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Green Card, Golden Ticket

Posted on December 20, 2011
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Two weeks ago, Sebastian Doggart wrote about his battles to secure a working visa in the US. Now, he presses forward to snag permanent residency in California


From my ocean-view apartment in Santa Monica, I called my no-nonsense immigration lawyer Ralph Ehrenpreis. “I’m ready to fight for a Green Card.”

“Really?” he said. “Joining the army is one of the best ways to get it these days.”

He wasn’t joking. It was 2002, the war in Afghanistan was escalating, and military recruiters were travelling to poor border towns in Mexico and indigenous communities in Canada, using the promise of a Green Card to lure young people into the army.

President Bush expanded the recruitment drive later that year, signing an executive order to make military personnel immediately eligible for a Green Card. By 2003, the Pentagon reported 37,401 non-US citizens on active duty, most of them fighting with the incentive of US residency. President Bush visited a military hospital to hand over a Green Card to a teenage Mexican soldier whose legs had been blown off.

This policy would escalate when the US went to war in Iraq. The second soldier on the American side to die in Iraq was José Antonio Gutiérrez, a Guatemalan who crossed illegally into the United States at the age of 11 and later joined the Marines. He was killed from friendly fire, aged 22. As a reward for his sacrifice, the Bush Administration granted him posthumous citizenship. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the priest who oversaw Gutierrez’s funeral, commented: “There is something terribly wrong with our immigration policies if it takes death on the battlefield in order to earn citizenship.”

I had neither the guts nor the American patriotism to choose such a risky path. I asked Ralph if there was any other short-cut.

“If you invest a million dollars, and employ at least ten Americans, we can get you an EB-5 Green Card pretty much immediately.”

“The government’s actually SELLING Green Cards?” I gasped.

“Yes, but if an immigration official questions something about your background, they might not grant the EB-5, even though you’ve paid. And if your business fails within two years, you’ll lose both the Green Card and your million dollars.”

“Any cheaper options?” I begged.

Ralph pondered. “Might you have a US citizen girlfriend you could marry?”

I made a brief marital cost-benefit analysis of my current girlfriend, an aspiring actress who had recently revealed how she paid her bills: she sold her eggs to women who couldn’t have children themselves, at $5,000 per egg. “I don’t think we’re quite ready,” I sighed.

“Well, marriage remains the most efficient way,” Ralph shrugged.

Every English expat I befriended in Los Angeles had a horror story about Green Card marriages. There was Lara, a Hollywood make-up artist from Cheshire, who had married a gay American friend, only for the guy to discover his heterosexual desires and demand his droit de seigneur, forcing Lara to endure two years of Green-Card rape. Then there was a Canadian producer, Mary, who wed an Egyptian American for love, but fell out of love with him a year after applying for her residency. Mary grinned and bore him for another year, but one week before their Green Card interview, his strictly Muslim mother ordered her son to divorce her, on the grounds she had failed to provide him with a child. His no-show at the interview forced Mary to start all over again.

US immigration authorities became stingier about marriage Green Cards after 9/11. That changed the life of Katy, an American I met in San Francisco. She had married a Ghanaian man, who had been sent back to Africa to wait for a visa to enter the country. Their separation had lasted two years, at which point the man had despaired of seeing Katy again, and committed suicide.

“What about the Green Card lottery?” I asked Ralph. I was referring to the ‘diversity visas’ that the US government allocates every year to 55,000 lucky Golden Ticket winners. This is an extraordinary policy, akin to eugenics, where mysterious US Congressmen decide on which foreign countries should receive more representation in the American melting pot.

“You’re English,” Ralph scoffed, “they haven’t given an Englishman a diversity visa in ages.”

“But we’re supporting Bush in his wars. Doesn’t that give us some benefits?”

“Nope. Maybe there are too many of you. Maybe Tony Blair just isn’t a very good negotiator.”

It’s unclear how Congress decides what nationalities get thrown into the Great American Stew. The Irish have been a favorite ingredient, thanks to Irish-blooded Senator Ted Kennedy’s involvement in an overhaul of the immigration system after his brother’s assassination in 1963. Bizarrely, the policy today is that only the Northern Irish are eligible for the lottery, not the southern Irish, or the rest of the UK. In the recently announced 2012 lottery, the countries with the highest numbers of winners were Ukraine, Nigeria and Iran.

The weirdest perversity of the American immigration system is the policy towards Cuba. The USA is the promised land for many Cubans. Those who set out over the ‘sea of tears’ do so any way they can, not always successfully, like the man who tried to swim to Miami on a horse, and the one who attempted to row there on top of a 1953 Buick with the windows sealed. The biggest exodus occurred in 1980 when Fidel Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so. An estimated 125,000 Cubans, including Tony ‘Scarface’ Montana and practically all the island’s prison inmates, left in boats from the port of Mariel. In 1994, Fidel did it again. This time the mass departure took place using rubber tyres and makeshift rafts. A subsequent agreement with the US sets an annual quota for Cuban immigrants, decided by a lottery system. As part of the so-called “wet-foot, dry-foot policy”, Cubans are still automatically granted a Green Card as long as they reach dry land, hence the heart-breaking scenes of US coast guard officials pressure-hosing Cuban rafters to keep them off the beach.

But if you’re a Haitian, Mexican, or Brit and you step on American soil and are then detained by US officials, without a visa, you’ll be on the next boat back home – and on your dime too.

Putting aside my disappointment at not being Cuban or Iranian, I resumed the assault on friends and former colleagues to provide me with more testimonies, and worked harder to burnish my CV. Eventually, Ralph deemed the package acceptable, and submitted it.

There followed eighteen months of silence and uncertainty. If I committed any felony, or if I worked for any company other than my own, all would be lost.

In June 2003, Ralph called me to say that the newly formed Department of Homeland Security had agreed that I was a terrifyingly-named ‘alien of exceptional ability’ and had provisionally approved my Green Card application. I had an appointment in two weeks time for a final interview. Annoyingly, that would take place at the US Embassy in London, so I had to take unpaid leave to attend.

On the plane to the UK, I read through the package of instructions sent to me by Ralph. My attention settled, nervously, on a section about the medical exam I must undergo. Its purpose was to screen out immigrants with “a communicable disease of public health significance.”

My blood cooled.

I knew about this policy. It had been going on since 1894 when Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican Senator and advocate of “100 per cent Americanism”, defended the formation of the Immigration Restriction League. He thumped on a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species and condemned new European immigrants as “inferior peoples” who threatened “a perilous change in the very fabric of our race.” He was very specific on who he didn’t want to let in: “Let us have done with British-Americans and German-Americans, and so on, and all be Americans.”

As a result of policies that Cabot Lodge put in place, the first American that the huddled masses met on their arrival at Ellis Island was a doctor on the look-out for “loathsome diseases”. If the doctor diagnosed tuberculosis, he would chalk a ‘T’ on the back of the immigrant, who would be shipped back to the Old World. The same was true in the case of ‘F’ for Favus and ‘H’ for heart problems. A century later, it was another “loathsome disease” beginning with ‘H’ that the doctors were looking for – H for HIV.

It was been less than a year since I had my last HIV test – the sixth such ordeal I had had in the last fifteen years. I’d tried to practice safe sex since that last test, but the temptations of Tinseltown had led to a few lapses, including my now ex-girlfriend, the egg donor. They all started to haunt me, like the ghosts of Bluebeard’s wives.

As I prepared for my interview, I realized the stakes for this test were higher than they had ever been. I’d begun a relationship with an LA-based expat English producer that might even flourish into a long-term commitment. Maybe even a family. If I tested positive, that would be the end of that. I was on the verge of being given permanent residency in the USA. But according to the Consulate, “a positive test result will mean that you will not be eligible to receive a visa”. I might not even be allowed back in the country.

My first 48 hours back in London validated my decision to Ieave the city. A horrifically expensive cab ride into town. The annual ritual of watching Tim Henman lose at Wimbledon, now a national pathology called ‘Henmanguish’. A new child sex scandal on the front pages. Another story, about two Yorkshire-based restaurateurs who had been successfully passing off dog-food as chicken, was a terrifying indictment on the state of British gastronomy.

With these demons roaring around my brain, I turned up at 8:30am at a doctor’s office in Marble Arch. There was a queue of thirty other Green Card applicants all here for the same thing. For £200, we were stripped, x-rayed, prodded, and injected with the controversial MMR vaccine. Lastly, the nurse jabbed me with a hypodermic needle and, as I looked away and recited an ‘Our Father’, she extracted the deep red liquid whose T-cell count would determine my destiny.

Scared witless, I walked over to the US Consulate on Grosvenor Square. The building was surrounded by concrete blocks to prevent anyone ramming into it with a vehicles laden with explosives, as they had done the previous day to the UN building in Baghdad, killing the UN representative Sergio Viera de Mello. The flag above the consulate was at half-mast. I asked the security guard whether it had been lowered for the attack in Baghdad or for the suicide bombing in Israel that killed twenty people, also the day before.

“Neither,” he replied, “it’s for one of Our Troops who was killed.”

I was not about to enter a discussion about the ethics of flag-lowering. I passed through the metal detector, giving up my mobile phone (which could disguise a handgun), and went through to the waiting area. I handed over my applicant’s file, as fat as a phone book, to a receptionist.

“Wait over there til your medical results come through,” she ordered.

I sat down and went over my briefing notes a final time. It all seemed straightforward. I was not an obvious suspect for what seemed to be the Administration’s main anxiety, which read like a disaster movie logline: “an alien who seeks to enter the United States to engage in the overthrow of the government of the United States”. Ralph had reassured me the interview was a formality, and that the Green Card was in the bag. I reached into my bag and was about to take out my book, Stupid White Men by Michael Moore, but stopped, remembering the McCarthyite reception the director had got at the Oscars. Fearful of revealing my hopes for the overthrow of the Bush Administration, I left it inside.

To fill the next three hours of waiting, I listened to other immigration interviews taking place. I’d expected a wooden table and a single light-bulb, but the interviews were conducted, standing up, over a counter, in full earshot of the rest of the waiting room, by a corpulent, bored-looking official called Dana. Most of the interviews I heard were with fiancés of American citizens. What surprised me about these was where most of them had met their future spouses:

“You met over the Internet?” Dana asked one well-dressed Liverpuddlian in his early twenties.

“Yes, sir,” he replied nervously.

“You know, that’s the case with over three-quarters of our marriage visas. It’s amazing how marriage is changing.”

“Yes, sir,” the applicant replied.

I wondered, for a moment, whether I should have used as my own short cut.

At last, at 1pm, Dana dryly called my name. I stepped up to the counter, and he asked me, “Do you solemnly swear that what you are about to tell me is the truth.”

“I do.”

Suddenly, a public announcement boomed through the consulate: “The police have identified a suspicious package on the other side of Grosvenor Square. Stay away from windows until further notice.”

Two uniformed marines strode into the room and took up a squatting position, behind two filing cabinets looking out through the windows. How ironic, I thought to myself, to be blown up in the American embassy, just as I was being given the ticket to my new life!

Dana was unperturbed, “We’re a long ways from the window, so don’t you worry.”

He flicked through the five hundred pages of my application. “Looks like you’ve done some bad stuff,” he said casually.

My stomach tangled up, over the HIV test results.

“What do you mean, sir?” I asked.

“A lot of the TV shows you’ve made. Hollywood Vice. Gangland USA. Man, my wife would kill me if I watched that stuff!”

He grinned at me. I smiled back, weakly. He stamped a form, and handed it to me with a sealed manila package. “Okay, you need to give this to the immigration officers in Los Angeles.”

“So everything is okay, I mean… with the medical and everything?”

“You checked out fine,” he says. “You’re free to go.”

The best description for what I felt as I left the US Consulate, HIV negative, was one used by American soldiers to describe what it feels like after a successful gun fight: “Survival Elation”. The Mayfair sky had never been bluer, the green of Hyde Park has never been greener than it was ten minutes after staring mortality in the face.

It was a short-lived joy. Two weeks after returning to Los Angeles, where for the first time I had thrillingly entered via the “permanent resident” line at LAX airport, Ralph called me both to congratulate me, and to warn me: “You might have seen Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatening to revoke Green Cards for people he considers enemies,” he said.

“I thought Green Cards were permanent?” I said, anxiously.

“Nope. If you commit a crime of moral turpitude, they’ll take it away. So just make sure you behave for the next five years.”

“What happens then?”

“You can become a citizen. That’s when you’re really safe.”

As he hung up, I confronted the half-decade wait ahead, sensing the same fear of having my home yanked away from me that millions and millions of non-citizens living in America suffer every day.

Sebastian Doggart

19 Dec 2011

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