Anniversaries and Immigration

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Two dozen years out and it’s still a humbling thing to think that someone chose to leave her family and home country halfway around the world in order to spend her life with me.

Perhaps if our decision to get married hadn’t been so essentially impulsive, we would have been a bit better prepared for the hassles we faced with what was known at the time as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)—now the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) operating under the Department of Homeland Security.

Then again, if it hadn’t been for hassles with the INS, we might not have made the decision we did. See, M was here on a student visa that was set to expire. If she returned home, she didn’t know when—or if—she would be able to make it back to the states.

Get married, we thought. That’ll fix the situation, we thought.

Okay, we didn’t really enter into our marriage to address a situation with a student visa. But we were young and foolish enough to think that getting married, having known each other less than a year (and, really, only a few months at the time we decided to get married) was a solid enough plan, when the alternative was to be apart for months, perhaps even years. If it’s rash to get married after knowing each other only a short time, it is potentially deadly to so short a relationship to have a prolonged separation.

And so we married. And so began our long-term relationship with the INS.

I cannot express how fortunate we were to live in a city with a major INS office. The mind reels to think what the immigration process is like for someone trying to navigate it from outside the country, or even from a few states away from an INS hub.

Keep in mind, this was back before the Internet was a common thing in peoples’ homes. In fact, at the time, I wasn’t even aware it was a thing. We couldn’t just log on and download the forms we needed. We had to phone the INS, tell them what we needed, and wait for them to send out the forms in the mail. We then had to complete the forms, gather up the necessary supporting items (photographs, birth certificates, marriage certificate, translations of M’s birth certificate, etc.) and mail them into a government office that would then get back to us at some unspecified time, with essentially no means for us to track the progress of our case.

Adding to the complications was the fact that M was not legally allowed to work, so I was having to cover the immigration filing fees on top of all of our other living expenses, on what is perhaps best described as a meager income. I was trying to build a business screen-printing shirts, and occasionally temping in different offices around town when funds came up short. Making sure we had enough funds in the bank to cover a check to the INS, with no idea of when it might be cashed, was a bit of a strain.

I didn’t keep a count of the number of times we had to submit the complete package for M to get her ‘resident alien’ status, or ‘green card’. Perhaps overly optimistic, and clearly naïve, I didn’t realize just how many ways we could be made to re-do a few detailed forms, and ship off all of our supporting documents.

The packet was returned to us for the photographs (a strip of four for each of us) being the wrong size (we’d paid a professional photographer for that first set, not realizing we could’ve gone to Kinko’s for the correct-sized photos for much less).

The packet was returned to us, because it was not clear who had completed the translation of M’s birth certificate (we did—thankfully, the INS accepted that).

The packet was returned to us because we were missing a form. (It had been in the packet when we sent it). Did I mention we were having to mail in our marriage certificate and our birth certificates with these forms—not copies—the actual documents?

Rather than call the INS toll-free number to request a new form, I drove down to the office, thinking that, like with the Post Office, I could just pop in and grab the form. (The office was down near the wholesaler where I bought t-shirts anyway). Instead, I stood on line for over 45 minutes, as the number of clerks dwindled down to only one clerk at one window.

Then he was gone.

All of us in line stood there, looking about nervously, irritated, wondering how it was possible that they had just stopped dealing with us altogether. Roughly fifteen minutes later, one of the clerks returned and announced that if we had not already gotten an appointment, we would have to come back the next day, because all the day’s appointments were filled. That clerk, again, disappeared. Wait? Was I in the wrong line? I can’t just get a form from somebody? I had been waiting in line to schedule an appointment to get a form? I ping-ponged about the building, stopping and waiting in a few other lines, trying to find out if there was some way to just get a copy of the form. ‘Call the INS toll-free line,’ I was told.

Seattle INS

Love, Marriage, and Bureaucracy — The old Seattle Immigration Office–complete with holding cells.

The packet was returned to us another time because there was ink on our photographs. Sure enough, there was a smear of blue ink across the bottom of my strip of photographs—a smear that had most certainly not been there when I mailed the packet in.

The packet was returned to us because the date we wrote next to our signatures had passed the one-year mark.

Then, after we re-did those forms, the packet was returned to us again, because the INS had updated one of the forms—although, aside from the form number and issue date, I’m really not sure what was different.  But we had to fill out that new form, anyway, directly transferring information from the old form.

The whole process seemed designed to frustrate people into deciding that a green card just wasn’t really worth it—or to force them to pay a lawyer to file paperwork that really wasn’t all that complicated—at least on the surface.

By the time our forms had been approved and we had an appointment for an interview scheduled, our daughter was approaching the one-year-old mark. In all that time, M was unable to leave the country to visit her family, lest she be denied re-entry.

The interview itself was rather anti-climactic. The agent who interviewed us, apparently taking the presence of our child as evidence that we weren’t in a sham, immigration-law-circumventing marriage, asked us a few brief questions about our wedding and our backgrounds, then signed off on all our paperwork and sent us on our way.

Our later dealings with the INS—to get M her full U.S. citizenship status—took place when the Internet was more of a thing, a new immigration office had been built in our region, and processes had reportedly been streamlined. It was much less dramatic and frustrating. And, despite her nervousness, M passed the immigration exam handily.

Still, even with all the immigration hoop-jumping we had to endure, I’m glad we made the essentially impulsive decision we made.

Happy anniversary, M. I love you.

 

 

 

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Happy Anniversary: Flagpoles and Drawers

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

On the night I first met my wife, M, I climbed to the top of the flagpole outside the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. As I reached the top, one of our fellow party-goers shouted out, “Go, monkey-man!” So I did what anybody would do in those circumstances. I clung to the pole with only my legs and feet, and beat my chest, gorilla-style, then threw out a few flex poses before shimmying back down.

It was a display of bravado, born of a desire to show up two younger men at a party. Both had attempted, and failed, the climb. As a pair—perhaps one as the interested party and the other as “wingman”—they had attempted, and failed, to initiate multiple conversations with M that evening, never making it beyond an exchange of pleasantries.

M has no recollection whatsoever of the pole-climbing stunt.

What she remembers of me from that night is what she refers to as my ‘patience’ at speaking with her throughout the evening. M was born and raised in Japan, and her English was imperfect. Add in a raucous party soundtrack, and the swirl of a crowd, and communication could get choppy.

But patience didn’t figure into my perspective of the meeting. Having the attention of a beautiful and (per her own description) weird young woman was not the kind of thing that required a great deal of patience on my part. If seeking out mutually understood vocabulary extended the conversation, and scored me points for being attentive and ‘patient,’ then so much the better.

Out of control party people.

Out of control party people.

The guest of honor at that birthday party, our mutual friend D, had driven both M and me to the party. Shortly after our arrival, M set to work on the birthday gift she had brought–a sort of origami kit that formed a miniature chest-of-drawers. At first, D had intended to share in the crafty construction, but was frequently drawn away by other guests and obligations. After the umpteenth interruption, D suggested I take her place at the table where the paper furniture was being assembled.

The DIY furniture that brought us together--more complex and much smaller than anything from IKEA.

The DIY furniture that brought us together–more complex and much smaller than anything from IKEA.

In previous months, I had been subjected to some of D’s other attempts at matchmaking. And, at the time of the birthday party, possibly unbeknownst to D, I was casually dating the host of the party, D’s soon-to-be-ex-sister-in-law (hey—I had nothing to do with the divorce—that marriage fell apart before I even met her).

After the initial, obligatory background questions, M and I quickly learned we shared an affinity for writing, hard rock, and violent cinema. It was a stiltedly animated conversation, with small bursts of excitement at each common reference point, and a fair amount of laughter over our often-clumsy attempts to bridge the language gap.

origami drawer

The actual miniature chest of drawers–still alive today.  Thanks, D!

The flagpole incident took place hours after the chest of drawers was completed, when we had all filed outside in the final moments before the party dissolved into various groups loading into separate cars and heading out in multiple directions.

I didn’t see M for another two months after that—when a family emergency led to D gifting M her ticket to an Alice in Chains concert that I was also attending.

The night of the concert unofficially marked the start of our ‘courtship’—a shaky period of largely reckless interactions, tempered somewhat by fortunate circumstances, that ultimately necessitated a definition-of-us conversation. To even our own surprise, that talk led to us abruptly moving in together and setting a wedding date—in no small part due to the impending expiration of M’s student visa, and the uncertainty surrounding her ability to return to the U.S. if she were to head back home to Japan.

Looking back, I’m still awed by the strange urgency of our coming together—a time I still picture as the two of us tumbling along on the front edge of an avalanche.

But I wouldn’t hesitate to ride that avalanche again, or to climb any number of flagpoles, in order to embark on that same path of mutually-sought understanding and love–a path we’ve been traveling for over half of M’s life, and almost half of mine.

Happy 22nd, M!