By Jordan Arellano for YES! Media. Broadcast version by Danielle Smith for Tennessee News Service, reporting for the YES! Media-Public News Service Collaboration.
As a child born and raised in middle-class white America, I never expected I would know much about emigrating to the United States. “Green card marriage” is a term I only learned from watching the 2009 rom-com “The Proposal.” The term is a colloquial reference to marriage between a citizen and non-citizen for the purpose of conferring legal residency status, and the movie depicts it through an enemies-to-lovers trope between a domineering Canadian boss who convinces her ambitious American assistant to help her obtain a green card via a phony marriage.
Twelve years after the film’s release, when my husband and I were navigating the challenges of his green card application, many of my friends brought it up, joking that it was their only reference for legal immigration via marriage.
The fact that this movie stands as one of America’s cultural touchstones for immigration is unquestionably problematic, largely because of the implication that “green card” and “marriage” are only paired in fraudulent relationships. The reality of marriage to an immigrant partner is far different from what films depict, and for some couples, nearly impossible.
My husband and I met on a dating app in 2019. I spent much of our early get-to-know-you months learning about the beauty and diversity of India, the country where he grew up. He was in his 20s when he moved to the U.S. for a master’s degree that eventually led him to the job and city where we met. He also shared his anxieties with me over the news of his H-1B application, the work-petitioned visa he needed to legally remain in the U.S. now that he was out of school.
We were thrilled and relieved when he was granted the visa a few months later, offering some security to our growing relationship. But the start of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly shattered our illusion of safety when all his department co-workers, except for him, were suddenly laid off. If he were to lose his job too, his H-1B would quickly become invalid, requiring him to return to India.
It was a sobering reminder that, while my partner was thankfully still employed, we were entirely dependent upon his employment status not only as a steady source of income, but also for his legal resident status in the country that we both called home. Insecurity, I was learning, is the norm for immigrants. Education, work experience, abiding by governing rules-none of these things offers true security. That’s where a green card comes in.
Having a green card, or legal permanent resident (LPR) status, means that as long as one has not been convicted for specific criminal offenses, one can live in the U.S. indefinitely. It offers the most secure legal status, second only to citizenship. Immigrants can earn it in a variety of ways, many of which can take years. One of the quickest ways to obtain LPR is through a family or marriage sponsorship.
Thankfully for my partner and me, it didn’t take long to know that we wanted our relationship to last for life. After two years of dating, we got engaged and then married in 2021. The next step was submitting our LPR petition with the hope it would be accepted, despite rumors about pandemic federal staff shortages leading to green card delays. But we had no other options and had to work within an immigration system that processes and accepts about 1 million people per year as legal residents.
From start to finish, our application process lasted about a year. It was a tedious, though mostly doable, process that involved answering hundreds of questions and tracking down family documents. The trickiest part was the fluctuating rigidity of the requirements. Sometimes there would be a request for a specific document, and sometimes it would feel completely arbitrary. Would photos of our wedding be convincing evidence that our marriage was real? How about our joint bank accounts or a copy of our co-signed lease? We had to guess, hope, and submit.
Some couples opt to hire immigration lawyers to help navigate the unpredictable nature of the process, which often results in thousands of dollars in legal fees. We chose to instead prepare the application ourselves, and then briefly consulted with a lawyer to review the documents to give us some added peace of mind.
Over $2,000 in fees later, our application was in the hands of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It was now up to the government to assess if we were in a real relationship. Our life was on hold, with no predictable timeline, and no guarantee of the result.
It was while we were waiting for a decision from the government that I met Lauren Krupp, an American citizen living in the U.S. and working as a newborn care specialist. Krupp diverted much of her salary to continue the process of petitioning for a green card for her husband, Doriel Acosta. It was through her that I learned the legal immigration process for marriage-based green cards could be even more difficult for some couples.
The two met when Krupp was visiting Cuba on a humanitarian trip in 2017. Two years later, they got married in Cuba, knowing they would continue their long-distance relationship as they worked to secure Acosta’s green card. Despite poor diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, they were hopeful. Neither could have predicted then that it would take them three and a half years of bureaucratic challenges and more than $20,000 to be together.
First, their application was submitted incorrectly by a third-party contractor, and was left unprocessed for nine months with no notifications. Krupp eventually contacted an immigration officer from her senator’s office who was able to verify that some documentation was missing.
Shortly thereafter, the COVID-19 pandemic brought Cuban diplomatic processes to a standstill. Since the closure of the U.S. embassy in Cuba following Havana Syndrome in 2017, Cubans have been forced to fly 1,000 miles to the U.S. embassy in Guyana to process their visas. But Krupp says the Guyanese embassy was closed for almost nine months during the pandemic.
Finally, after pandemic restrictions were lifted in March 2022, Acosta and Krupp made it to Guyana for their immigration interview. Even after being told that his green card was approved, Acosta had to remain in Guyana for another 45 days while his visa was processed. In all, the couple paid $12,500 just for the travel and accommodation during his unexpectedly long stay in Guyana.
Finally, after all the expense, the waiting, the effort, and the distance, Acosta hugged his wife hello on U.S. soil this past May. It was the same month my husband and I went to our own immigration interview where he was granted his green card.
Krupp reflected on how she’s been feeling since being reunited with her husband. She says, “You find yourself feeling things that you don’t expect; sometimes a wave of grief for the time that was lost. Or sometimes feeling like you’re undeserving of it. … We only waited three and a half years. Some people wait 10, 15 years, or never are reunited at all.” I’m left feeling much of the same.
The one emotion that united all four of us-and possibly all immigrants and the citizens who petition on their behalf-is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. Despite Krupp and I being U.S. citizens, we had to place our trust in opaque, bureaucratic systems to judge our marriages and allow us to live with the person we love. Despite their eligibility, our partners had to trust they were being judged objectively and fairly. The positive outcomes we experienced are not guaranteed for all applicants.
USCIS prioritizes family-petitioned green cards and has granted about 480,000 annually in recent years. Processing time averages between 10 and 17 months, although this was much longer at the start of the pandemic due to presidential green card bans and federal worker shortages. Immediate relatives, like spouses, have a faster processing time than other family members, like parents, children, or siblings. Overall, a family-petitioned green card has a higher chance of acceptance than any other type, averaging an 11% denial rate.
This doesn’t even include the millions of other forms of emigration that are not as highly prioritized. The DACA program has become infamously insecure for recipients, and the yearly figures of how many refugee and asylum-seekers are accepted changes based on the current presidential administration. These challenges lead to many undocumented people risking border crossings, family separation, and deportation rather than accepting the possibility of being forgotten or denied by the American immigration system. The Pew Research Center claims that 23% of all immigrants in the U.S., about 10.5 million people, are undocumented.
It’s clear that compared to many, our immigration story was not only easy, but was also extremely privileged. We were left feeling gratitude for our security and deep frustration at how broken the system is for everyone.
There is plenty of work still to be done to support legal immigration. With so many shifting variables and unknowns, there is great need for more support and resources for couples petitioning for residency from all nations. But through our own immigration journey, and hearing Krupp and Acosta’s story, I learned about some of the existing efforts to help mixed-status couples emigrate through green card petitions.
One of the places where Krupp and Acosta found reassurance was through online communities. Krupp says, “We joined a support group on Facebook that was about Cuban family reunification. We got so much more helpful, actual information from that group than we ever did from anywhere else. … It was just other people going through the same process, telling us what they had learned and observed.”
My husband and I also found the greatest support from friends who had gone through the application process. They shared tips and tricks, and even connected us with a lawyer who could review our application and answer our questions. Depending on one’s budget, there are many immigration lawyers and visa experts who can help couples navigate the process. Though from experience, we suggest choosing experts based on recommendations from people you trust. Naturally, lawyers cost money-something that disadvantages lower-income applicants.
Elected representatives can also help-indeed, most federal representatives and senators offer help with federal agencies via their websites. Krupp highlighted the help of an immigration officer at her state senator’s office who was able to inquire on their behalf. Using state and federal resources like a senator’s office is a great way for petitioners to advocate for themselves.
Ultimately, what is needed is a change in the immigration processes so all people applying are treated humanely. For example, FWD.us, a nonprofit working at the congressional level to reform the marriage petition process, points out that green cards are sometimes wasted due to systematic “roll over” protocols. The organization is pushing Congress to reform the system so that an additional 220,000 green cards would become available, which in turn would help reduce the backlog of applicants.
In good news for Cuban petitioners, the Biden administration has recently increased staff at the Havana embassy, raising the possibility that petitioners could soon process their visas in Cuba instead of traveling to Guyana. And, this year, USCIS announced a plan to increase the efficiency of immigration processing, reducing wait times for in-country couples to a maximum of six months.
We all know rom-coms aren’t real life, especially the ones about green card marriages. But Krupp described her love story perfectly, saying, “Just because you had the weird opportunity to fall in love with someone from another country, and you have this different path, in the end, you just want to be normal. The end goal is just normal things, like stability, comfort, and time together.”
Jordan Arellano wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Arellano is a freelance journalist writing about the intersections of art, culture and travel, and her work has been published in Edible Memphis and the Daily Memphian. She has a master’s in international development and is interested in how art and justice intersect. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee.
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