We’ve been hearing much news of a migration crisis lately, as wave after wave of undocumented immigrants, especially children, come across the United States’ southern border. Of course, immigration, both legal and illegal, is not new, and whatever the mode and motivation for entry, when people want or need to stay here permanently, it comes down to getting a green card. It will not surprise you to learn that this can be a difficult and costly process.
A green card, which may or may not actually be green, is a Permanent Resident Card. To have one is to be able to remain in the United States indefinitely and, most importantly, to be able to work here. Permanent Resident status is also the first step toward full citizenship, which is more advantageous than mere residency because it allows you to vote and run for office (but not President!), and protects you against deportation in the event that you are convicted of a felony. (It is a big, crucial first step. After you get to be a resident, citizenship is comparatively easy.)
It is probably too plain to mention that the reasons why people find themselves wanting or needing green cards are numerous and varied. We are all most likely aware of the so-called dreamers, people whose parents brought them here when they were quite young and who have grown up in the United States, speaking English and generally leading the lives of ordinary Americans, but without the benefit of legal status. There are also plenty of immigrants who came of their own volition and have simply built lives here that they don’t want to abandon: jobs, houses, relationships, children, studies. Further along, I’ll talk with J., who came here for college and graduate school and found herself wanting to keep studying and to stay with her American boyfriend. Her path was complicated but relatively smooth and low cost. That is not always the case.
The expenses associated with getting a green card come in three general categories: official fees paid to the government, professional fees (lawyers, passport photos, etc.), and black market costs (fake documents, fake marriages, scams of all sorts). I talked to some immigration lawyers and some immigrants I know to get a sense of what these costs can look like.
First, the official costs. A green card application costs a total of $1,490. (If I were in charge, it would be $1,492, because government bureaucracy needs a little whimsical irony.) That is definitely not nothing, but Danielle Briand and Yazmin Rodriguez, immigration lawyers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who were good enough to give me some orientation in this realm, told me that the immigration service is pretty good about giving people waivers for financial hardship. Of course, there are many many permutations and combinations of fees you might have to pay (here is a daunting pdf of all of them). With the cost of possible appeals, ancillary forms and fees that different circumstances might require, and medical examination and mailing costs, it would be easy to drop $2,000 just on government fees.
(One immigrant I spoke to came as a child from the Soviet Union, and both of his parents were granted residency right away [there was an arrangement for Soviet Jews in the late ’70s]. Upon arriving, his parents dutifully embraced American customs by getting divorced, which they did before working out their child’s immigration status. At the time, there was no form for divorced permanent residents applying jointly for their minor child, so they both filled out identical applications as single, divorced parents. This proved too complicated for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which “shelved” the application, and had our poor protagonist and his parents coming back every six months to fill out a new form, pay another few hundred dollars, and wait some more. This continued for 15 years, until the young immigrant in question had the good fortune to be college roommates with the son of a well-connected politician in Washington. Then, suddenly, all it took was one phone call.)
After the government fees, there are the legal fees. Briand and Yazmin, who use a “low-bono” sliding scale schedule of fees, told me that it’s not uncommon for lawyers with standard fee schedules to charge $3,000 for a straightforward green card application (e.g., a spousal application). The cost can quickly go up if there are complications, like criminal convictions, the prior use of false documents, or anything else unusual. She told me that $6,000 to $10,000 is common.
And then there are the black market costs. The green card application process can take a long time, and people often have to eat while waiting for their papers. Many immigrants I’ve met have resolved this through the acquisition of fake documents. (Note: as an attorney, I emphatically do not recommend this. But people do it. A lot.) At their best (and most expensive), fake papers can be quite useful. From talking to immigrants, I have learned that there is a man in a certain Central American capital who, for $6,000, will get you a U.S. passport with a name and photo of your choosing that will scan as real on border crossing computers. In New York City, $150-$200 will get you work documents connected to a real Social Security number. $75 will get you a color copy on thick paper that looks like a Social Security card as long as you don’t look closely enough to see that it is actually a “Social Segurity” card.
Another costly, sometimes effective option is the sham marriage. Talking to Briand and Rodriguez and various immigrants, I’ve heard numbers ranging from $3,000 to $15,000 for this “service,” which involves getting legally married to a U.S. citizen who then applies for permanent residency for the immigrant spouse. (To be clear, Briand and Rodriguez do not and would not arrange such a thing! They has talked to immigrants who looked into it or did it before coming to them for legal help.) Usually (but not always), sham marriages are arranged within a given immigrant community, since the whole point is to convince the government that the marriage is real and that’s harder to do when the spouses don’t speak the same language. The spousal interview can be very probing, so usually the ersatz spouses live together and try to get to know each other ahead of time.
Like all black market options, the sham marriage brings great risk of abuse. The citizen spouse holds great power over the immigrant spouse, which opens the arrangement up to exploitation. If the ruse is revealed, the immigrant not only won’t get a green card, but will likely get deported and never be able to apply for entry again, and might see jail time. One immigrant I talked to was connected by family members to a citizen willing to marry him (for a price, of course). It turned out that the citizen actually fell for him and was more than willing to make the marriage, ahem, “legit.” The immigrant, though, couldn’t stand his new wife—not only was he uninterested in romance with her, he couldn’t bear to be in the same room with her. His family urged him at least to live in the same apartment with her so they would know each other well enough to pass the spousal interview, but he resolutely refused. By dumb luck, he got an interviewer who was either generally cursory or happened to be in a hurry that day, and it all worked out.
In addition to the exploitative fake spouse and the overpriced “Social Security” card, immigrants are subject to a host of other gray market services that can squeeze them for cash and get them no closer to permanent legal residency. NPR’s Latino USA recently reported on non-lawyers offering legal help with promises of residency, which usually result in nothing but money lost.
The most common green card story I’ve encountered is of the legitimate couples who hasten marriage for immigration purposes—a decision that is totally legal. A good friend of mine in high school did this (he was the citizen spouse). That marriage ultimately ended in divorce (well after his wife became a citizen), as did the marriage of another friend, who wed her live-in boyfriend at the time so she could become a citizen, and ultimately got divorced for ordinary, divorcey reasons, many years later. J., another friend who went this route and who remains happily married, agreed to talk with me by email about the process:
First, the basic set-up question: where are you from, and how did you come to be seeking legal permanent residency in the good old U.S. of A.?
I’m an international graduate student, and for the better part of the last decade, I’ve been living in the U.S. on a student visa. My partner (now husband) was born in the U.S. Beginning last year, we knew my visa would expire soon, and I needed to find a way to stay in America so we could stay together. A work visa didn’t seem feasible for me at this stage. I wasn’t planning to try for an academic job, and apart from universities, the common wisdom that I knew was that only well-established companies and institutions will typically sponsor you for a work visa. My training had no immediate path to either.
My partner and I were content with our relationship the way it was, and weren’t planning to marry so soon. In fact, we wanted to buck the trend and never get officially married. But wanting to stay together and knowing what that in this country, a person cannot simply sponsor their girlfriend or boyfriend for a green card, we had to get married. So we did it in the most minimalistic way possible, at our local city hall. When the green card officer later asked us why we had decided to get married, we said exactly this. It worried me a little that we might sound as though we married for the green card only, which a big no-no. But apparently, admitting you married for the green card is fine as long as you emphasize that you needed the green card to stay together. In other words, make it clear that love, not immigration, was your top goal.
By the way, I’d rather not say what country I’m from. Suffice it to say that as far as green cards and U.S. foreign policy are concerned, I think that my fellow countrymen generally have it easier applying for an American green card than people from, say, Iran, but maybe not as easy as people from Canada.
Do you remember what all you costs were? I assume there were fees to be paid to Immigration directly. There must also have been related costs – lawyers, notaries, photos, certified copies of documents, guaranteed shipping. Can you give me a rough breakdown of all the money you spent on the process?
Sure! First, let me just say how intimidated I was by the whole process at first. I’d heard all kinds of terrifying stories about legit couples who’d been delayed or outright denied, whether because of their divergent backgrounds or because the foreign spouse had once belonged to an leftist party in their home country that happened to be called a “communist” party (one USCIS form actually still asks you if you’ve ever belonged to a communist or Nazi party). Of course, the reasons for rejection or delay of green card applications are varied, case-dependent, and ultimately best known to the U.S. immigration regime itself. Immigration frauds are legion in the U.S., and so it is not surprising, even if frustrating, that applicants are assumed to be fraudulent until proven honest. But my case, I’ve been told, is relatively simple. All other things being equal, foreign graduate students studying in the U.S. and married to American graduate students of roughly the same age and life trajectories are generally trusted to be in a real relationship.
If my partner were a middle-aged American businessman and I, a 22 year-old foreign national, things would have looked different. Ditto if we were an Indian-American trying to bring over a spouse from India whom they had barely met, or if I’d been from a super-high-immigration country, or one with a particularly fraught relationship with the U.S.
By the way, good news: as of last year’s demise of DOMA, same-sex partners, too, can apply for both green cards and temporary visas through their American spouses, as long as they were legally married in a country that recognizes same-sex marriage. This is really, really huge. Before then, they could not.
Now, onto the labor involved. The most time-consuming part of the green card process is proving the authenticity of your relationship with your American spouse. Apart from rock-solid evidence like birth certificates of children born to you together (which we don’t yet have), U.S. immigration also cares in particular about your joint financial lives. This means a joint bank account, jointly owned property, joint lease, joint assets, and so on. The assumption is that the higher the financial stake you have in your relationship, the more serious it is – an odd assumption, I think, given that so many married American couples don’t have joint bank accounts! But so it goes; it matters. And the more of these financial intertwinings you have, the better.
Financial proof, one Chicago lawyer told me, is considered hard evidence, whereas third-party affidavits attesting to the legitimacy of your relationship, or vacation photos together, are also necessary but often carry less weight. The key here is “often.” There are fewer blacks or whites with immigration procedures than you might think; it’s all about weighing the entire application in context, and each officer’s personal judgement plays a key role. Still, I hear other countries may care less about joint financial assets. For example, a friend of mine from New Zealand, whose American husband recently got permanent residence there, told me that the Kiwis seemed to care less about joint assets than about joint vacation photos. They had even requested that she submit to them the transcripts of several years of emails and skype chats between her and her partner – a file several inches thick. I never had to submit anything like that to USCIS.
Our costs: predictably, immigration fees are expensive. We sent USCIS the obligatory forms I-130 ($420), I-485 ($985) and a biometrics fee ($85). In addition, we paid $275 for my obligatory medical examination, to prove I don’t have any communicable diseases or suffer from severe mental illness. This amount, though, we paid directly to our local doctor and not to USCIS. In addition, we paid $200 to a lawyer for a half-hour consultation to confirm some questions we had about our particular case.
On whether it helps to get a lawyer: A complicated question. Apart from our half-hour consultation, we didn’t want, and couldn’t afford, to hire a lawyer to do the entire thing for us. A kind university administrator hinted to me that anyone with a relatively straight-forward case who can read and write should be able to do this on their own, instead of paying a lawyer $5000 or more to do it for them. There are also helpful free online forums that you can turn to for guidance, like visajourney.com. But these are not officially sanctioned and many respondents are anonymous. It goes without saying that the quality of information presented there is variable. We generally chose to steer clear of them.
I should add here that personally, I’m not so sure that anyone who can read can also fill out the green card forms correctly without professional help. Despite being accompanied by extensive instruction booklets, the forms still have some irreducibly ambiguous questions, perhaps reflecting several different generations of bureaucratic obfuscation. And the green card government hotline notwithstanding, I believe there is very little useful, free, and credible help available to people in trouble-shooting ambiguous questions. When the stakes are so high, and when even a single error can mess up a person’s application or stall it by months or even years, this seems worrisome.
We were lucky: we are students, and our university’s international students’ office administrators were extremely helpful to us, for free. They sat with us for hours at a time, helping us to interpret the forms in the way the powers that be must have intended—and they knew it all. Without their help, we’d have made many mistakes. For instance, no amount of deductive reasoning or careful reading will enlighten you regarding whether a teaching assistanceship counts as employment according to U.S. immigration, or not. One of their forms implies that it does, but another form implies that it should not, since that would violate your existing student visa. And remember that any inconsistency in your application could delay it by months. Try to figure that one out without an experienced insider or a lawyer.
At the same time, keep in mind that even an expensive immigration lawyer is not a sure ticket to success. Immigration regulations, and their bureaucratic niceties, change often, and not all immigration lawyers are on top of the most minute changes. I am embarrassed to admit that several years ago, I paid a renowned American immigration lawyer $595 for a one-hour consultation regarding my visa status. His most important bit of advice, regarding whether immigration officials can revoke existing visas while another visa application is pending, ended up being wrong. Had I followed his advice, I would have not been able to return to the U.S. and complete my degree. Luckily, I listened instead to my university administrators, who disagreed with him. Months later, when I learned they were right, I emailed him politely to inform him of his error. He thanked me but did not apologize or, god forbid, offer a refund. I was relieved to be able to finish my degree, but mortified that I’d spent all that money for nothing.
Moral of the story: if you prefer to go through an immigration lawyer, and can afford to do so, then you might as well seek out multiple opinions on the tough questions, because immigration law is not cut and dried. Equally good lawyers may disagree, for instance, on how much it helps to have a joint bank account, or whether you can include your parents’ income account towards your own assets on your financial forms. They could both be right or wrong, depending on your particular case and the regional office where your application is going. Also, try to verify any vital piece of advice you get with additional sources of information, like government hotlines and websites, or company/university administrators with experience guiding people through this process. Finally, this is controversial, but if you can, seek out immigration lawyers who practice in high-immigration cities like NYC, Chicago, or San Francisco. Why? Because I’ve repeatedly been told – and have also personally experienced this – that big-city lawyers handle more cases regularly, and therefore are often more likely to know the latest minute changes in bureaucratic procedure. The most banal details matter. Finally, don’t make the mistake I made: don’t go to immigration lawyers who are so famous that they effectively handle few cases on a regular basis and don’t know the lay of the land anymore, even though they claim to.
Anyway, so apart from the forms, the lawyer consultation, and the medical exam, here are our additional costs:
1. Fedexing our application package to USCIS – $60
2. Treating several friends to dinner for being so nice and writing us letters of support (it was a bit of a hassle for them, since they also had to get them personally notarized) – $200
3. Passport photos for us both – $40 (careful, they’re very picky about the dimensions. If you’re 1/8th of an inch off, they’ll make you redo them.)
4. Notarized and translated documents from my home country – $50
5. Birth certificates and marriage certificate copies – $90
6. A huge binder and 100 clear pockets for all our application documents – $10
7. Black and white and color printing of all our vacation photos and wedding photos – $20
Oh, one more thing. One form required my partner to prove he could support me financially on his own, so that I wouldn’t become a burden on the U.S. economy (my feminist self raged at this at first). Surprisingly, the amount of money he had to prove he possessed was low enough that his student stipend alone covered it for both of us – it’s actually close to the poverty line, which varies by state.
All things included, then, we paid about $2,433 for our greencard journey. That’s a lot for us! And it would have been a lot more had we hired a lawyer. By the way, I’m not including here our $2,000 wedding celebration costs, since my parents paid some of that and we would have had one even without the green card, though probably at a later date.
Tell me about the money you wasted on the process. Scams, consultants who you could have done without, fees paid to file the wrong document, etc.
Overall, the whole process was smooth and glitch-free for us, luckily. It all took less than 6 months from start to finish, and I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re both students and that we had good help filling out our forms. I don’t think we wasted much money in the process, unless you count the $200 on dinners for friends a waste… We also didn’t hire a lawyer to do the whole thing for us, but we’ve heard of other couples getting expensive lawyers who did shoddy work. I will admit, though, that the $200 we paid for a consultation we could have probably done without, although we couldn’t have known that in advance. Overall, then, our costs all feel pretty necessary.
On second thought… we spent more money on our wedding than we would have otherwise, because we were brainwashed by some friends into thinking we needed snazzy wedding photos and nice clothes to convince the supposedly traditional visa officers we were a legit couple. I now believe we could gotten married in jeans and sweaters and the visa officers probably would not have cared, but there you have it.
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.