This is a little different post than I'm used to writing, and to be honest, I'm a little nervous about it. But if you've had even just one conversation with Michael and I since we got married, you know that "the immigration process" is all we talk about; in fact, just a few days ago, we let you in on a pretty vulnerable need of ours that has come up because of this. (more on that in a second).
So we figured it was about time I should write about what's really been going on in our lives and to clear up some of the questions you may have about immigration.
Unfortunately, for the past two months or so, we have been unable to move forward with immigration. It's always on the back on our minds and its a huge conversation topic in our house; however, we haven't made any progress recently we cannot afford one (very important) government filing fee that must be paid in full before we can officially submit paperwork.
After a lot of prayer and discussion, my husband and I have set up a GoFundMe campaign called "Our Dream Without Borders" that will help us pay this government filing fee. If you would like to help us reach our $1750 goal, please click here to give any amount you feel comfortable. Whatever you decide to donate, it's already been considered a huge blessing and we appreciate your generosity more than you know.
So, this isn't about to be about a wall or Trump or the government shutdown, but it's apart of the same conversation-- just without the public dialogue. Many of you are so invested in this journey with us, and many of our friends around the nation are facing similar situations as we are, so we thought we better open up the discussion.
Now, it's important you know that this is just our experience-- and we aren't finished yet. There are so many different ways people can come into this country, not to mention all the different visas and restrictions that may apply, so this post isn't the end-all-be-all of immigration, but we sure hope it sheds a little light on this thing.
But first, some background:
For those of you who don't know, this is my stud-muffin-slash-husband, Michael Apa. I've had the honor of being his wife for 6 months now, and even though immigration throws an awkward and uncomfortable wrench into this whole newlywed thing, I am so, so thankful I get to call Michael my husband. He is the most selfless, compassionate and perceptive person I have ever met and it is humbling to think that he has chosen me to be his bride :) *sappity-sap-sap-sap- sap*
He is from the beautiful island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and we met and fell in love in a little missionary compound there called Ukarumpa (oo-kah-room-pah) 5 years ago. We finished high school together, and after we graduated, we attended different colleges in the States until we both eventually made it to Liberty University in 2016.
He came to US on an "F-1 student visa", the official status of international students who wish to study in America.
If you want to know more about the F-1:
Student visa holders must abide by strict, but understandable, requirements in order to remain "in status" and in the country legally.
There are limited employment opportunities (where they can work, for how many hours, during what times of year, etc), strict travel requirements, and the visa itself only lasts for as long as they are enrolled full-time in university, etc.
Now that we're married, neither one of us are in school (even though we both want to go back eventually). As Michael is married to an American, maintaining a student status does not help or hinder the process, so we decided that school (and the cost of tuition) can wait until we feel led to return.
As of last September, we have hired a team of lawyers to help us through the full immigration process. Our main goal right now is for Michael to become a permanent resident (otherwise known as a "green card holder"), so that he can work full-time and travel back home (and other places outside of the US).
Thing is, once we began this process, it didn't take long to realize we had all the wrong ideas about immigration...
Two specific things that stood out to us:
1. The internet is an angry ocean of information that is mostly either wrong or out-dated.
2. Without proper guidance, it's easy to become pessimistic.
Before we even met with a lawyer, our brain collected all this falsified and/or exaggerated information, and pretty soon, our future looked like this half-believable-- but absolutely incorrect-- doomsday scenario.
Moral of the story? Don't believe everything you read on the internet, and try not to be Eeyore before his stick house collapses.
Now, after 5 months, we realize that you probably have some misconceptions too. So without further ado, here's six myths you may believe (because hey, I used to, too):
(To read efficiently, here's a cheat sheet: if you are a casual reader, read the copy beneath this and this color. If you are reading because you and your spouse are facing similar immigration crises, please also read what's beneath this color.)
Myth #1: "I understand immigration! I've seen the movies."
Fieval Mousekewitz from An American Tail, photo from this source
Debunked: Wrong. Stop. Go back. If you have ever watched a movie and immigration was involved, you were probably misinformed (to the nth degree).
Also, most movies typically describe an immigrant fleeing their home country because of imminent danger, and while this is an important topic to discuss/accurately portray in movies, it is not why Michael left PNG and therefore should not be used as a reference in our case.
If you start fresh, it'll be easier to understand where we're coming from.
Myth #2 : "Marrying an American makes you a US citizen."
Debunked: Someone doesn't just become a citizen after they marry a US citizen.
Nothing is that magical. It's the government.
Marrying an American helps, but it just doesn't do as much as you think it does.
We complete a little less paperwork, ease government suspicion (a little), the processing time is a little faster and deportation is slightly less likely, but there is nothing automatic about immigration.
This process is typically a multiple-year journey that costs thousands of dollars, comes with high stakes and insane restrictions. Also, you need to get a "green card" (aka residency) years before you apply for citizenship. Curious about how that works? Jump to Myth #4.
Luckily for us, Michael entered the country legally on a student visa and he's had a social security number for two years already. These are two things that really help build trust with the government.
Myth #3: "You can work wherever you want."
Debunked: Again, marrying an American helps, but not that much. It is "highly recommended" that one does not work illegally. This means the government does not want anyone applying for residency to work in a traditional workplace until they have been approved. A few odd jobs are fine, but even then, the lawyers need to know about it.
Want to know more?:
Officially, there are strict laws in place that require the spouse that's a US citizen to become what is called a "sponsor". This term sounds pretty derogatory, but all it basically means is that they are the ones responsible for making sure the lawyers get paid.
If you are that spouse and you don't have a million bucks (or something like that) just chilling in your bank account, to prove you can pay the lawyers on time, you need to have a someone who is a "successful" US citizen and willing to be like a cosigner on the account. Officially they will be your "joint sponsor" and they are like the back-up money machine if you can't make a payment.
Myth #4: "Citizenship is the same as residency."
Debunked: While US citizenship is the goal, it is the expensive luxury that comes years after the already expensive and time-consuming US residency.
In fact, for unmarried permanent residents, they must wait 5 years before becoming a citizen. For Michael, it will take around 3 years. But all green card holders must apply for citizenship before their green cards expire around the same time.
Permanent residents can work full-time and travel outside of the country and can do a few other really cool things, but citizens are the only ones allowed to enter the military and vote. Residents can still get deported. Citizens cannot.
Myth #5: "All you gotta do is take a class."
Debunked: There is no Proud-to-be-an-American 101.
There is a "US citizenship test", but it is absolutely not something you can take right away-- you must to have a green card for at least three years. It tests for knowledge of civics and the ability to speak, read and write English (some are exempt, you read more here). It is believed that as apart of this test, husband and wife will have their marriage "examined" through what's called the "USCIS Naturalization Interview."
"USCIS Naturalization Interview":
According to our lawyers, this is a major milestone in the process. From our understanding, in order to move on, the couple must still be married after the three year waiting period (while he holds the green card), and correctly answer a series of invasive personal questions whose responses somehow proves the legitimacy of the marriage to USCIS officials.
But like, no pressure.
Unfortunately, I don't know much about the interview beyond this. I'm a little confused whether it comes at the time of permanent residency or citizenship, or both.
(If you know more about this, I'd love to hear from you!)
Myth #6: "Once you marry an American, you can travel wherever you want."
Debunked: Um, no. If that was the case, we would have left for Papua New Guinea with Mom and Pops Apa in August.
If we chose to leave the country before Michael becomes a permanent resident, the consequences would not be instantaneous, because leaving the country isn't the problem. It's coming back that's the issue. Michael would be barred from returning to the States, and any progress we made on residency before we left would be thrown out, and we wouldn't be allowed to begin again until after a significant waiting period.
I don't even want to think about that goodbye...sheesh.
This rule is so strictly enforced, we had to turn down honeymooning in Hawai'i, an offer so generously made by family members, because somewhere along the way to this beautiful US island getaway, we would need to fly through international air space.
We road-tripped across the country with our two cats instead. Paradise-shmaradise.
Myth #7: "You need a lawyer to get a green card."
Though it's recommended we get a lawyer, we could have technically done this on your own. We researched this heavily and decided hiring a law firm was in our best interest.
Here are a few thing to consider:
1. Money: though you will avoid the cost of lawyers, there are nonnegotiable payments you must make to the government, and to review your documents, you will need to hire an attorney.
2. Risk: DIYing immigration will most likely take longer, be more expensive in the long run, and the risk of deportation will likely only increase.
Here's two things we learned about lawyers:
1. Not all lawyers are trained in immigration law, and not all firms are equipped to take on these cases.
2. From our experience, you don't need to fall for that "per hour" lawyer junk you see on TV.
Do your research and make some phone calls. We are paying off our lawyer's one flat fee and even though that's a big chunk of money every month, it is much better than paying fancy pants lawyers an hourly rate. Our lawyers would have cost us approx. $250/hr. You may find a better alternative, but we recommend you do the math (and factor in the extra stress that comes with an hourly rate). Ask about having a consultation with a few different firms, and decide what's best for you. In some places, this may be free, but ours was not. We paid around $150/hr.
This consultation gave us more answers about what was ahead of us in an hour, than our many hours of research prior to that first meeting. This consultation is a must.
Truth #1 : "Expectations are awful"
And so is comparison. These can be exceptionally hurtful when you're talking about immigration. This process is long, complicated, financially strenuous and actually pretty awkward. Right now, the dynamic in our home in nowhere close to how we want it to work.
I love my job and God has definitely led both of us to Spokane for such a time as this, but the way we want our little family to function (where Michael goes to work full-time and I eventually work from home), is not the way we are right now-- for more reasons than just because we're newlyweds.
But it has helped me appreciate the right to work. The right to travel. The right to feel like I truly belong in a country. Because never has any of these ever felt like things to earn. This process has taught both of us many, many things and even though it's something we never want to repeat, we are grateful for each other and the future that's ahead of us.
Because once we get this out of the way, there won't be anything that can stop us.
Well, that's all for now, folks. My hands are tired, aha. THANK YOU for making it this far!
I really hope you enjoyed it and you feel a little more knowledgeable about what it takes for one person to become a citizen after marrying an American. If you feel led to help us reach our $1750 goal to fulfill the government "filing fee", please feel free to give any amount by following this link. Whatever you give is a huge blessing and we cannot say thank you enough.
We love you.
Meliah (and Michael) Apa