Love for a country, and a key for entry
Column printed in Flaunt Magazine Issue 164
America wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to go to Australia and roam through the whole continent, explore every beach and every city. I was 21, a fresh graduate from Bordeaux, France. My plan was to experience life in another country, one where I could also practice the language I majored in at school. But in my level and domain of study—Journalism—there were only two options available; Dublin or Los Angeles. French people have always had this love/hate relationship with America. Maybe we just love to hate you. I certainly do enjoy calling you out on your politics, lack of welfare, broken education system, and your obsession with weapons. And you willfully admit that you have a hard time with your country’s history and government.
But, it would be an utter and blatant lie if I tried to deny I’d never dreamed of California, as cliché as it is, and as much as I hate being cliché. I remember being 13, I used to write fiction every night before going to bed, and inevitably the story was set in Los Angeles. I don’t think it was actually a conscious choice, but from the first time I heard about this city, it seemed like everything was leading up to it. Los Angeles was somehow the cultural center of everything I’d ever been interested in. I had this image I had created of California in my mind, formed through Paul Thomas Anderson movies, Thomas Pynchon books, and Beach Boys songs. When one wants to capture oh-so-sunn California in a movie, they simply film the scene during golden hour and it instantly generates that inimitable warm feeling. And so that’s how I pictured California in my head—kissed by this yellow light all day long, stuck in a constant golden hour state. There is a mysterious attraction that seems to bring people to this city. Not many are actually from LA, and it’s always interesting to know why someone chose to leave their origin state or even their country to settle here.
I think what people find in California is “a sense of experimentation and a sense of openness—openness to new possibilities.” I hate to quote Steve Jobs but this one rings true. As a foreigner, though, the dynamic we enter once we’ve finally reached the Golden State is quite different from that of an American citizen. The pressure of the visa and the deadline of our stay constantly hovers over our heads. How much can you enjoy something, or how much will you let yourself enjoy something that you know is probably not going to last? You can sense this pressure when you meet another foreigner—one of the first things they’ll ask you is what kind of visa you are on, and if you plan on staying. If your answer to the latter is yes, they usually inquire about your relationship status and follow up very quickly by asking if the person you’re seeing is American. But what they are really asking is: Are you going to get married to get the green card? You’d be lying if you said you hadn’t thought about it. I mean, just look at the other options.
Getting sponsored? I’m going to speak for all foreigners when I say this is the option we all wish would work out. It’s also the one which has the reputation to be impossible to achieve. The job market is a mess at the moment, especially if you work in the arts. This option would imply that you find a job in your field. Good luck! Then, you convince the person who hired you that you are irreplaceable, and that they should sponsor you at all cost (between $2,000 and $6,500). The employer then has to justify hiring a foreign employee when they could have hired a US citizen. Aside from leaving many jobs out of the question, how do you even prove that someone from Spain is better at their job and better for their company than anyone in America? And even if this didn’t already discourage the employer from sponsoring a foreign employee, more often than not the amount the employer has to pay is deducted every month from the employee’s salary. And all this only allows you to work in the U.S. legally for up to three years. There are also usually more applications filed than visas available, so they pick applications at random.
Another option also leaves people’s fates rests in the hands of an annual lottery: the infamous Green Card Lottery. This is to me the option that is most representative of American culture. You can win your citizenship, just like you can win a toy out of a cereal box! It’s funny that the one country famously known for being difficult to enter and stay is also the one where you can get citizenship at random. Though when you think about it, it does make sense that the nation where more than anywhere else in the world people believe in faith, destiny, and dreams would allow you to win your citizenship this way.
You usually enter the Lottery at the end of October and are only asked a total of 14 questions. 14 questions, including your name, date and place of birth, marital status, level of education, and a picture, is all it takes to potentially obtain permanent residence. No wonder the Green Card Lottery has entered the realm of myth among expats. 100,000 people move on past the initial application. You then have to present yourself for an interview and explain why you deserve to stay in the U.S. to a jury. Only 50,000 participants out of 22.4 Million (2017 official data) actually “win” the lottery each year.
By now you get the point. Still, some people will stop at nothing to ‘make their dream come true,’ as you like to say here. Which leaves us with our last option: the Green Card Marriage. This seems like a popular option; we all know someone—or know someone that knows someone—that has been involved in a green card marriage. Some people are ready to pay from $10,000 to $20,000 for someone to marry them, some people marry good friends that are just willing to help, and some people even fall in love! A couple of weeks ago I met with a woman I’ll call “C” who helped a Muay Thai fighter from Turkey here on a working visa to get a green card. At the beginning it was just a paid arrangement, but somewhere along the way they started dating for real.
They understood that they were in love with each other after realizing that they couldn’t find the unique chemistry they shared in anybody else. “I thought chemistry would grow with time but it doesn’t,” C told me. “M and I have really good chemistry, and we had it from the moment we met. At first I was fighting it. I thought he was too much work.” After a moment of reflection, she added: “I think he is good for my life, for me.” C and M got married in a little chapel in East LA. She was wearing a Saree, a traditional Indian wedding dress, and had done her makeup herself. She was relaxed and excited on the day of the wedding and thought it would be good practice for when she does get married. She didn’t realize that this was actually going to be her real wedding. Somehow, in the intimacy of the chapel, while they were standing in front of each other, hands interlacing, something happened. “When we were looking into each other’s eyes, and saying the vows, it felt very real. When you’re standing up there and saying these things, it’s hard to pretend.” The ceremony turned out to be so romantic that C doesn’t feel like they need to do it again. But, instead of getting divorced after M obtains his green card, they’re going to have a celebration with family and friends.
A Green Card Marriage is a common but not an easy solution, as the process is very long and costly. You start by filling out a couple of forms which require you to provide as many documents as possible in order to prove the legitimacy of the marriage—marriage license, proof that you live under the same roof, joint bank account statement, pictures of the couple with family and friends. “It was almost like a full time job for him to fill all the paperwork,” says C. Last comes the green card interview, which takes place in front of an officer who will determine if the marriage seems legitimate by asking about the couple’s relationship history, as well as their daily activities and future plans together. The questions are very specific. You might know the famous “Which color is your spouse’s toothbrush?” The night before the interview, C thought it would be smart to spend the evening together, and on the day of the interview, the only question the officer asked was: “What did you do last night?” But, after interviewing them together, and then separately, and even though they had actually spent the night together, the officer still had doubts. Their stories had the same basic narrative, but he used a couple different words than she did. They had gone grocery shopping, picked up some yogurt, and watched a movie. He did not mention the yogurt. That tiny detail could have been a reason for the officer to rule this marriage illegitimate.
For M, this was a last resort solution. “He didn’t want to do all this. But the immigration services were literally already knocking at his door, trying to deport him.” M had already been living in the U.S. for five years. In five years you can finally call people “friends,” in five years you have also probably established yourself in the field you work in, made good connections, and begun a career. Going back to your origin country after five years means you have to start all over, back to zero. I couldn’t imagine having to do this all over again. I think that to me, but also to most foreigners with an expiration date dictated by a visa, the answer to the question we’re being asked every day— whether we want to stay or not—is ultimately a decision we’d like to make ourselves. We want to leave when we feel like it, when we are ready, when it’s our own decision, and not because we are forced to by law. And sometimes that means you have to tie the knot.