I’m referring to the intial review stage, but there are several hurdles before that, such as the medical exam, the reams of paperwork, and the frantic scramble to raid your savings (and your parents’, brothers’, godchildren’s – jk) once you realise how much this is all going to cost you. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are already enough horror stories floating around on the interwebz about how one little mistake on a form can signal a slow and painful death for your case ; it is, after all, perjury to submit any incorrect info or withold any info on those forms, but if you haven’t the foggiest how to even fill them out, how are you supposed to know what info boxes apply to you?
Getting over that pre-hurdle…um…pothole involved getting a lawyer. Luckily I live in a small city, not quite a suburb, so I was able to secure the help of quite possibly the best lawyer on the planet. And I could tell from the moment I met her that it was (legal) love at first sight. She had a great personality and was patient with all of the problems that kept flying in my face, and even though getting to the filing stage was a gruelling process, she met the pre-pothole hurdles (I should really stop using this metaphor… but I won’t) head-on.
This is why shopping around for a lawyer is key. If you had the same non-immigrant status as I did (visitor), then you can’t work or study, so what else do you have to do? Get out the yellow pages or search on Google if you have to, make some phone calls, jot everything down (including fees) and reserve all your judgement for that initial consultation. I made the mistake of attaching myself to what I thought was the nearest lawyer, only to realise that I would have to take a train and walk 20 minutes (or take a $25 cab) to get to her. The first roadblock we hit, she had no idea what to do, and kept my retainer after I asked her to submit a final accounting of her hours. Judging by her tacky Jersey Shore-inspired wardrobe, I was guessing she had already blown it on Ed Hardy or something. This new lawyer? She steamrolled that roadblock.
The other issue was the medical exam. Never before have I seen so many ways to remove a hopeful yearning to breathe free on just one form. If you had syphilis, HIV [now changed], TB – you better be on the next boat home. As you might have guessed, I come from England, and the one stumbling block we had here was the fact that as a child (and like all English children), my immunisation shots included TB, but the vaccination they use produces a false positive in US TB testing. Sadly, a false positive is treated like a true positive, so I had to go through the motions of getting (and paying for) a chest X-Ray just to prove what the receptionist and technicians already knew based on my immunization records. Luckily my old lawyer hadn’t opened the results (they give you one copy and one sealed for your lawyer/USCIS) so I was good to go.
So I was incredibly prepared, and the green landing card I’d filled out on the plane before I landed in the US was still attached to my passport (if I had lost that, it would have been a little over $300 to get a copy. So save everything). All that we had to do was fill out tax info so that my husband could petition for me. That was the final stumbling block, because my husband didn’t meet the income requirements. But my lawyer tackled that problem and I found a co-sponsor willing to file for us. Problem solved!
Back to that first official hurdle – the initial review. Basically you know you’re there once you get a letter notifying you of your biometrics appointment. This is where they take fingerprints…for some reason. I don’t know why.
I got there over an hour early, and saw a rather stern-looking sign on the tiny front door saying:
NO CELL PHONES
I knew about the first two (which was why I had to leave my dear netbook at home, despite being alone and wanting to make a wi-fi/work day of it in Boston), but standing there in the bitch-slapping wind and cold with the remainders of my egg-white flatbread and iced (yes, iced) coffee was making me curse the fact that the notice said nothing about food being forbidden. Food? Really? What am I going to do with this congealed piece of eggy-veggie-cheesy goo? I highly doubt you can fashion any kind of weapon from anything bought at Dunkin Donuts. But, whatever. After inhaling my coffee and vacuuming down my flatbread I hustled on in, only to be immediately confused.
A security guard/receptionist called me towards her and gave me a form to fill out. She kept checking on me as I was only one of three people there, and I told her I didn’t know what to put for “Race”, because the only options were “American Indian/Native American”; “Black”; “Hispanic”; “White”; “Asian/Pacific Islander”, neither of which applied to me, because apparently, in the US, “Asian” really just means “South-East Asian” or “Pan Asian”. This is how our conversation went:
Me: I don’t know what race to put. In England I’d be considered Asian, but that just means SE Asian here.
Her: Well, you look more white to me.
Me: (passive-aggressively smiling): I’m definitely not whi-ite…I’m Asian Indian.
Her: Well, put Indian then.
Me: [thinking – that’s Native American Indian, dumbass] Uh, thanks…
And the irony of that situation? That woman was Hispanic. Jesus Christ! The other (friendlier) receptionist had to guess my height and weight (because I had no idea), and kindly probably overestimated the former and underestimated the latter. Finally, the fingerprinting went well, despite the fact that my skin was so dry and my circulation so bad that the technician had to constantly dab water on my fingertips and roll my fingers on the pad to produce some kind of sign that I was medically alive. At one point she apologised for almost breaking my finger, but she was good-natured throughout the whole thing and laughed at my disappointment that they didn’t use messy, fingerprinting ink anymore. Now how was I supposed to make people think I was playing awesome detective games? Lasers don’t leave cool, smudgy marks all over your hands.
I was back at the train station before my scheduled appointment time and already craving another coffee. I was already feeling like an American.