Sunday, June 26, 2011

Getting Adjusted

Eek, eek, eek! Sven just called and told me his green card has expired! He is due to arrive in Boston tomorrow. Our conversation reminded me of how difficult it had been to get him that green card in the first place ...

My husband is an alien, a Swedish history professor with brains and a pension. Just the type Immigration should want in the USA. At least, that’s what I thought when we began pursuit of permanent residence. The process was far more strenuous than I could ever have imagined. Every INS agent we encountered acted as if one of the applicants had made a colleague swallow Draino and finding the culprit was a sacred mission.

I had met Sven in France. A friend with Embassy contacts offered to get him in on a university quota. We refused. I wouldn't cheat. Oh, no. That was un-American. We planned to request a fiancé visa, which supposedly facilitates immigration

Many documents and five months later, we received Sven’s visa and thought the worst was over. Think again. The marathon had only just begun.

After our fall wedding in Wellfleet, we received convocation to "adjust status." We went into Boston and filed an application so Sven could become a permanent resident, with a green card. Months later the INS gave us an appointment: June 3rd would be Sven’s big day.

When we entered the Federal Building, an official took fingerprints one last time and told us to sit down. There were 100 seats, and half of them were filled. The stiff plastic made the place feel like an airport terminal. Two television screens, tuned to CNN, flashed images of catastrophe that alternated with rewards of capitalism: dream vacations, luxury cars.

Behind us, the tearful voice of a woman explained how she had been conned into paying $2500 for help with paperwork. I would have liked some “help” myself. Certificates, medical records, affidavits of support, copies of tax returns, plus translations of relevant Swedish papers jammed my briefcase.

I glanced around the room. Behind the Stars and Stripes, a picture of a young Clinton. Beside him, Janet Reno, smiling. On a poster to her left, a crowd of Ellis Island immigrants whose long faces warned that changing status might be the least of our worries. Nearby stood an enormous fan, perhaps to cool tempers. It was turned off that day. On an adjacent wall, with hands on haunches, Park-Ranger style, “Team INS” stared confidently into the camera. Why, the USA is one big happy family, their look seemed to say. Everyone’s welcome here.

So far, this Mr.-Rogers-Neighborhood attitude was nowhere in evidence. Agents appeared from time to time and barked out names. Since we were apparently going to be there for a while, I made myself comfortable. Sven took out a book.

We weren't nervous. Oh, no. However, the number of briefcases carried by gray-suited lawyers did give pause. I patted my husband's knee. His case would obviously be more straightforward.

At the back of the room, an Asian woman was quizzing a companion on American History. I knew the names of the two senators from Massachusetts but doubted my husband did. Perhaps her beau was going for citizenship? Not to worry. We were only there getting "adjusted."

Now, at the front desk, a woman began to sob as an official poked a ballpoint into her precious I-485. “Who wrote this down here?” demanded the agent, not toting any gun I could see but impressive all the same. I heard the alien stammer some unintelligible response. “Sorry,” snapped the man. “You’re gonna need a lawyer.”

Beyond the dispute, I glimpsed an image of the Statue of Liberty and the words, You deserve to be treated with professionalism and respect. Request a complaint form or call toll-free on 1-800-869-4499.

“Sven R -!”

Our agent seemed sweet enough until we’d sworn to tell nothing but the truth. Then the questions came as machine-gun fire: “Where did you two meet and when did you decide to get married and when did you actually marry?”

Sven hesitated.

“My husband is really bad with dates,” I stammered, pulling out our marriage license.

Her reptilian eyes focused on Sven, eager to flush out even the most inveterate liar.

“It was in Switzerland, driving through that traffic jam. I decided I couldn't live without her, for life is . . “

But the agent wasn't interested in philosophical digressions. She was on to bigger and better things: “Have you ever participated in any clubs, associations, political parties or participated in terrorist activities?”

While the video camera whirred away, I wondered who would possibly answer yes to this last question.

“What’s your phone number?”

Sven flubbed that one, too. When I reminded her that some people just can’t do numbers, she turned her Kalashnikoff on me.

“What side of the bed does he prefer?” No, she didn't ask that, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if she had. Many of the questions were quite personal. The cross-examination lasted ten minutes.

At last the agent cracked a smile. Apparently the truth had been convincing. “Congratulations. I’m adjusting your status conditionally for two years. Reapply ninety days prior to expiration ...”

What do you think? Will the customs folks let Sven into the country? Will they notice the expired green card? Will he be sent back to Sweden? Stay tuned!