In March 2009, we were walking down London’s embankment on the way to a dinner with an organisation we were both members of, introducing ourselves during the brisk walk, although we’d seen each other at events before. Later, sitting together at the end of an awkwardly shaped table, unable to really speak to anyone else, my husband an I had our first of many conversations, smiles, and laughs. Five years later, we were in the US Embassy in Turkey, at the end of a stressful year-long application process, hoping to receive an immigrant visa to allow my husband to live with me in the United States.
The things you don’t think about when you are young and in love.
My husband, born and raised in the United Kingdom. Me, born and raised in the United States. Maroon passport, blue passport. In the world of international travel, the colour matters. Short visits are easy, no visas required, 90 days entry. By accident of birth, my husband and I can go just about anywhere in the world with relative ease, no one questioning our travel intent. However, with our passports, we cannot legally live in the same country without a visa. Our passports, our respective citizenships, do not confer such rights.
After we married, a lot of people assumed that our marriage certificate alone would be enough to allow us to move to the US or the UK, enough to move between the borders with ease and full rights. For many reasons, this is not how dual nationality marriages work.
In 2013, with the State Deparment transferring me back to Washington DC after Turkey, we started researching the US immigration process and gathering the required documentation. My job as a Consular Officer with the State Department already gave me incredible insight, but until you go through it yourself, it’s all theoretical. There are several steps involved, each of which costs money and takes time. As a US govenrment employee at the time, we should have been offered a fast-track process, but the US Embassy in Turkey made an error. Admittedly, they did what they could to help us when they realised the blunder, but it was at the very end of the process, which had already taken a year. More on that later.
In order to legally immigrate to the US as the spouse of a US citizen, you must first prepare an application at a cost of $450 that is sent to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Chicago – called the ‘Chicago lockbox’. This application requires a number of documents, photocopies of documents, and, most importantly, evidence of a “bona fide marriage.” With a good idea of what USCIS is looking for from my own Consular training, our packet was about an inch thick. I decided it wasn’t necessary (and knew it wasn’t necessary) to print the 2000+ emails between us over the years or the 1000+ photos of us to prove we are actually a married couple, and it helped that we had a significant amount of State Department paperwork with my husband documented as my legal spouse.
So why didn’t the US Embassy in Turkey just handle our entire case from start to finish? The primary reason is that USCIS is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department is not involved in the first step of the immigration process. There is no USCIS office in Turkey to review applications, which means our case was sent to a USCIS office in the United States for review in the first instance There is a USCIS office in London, but because I am not resident there, we couldn’t file our application in the UK.
When relaying the process to friends and colleagues, everyone would exclaim – “But you’re a US Diplomat?” It is true, the US Embassy in Turkey could have theoretically accepted our case from the start – called Direct Filing and a service they offer to US government employees – but they require USCIS’s permission. Not hard to get, honestly. I suppose we were not offered this service because we were not imminently leaving Turkey and had a year left until my next assignment back in Washington. We technically had enough time to go the normal route, but we should have been afforded Direct Filing like my other colleagues with foreign spouses transferring back to the US.
Let just say I’m not dwelling on it, but let’s just say that I am really still dwelling on it.
On July 30, 2013, my husband and I sent our packet of documents off to USCIS’s Chicago lockbox. Then the waiting began. First our file went to Chicago, then Kansas, and finally to some generic location called the Texas Service Center . We did not receive approval of our case until May 2014. It took USCIS 9 months to review our case, during which time had absolutely no information on what was happening with it.
I’m not entirely sure why it took so long – the average is 5 months – but I suspect it was because of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) which is the policy enacted by the Obama Administration to permit USCIS to grant temporary employment authorization and deffered removal proceedings for up to a million undocumented immigrants in the US who were brought to the US as minor children. This rolled out right when we filed our application, and I just don’t think USCIS was able to manage the workload, or they weren’t given adequate resources to do so. (Sidenote: I support DACA).
So, filing the application and getting approval from USCIS was only the first step.
After a case is approved, it then moves to the State Department’s National Visa Center (NVC) for additional processing. Before you are eligible for a visa interview with a Consular officer abroad, you have to be “documentarily qualified.” At this stage, a whole different and new set of documents are required, as well as a $230 visa application fee.
Once again, we went on a document gathering mission, which included a trip to the Turkish court house in Istanbul to get my husband a Turkish police record because we had been resident in Turkey for more than six months. The Turkish staff didn’t know what to make of us – two Foreign Diplomatic personnel trying to get a local police report. They almost referred us to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara, but as soon as we said “visa!” they understood. We also had to go through the rigamarole of getting a police certificate from the UK – which, oddly, requires more than queuing in an small office in Istanbul and having a random mustached Turkish dude stamp a piece of paper. I know, right?
The National Visa Center was processing applications in 4-5 months. After our 9 month wait with USCIS and an expected 4-5 months at NVC, we would be long gone from Turkey before our case made it through NVC, and that’s not even the end. There is still further processing once the case gets to the US Embassy. It was at this point that I went back to the US Embassy in Turkey to request an expedite as our assignment in Turkey was concluding in a matter of weeks and we were being booted out of the country. If we didn’t have the visa, my husband would have to move back to the UK while I would move to the US.
However, before we could interview for the visa, my husband had to get a medical examination with an approved physican in Turkey. This medical exam is required for all immigrants primarily to ensure that no immigrant is arriving to the US with a highly contagious disease. This exam costs around $250. Once the medical exam is completed, a sealed envelope with the results, along with a copy of the vaccine record and chest X-ray, are given to the US Embassy for review.
At the last minute, I was able to schedule my husband’s medical appointment, get flights and a room at a decent hotel near the US Embassy, and on a warm evening in July 2014 we arrived in Ankara, Turkey. The next morning, my husband went for his medical appointment and the morning after that we arrived at the US Embassy for the visa interview. After a year of waiting, stress, and uncertaintly, my husband’s immigrant visa was approved.
Once we arrived in the US, we had to make another payment for the actual Green Card at a cost of $165. My husband’s “Legal Permanent Residence” status was immediately good for 10 years, which I thought I was super generous of the US government considering I only get two and a half years in the UK at the start (for another post).
A photo from our trip to Ankara, Turkey to get my husband his visa. Quickie sightseeing in between appointments!