Lindsay C. Hanson, Esq. is an immigration lawyer and bride-to- be. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Baltimore School of Law on a full academic scholarship. She's sharing her personal story and offering advice for couples seeking a green card.
I have gone through the "green card" process from beginning to end with well over one-hundred couples. I have dealt with their anxieties, their fears, and I have asked them about the most personal questions about their relationship in order to prepare them for the dreaded interview before a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) immigration officer or a consular officer.
Now I have my own fears and anxieties. I am currently waiting for an interview to be scheduled at a USCIS office with my foreign national husband. Even though I am an expert in this area, I know the potential pitfalls and complications that can occur throughout the process. I also have seen the unreasonable nastiness that some USCIS officers display during these interviews.
When I explain the complicated process for applying for a green card, people are frequently shocked. The most common reaction is "Wow. I thought once you got married, you just had to file a few papers and your spouse would be a citizen." Not quite. Citizenship is about 4 years down the road, and there are many potential hurdles on the way. The first step is obtaining permanent resident status, a.k.a. "green card."
My husband and I were married at City Hall but we have a 90 guest ceremony planned for September 2018 in Verona, Italy. I now fully understand how stressful it is to file and prepare for immigration at the same time as planning a wedding ceremony for all of your friends and family. We had to get married before our ceremony because my husband is on a student visa obtaining his PhD. If he were to travel outside of the United States for our wedding and we returned married to the United States, there is a high likelihood that he would be turned away at the border because he would have "immigrant intent" – which is not allowed if you are on student visa. This is just an example of one of the many considerations that international couples have to consider when they decide to get hitched.
There are a few different ways that you can apply for a fiancé or spouse for a green card in the United States. The "K visa" process is what is shown on the TLC show "90 day Fiancé." In this case, you file for your fiancé and they attend an interview at the consulate. After they receive a visa, they enter the United States and you have 90 days in which to get married. You can imagine that this is a stressful situation for many couples and puts a lot of pressure on the situation. This option is best for people that want their fiancé to enter the United States to be with them as soon as possible: the average time for a K visa holder to be able to enter the Country is about 4-5 months. If you are married in a foreign country and then choose to bring your spouse to the United States through consular processing, the entire process is approximately 9-12 months from the time the relative petition is filed until the interview is scheduled at the US Embassy in the foreign country. The benefit of being married before the consular processing is that your spouse enters the United States with the ability to work and travel, whereas if they enter on a K visa, they usually are not able to work, drive or travel for at least 3 months after they enter. You can imagine that this can cause issues for a couple if their fiancé can essentially do nothing independently for 3 months in the United States.
The majority of cases I see are not the "90 day fiancé" or consular processing for spouse cases. In many cases, a U.S. citizen falls in love with a foreign national in the United States that is studying under a F-1 student visa, or on a J-1 exchange visitor visa, or has overstayed a visa and now has no status in the United States. (There are also many situations I handle wherein a U.S. citizen wants to file for their spouse who entered the country without being inspected, or for their spouse that entered the country using fraudulent documentation. For both situations, there are "hardship waivers" available, but these are complicated situation that deserve an entire article devoted to the process.)
Tips for getting started
Here are my suggestions for getting started if you are thinking of getting married to a foreign national and/or applying for your foreign national spouse:
1. Speak honestly with each other about what will be involved with this process and whether you are comfortable with what will be required from both of you.
You will be required to be a financial sponsor for your fiancé/spouse and will need to file a Form I-864 and give your tax returns to show that you earn at least 125% of the poverty guideline amount. The filing fees for the application are substantial, almost $2,000. This is not including any legal fees if you decide to apply with an attorney.
This is also the time to discuss with your spouse/fiancé if they have ever violated any immigration laws or if they have ever been arrested and/or conviction of anything in the United States or any country in the world. I have had these issues come up in my office and it is better to get everything out in the open as soon as possible to assess possible immigration consequences and how to deal with them in the application process.
Additionally, in most cases your spouse will only receive a 2 year green card that is conditioned upon your marriage. If you get divorced in the 2 year following your spouse obtaining their green card, it will be much more difficult for them to retain their green card and remain in the United States. Try to be as sure as you can that you are committed long term to the relationship.
2. Plan out your timeline, taking into consideration immigration concerns and possible consequences.
Do you care about having a large wedding? Will you have enough time to plan such as wedding in a timeline that will protect your fiancé's immigration status? How will this timeline affect your fiancé's ability to work and travel internationally? Reach out to an immigration lawyer for a consultation as soon as possible so you know your specific options and what is best for you. Many great lawyers will not charge you for this information.
3. Start collecting marital evidence documents.
Many of my clients underestimate how time consuming this step can be. Start brainstorming solid evidence of your relationship, including: birth certificates of any children you have together, bills that come in both of your names, boarding passes and tickets showing trips you made together or to see each other, bank statements, mailing with your names on it that show that you share a residence, leases, affidavits from friends and family, photos of you and your spouse/fiancé, printouts of your wedding website, printouts of Text/Skype/WhatsApp/Messenger/Facebook Messages conversations between you and your spouse/fiancé, jointly filed tax returns.
These documents will be filed along with the initial green card application. You will then bring updated marital evidence to the interview, which can take 4-12 months to be scheduled, depending on what state you live in.
4. Do not read forums online and freak yourself out.
This is perhaps my biggest suggestion. This is the equivalent of searching WebMD when you have an upset stomach and concluding that it’s cancer. Many potential clients call me and begin with "I saw online in a forum that…" and I want to scream. Do not do that to yourself. Immigration law is complex, ever changing, and at times counterintuitive. Most importantly, everyone's situation is different. You cannot compare your specific case to others. On these forums, many times people are leaving out key parts of their cases that have influenced the outcome.
For anyone going through this process, just know you are not alone. I am there with you and I too, cannot wait to be done with the process and just enjoy my life with my husband in the United States.