doubt it, but I'm not clear what constitutes moral turpitude.
Just say "no".
(To Christine) Is your husband circumcised? This after she'd asked what other, tougher questioning went on. She blushed, prettily.
Apparently there are two kinds of interview, ours was the "lite" version. The hardcore alternative is where they split the couple up and hit them with identical questions, and compare the answers. They use that one if they are in any doubt about the validity of the marriage. Clearly, they believed that we were The Real Thing.
In the meantime, Christine had tried to renew the tags on her car (UK residents, think "tax disk"). This requires repeated visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles, armed with increasing volumes of paperwork, letters, forms and other trappings of bureaucracy. It seems that every time we took down what they'd asked for, they added another layer, until we had a wad of stuff over an inch thick. By comparison, dealing with the immigration paperwork was a doddle, and the stack thinner. We had a bet on as to which would arrive first - her tags or my green card. Thumbs-up to the USCIS, you beat the DMV by a knockout.
I recently applied to have the "conditional" status removed from my residency. Before yesterday, my staying here depended on my still being married to Christine. Yesterday, I received a letter saying that the I was a lawful Permanent Resident Alien in my own right.
Playing with a full deck
The card is really cool, by the way. Apart from the photo (which, on my original card, is quite dreadful) the front is pretty dull. Name, thumbprint and alien number. (That's right, I have an alien number, so just in case I ever feel over-welcome, they remind me that I'm an ALIEN. It's like Men in Back, only with fewer antennae.). The back is where it gets cool, and also thought-provoking. Firstly, there's a large area that looks like a hologram. At first sight, it appears dull - there's a standard-issue government warning that says "Void if altered. May be revoked...", then a very faint strip with name, alien number and photo, and finally, teeny, tiny images of all the US Presidents (43 of them!) and all the 50 state flags. I wonder, though, what other information might be recorded in here. There was an ugly rumour a while ago that They were considering an RFID chip and some hidden stored information. Betcha it's just that though - a wild rumour.
So I have this nice card. Trouble is, I have to carry the darned thing with me everywhere I go, according to the law. So driving, walking, putting out the rubbish, I am obliged to carry the thing. All this, despite the fact that only officials from Immigration Services and Border Control are authorised to ask for it. Driver's licence I can understand - if I am driving a car, the police need to be able to check that I can legally drive. But this little ivory thing I need to have stashed in my pyjamas, just in case.
So anyway, I have the card, whatever the colour. I have been living, working and paying taxes for a long time now. I have most of the benefits and responsibilities of being in America, and I see no reason right now why I should not stay here and enjoy both for a long time. So logically, the next thing is citizenship, which I can apply for in April 2009, given that I am married to a US citizen.
Watch this space, the US may soon be gaining another voting Democrat.