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What it takes to get a Green Card? Our journey to freedom

The moment I click “publish” on this post, I start a new chapter of my history in the United States. Today, I can officially say that I’m a permanent resident of this country or a Green Card Holder. Perhaps this news is a surprise to many. After all, as much as I’m a person that shares a lot on the internet, I’ve shared almost nothing about my pains with the immigration system during all this time living here. Yeah. And we think we know everything about someone just because we follow them on social media…

August 2013, my husband and I visiting NYC for the first time. We never imagined that 4 months later, we would be moving to the city for good.

In January, it will be 7 years since we’ve moved to the Big Apple. Although I have already written here about how I’ve changed my mind about undocumented immigrants and despite my empathy in understanding that not everyone has the same opportunities, and despite understanding the privileges involved in being able to follow a “legal” path, I think we need to talk about the struggles of this same path. I’m grateful for my opportunities. Really. I don’t take it for granted. But we also need to talk about the setbacks, pains, and obstacles involved in this journey.

Getting a visa that allows you to have a limited amount of freedom is a victory to many. The truth is that, on an in-depth analysis, visas give you a tied life. It is a false reality of “the perfect life.” From a distance, it looks peaceful. Up close, there are limitations, deadlines, fears, and a lot of anxiety involved. In 2013, when our move to NYC became something real, I had zero understanding of US Visas. Today, looking back and seeing our entire journey, I’m proud of it. But it was far from being simple or uncomplicated. I didn’t come here thinking about staying forever – but I knew I didn’t want to stay for a short time. But even with the difficulties, with the family’s distance, with all the things I needed to learn and relearn, it never crossed my mind to go back to Brazil.

When we moved to the USA, in January 2014, we came with a J-1 visa (a trainee visa). It was a visa that would allow us to say for 18 months, with no renewal or extension possibility. If Thiago wanted to change his job, it would even be possible, but very complicated. As his wife, I was able to get a work permit with an expiration date as well. This visa did not allow us to apply for a Green Card. If we wanted to stay in the USA, we would need a new visa. After a year here, the clock started ticking – and, at that time, I already knew I didn’t want to go back. At least not at that moment. We had just arrived, and I still wanted to do so many things in this city. In January 2015, Thiago’s company started an H1B Visa application for him. H1B is the official work visa. It is one of the most desired – and most popular – visas, with a long and complicated process. The immigration department only receives applications once a year – between March and April. And, there is a limit of 65,000 visas issued per year, plus an additional 20,000 additional visas exclusive to foreign professionals who have graduated with a master’s degree in universities in the United States.

When we went through this process in 2015, immigration received more than 170k applications. And the criteria used to define who will be chosen is luck. That is right — a lottery. Literally, if you were not selected by the lottery, you are out. As Thiago’s company really wanted to keep him as an employee, they reassured us. They said they would look for other alternatives if needed. We spent three months waiting for the application period to open, a few more weeks until the lottery process. Can you imagine our level of anxiety? I was exhausted. I didn’t want to go through another visa process. When the application was completed, and all we had to do was wait, it was already April 2015, and I just thought that I might have to leave in three months. Well, as you know, that is not what happened. Finally, at the end of the day on a Wednesday in April, I saw Thiago’s text message saying we had been selected when I left a store. I remember where I was, I remember the sky’s color, I remember the sidewalk where I walked. I remember the happiness and relief I felt. I remember my parents’ cheerful voice on the phone celebrating with me. I remember the weight that came off my shoulders. I remember the video call with our friends from San Francisco, who celebrated with us but had to comfort other Brazilian friends who were not so lucky on the same H1B process. After that, in July, we left for Brazil to spend three months – after all, our visa was expired. With H1B Visa, we could only enter the USA again in October.

With the H1B Visa, the path to permanent residency became more concrete – now, the company could apply for the Green Card. Thiago also got more flexibility – if he wanted to change to another job, it would be much easier. For me, things got more complicated: as dependent on his new Visa, I was not entitled to a work permit. I entered the hall of wives forgotten by the U.S. Immigration System. I say wives because, unfortunately, this is a system that benefits men, in general. Last year, for example, the percentage of H1B visas issued to men was 70%. You can live in our country of opportunities, but you are not entitled to them. This is the reality of thousands of women who leave their country to follow their husbands in “America.” This rule is so contradictory that the support groups on Facebook are called “H4 Visa – A Curse” and “Golden Cage”. At that time, I had no intention of looking for a job. I was an independent content creator driven by passion. But I was stuck, somehow. I felt suppressed in a society that ignores immigrant spouses – after all, H1B is not the only Visa with this issue. I didn’t feel free. I was not free. Either I would have to get another visa, or I had to wait for the Green Card. We thought we had control over things, so we decided to wait for the Green Card. A mix of immaturity and overoptimism.

It was not a short process at all. After a year with the H1B Visa, Thiago decided that it was time to change jobs and seek new challenges. He was no longer happy at his job. Even though I knew that a change of companies at that point would mean postponing the Green Card, I supported him. He got a job in another company, which put us at the starting point of the process since the new company would only start the Green Card application after a year, depending on his performance. Two months after hiring, he was promoted to a higher position, which made me conclude that his performance was not the problem. He tried to use this argument to speed up the process, but it didn’t work. Only 14 months later, our process finally started.

It was a long journey with no immediate answers — an exercise of patience. The feeling I had all this time was that I was swimming to get to the beach, and I could see the beach very small on the horizon, but it would never get bigger. Meanwhile, everyone was swimming faster by my side. As much as I tried, my arms didn’t have the strength to change that situation. I never forget one of the countless episodes of setbacks in our process. Thiago had a meeting with the company’s immigration lawyers about our case. When he called me, I already knew it was to talk about the meeting. At that point, I was no longer satisfied with the direction of things. Nothing had surprised us positively. Do you know when everything that can go wrong goes wrong? However, I don’t know why, but I really thought that call would bring some good news. Not only was I wrong, but the news was not promising. Our process would be delayed due to a conflict with our previous Visa – which would require us to ask for a document from the Brazilian embassy that could take 4 months to be ready. This would not only delay our Green Card process, but it also could prevent us from renewing our H1B Visa. Not to mention that the company, a priori, would not be paying the amount of 10 thousand dollars involved to solve this problem that they considered to be personal.

When Thiago finished speaking, I asked him: is it just that or is there any more bad news?

My throat was closed, the tears were stuck. I wasn’t going to cry, no matter how much I knew Thiago knew what was going to be my reaction the moment we hung up the phone. Overall, these years waiting for the Green Card, I developed terrible anxiety attacks. A simple mention of the process would make my throat close, and the feeling of anguish was heartbroken. In fact, I can still remember the feeling I had while writing these words. As soon as I hung up the phone, I cried. I ended up relying on my mother, who, even from a distance, helped me to remain calm. A friend reminded me of something that she always said, but that only became part of my consciousness that day: “we pay a very high price for wanting to stay in the United States”. To stay in this country, we need to prove that we are competent not once or twice, but every single day. We need to undergo lengthy and stressful processes, prepare tons of paperwork, interviews at us embassy, wait for hours in line to go through the customs every time we return from travel abroad, pay for a thousand visa fees, and a lot more. This has cost me several fights with my husband and affected our psychological in immeasurable ways.

Even being a beautiful and sunny day, the feeling I had that day was: Fuck You, New York. 

I love what I do. The universe has already answered me this in so many beautiful ways. For example, the countless affectionate messages I receive from people every day and all the opportunities I have had. But only I knew about my pain of being limited to a visa in which an immigration system decides what you can do with your life. That day, I was overcome by a feeling of ingratitude in the universe. Screw the quote that says you reap what you sow. 

What was the universe giving me back?

Suddenly, I found myself in an abusive relationship with the city. When you insist on wanting someone who clearly doesn’t like you, and still puts you through immeasurable suffering. You leave your country, your roots, your family, your friends, and leave what is part of you to come to another place and start from scratch. Living abroad makes you go through multiple stages of grief: Family & Friends, Language, Social Status, Culture, Physical Integrity, Land, and Belonging. You are no longer who you were. You are just another one in the millions. Plus, you still have the disadvantage of being an immigrant. Was I knocking my head against the wall to have something I wanted so badly but couldn’t have?

I always tried to remain optimistic. I believed in the schedules in my head. I left plans aside because I was limited bureaucratically. We saw our process dragging on due to the various audits. I tried to understand, then I would give up, then I would try to understand again, and I was more distressed to see how we still had a long way to go. I was angry at anyone who circumvented the system. I saw my closest friends getting their Green Cards; I was happy for them outside, but I felt angry on the inside – sorry, friends. It was nothing personal.

Everything really started to happen when we went to do these medical exams. The Green Card process requires you to draw blood, present a vaccination card, and many other things. I remember the afternoon in the doctor’s office, the waiting, the thousands of papers, the questions we had to answer. I remember getting out of there, pressing the elevator button, and crying because I thought we were getting closer – even though I knew there was still a long way to go. I remember that it was raining a lot outside when I received my work permit in the mail – well-deserved at a certain point in the Green Card process. I cried happily and complacently, remembering how much I had dreamed about that document. Perhaps that storm had some meaning.

I remember the months without a change in our process. I remember when we received the letters with our fingerprints appointment. I remember every jump I gave to celebrate each stage completed. I remember when I opened the immigration website to check the status of our case – which I did religiously for countless days, months, and weeks – and read: New Card is being produced. I jumped out of the chair, ran to tell Thiago, hugged him, and we celebrated jumping like two little kids.

I spent the following days thinking, “I don’t take this for granted”. We also celebrated when we saw that the card had been posted: Card Was Mailed To Me. And we remember our long journey. We remembered our conversations, how much we wished for that day, how far it always seemed, how much we dreamed, cried, and waited. One of the nights before the card arrives, I hugged Thiago and said: “We deserve this. No more than anyone, not less than anyone. But we do.” I thought about how many people would like to be in our place. I hoped for them.

Today, we celebrate, above all, our freedom. The freedom to be able to do whatever I want – including not being married anymore, if I want to – and staying here. No, Thiago and I are very well. However, he always understood my limitations in this country as his wife. We celebrate the freedom not to go through the visa renewal process again – consulate, interview, anxiety. We celebrated the freedom to simply exist in this country, without being tied to papers or to a company – after all, how many times have I seen Thiago stressed and wanting to drop everything. Still, he just couldn’t because it would mean going back to the process’s starting point. We celebrate the freedom for me to do whatever I want – including getting a formal job if I want. For Thiago to do whatever he wants – including being jobless or looking for a job with nothing to do with his advanced degree. We celebrate the freedom to not die of anxiety in the immigration line when entering this country. We celebrate the fact we don’t need to worry that the President can wake up one morning and just change the visas’ rules, affecting millions of people. We celebrate the freedom to feel free – even that this freedom still includes limitations that will always exist. Because yes, we are still immigrants. Yes, we will continue to face other small battles, no matter how much time passes. But we got here. We celebrate the fact that we have choices. We can choose.

For all of you who have read this far, especially immigrants, with or without documents: my hug. Because we know how painful it is this adventure of leaving our homes to chase our dreams, whatever the circumstances.

September 2020, The Statue of Liberty is the best icon to describe our moment.

3 Comments

  • Erin
    September 17, 2020 at 10:45 pm

    Such a beautiful, inspiring and most important true story!!
    Laura – i tried to guess the time period between when the actual green card process started and the completion. How long did it take that process?

    Reply
    • Laura
      September 17, 2020 at 10:54 pm

      Thank you so much Erin! Since the beginning of the process, it took almost three years!

      Reply
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