Sunday, July 21, 2013

Our Immigrant Journey...

There are a number of reasons the US has a lot of illegal immigration. One of the largest is that our legal immigration system is one of the most complex bureaucratic nightmares on the face of the planet, mostly consisting of a contradictory hodge-podge of decades-old or even centuries-old law that have little bearing on the modern world. This is our story of obtaining and protecting my wife's green card, a process that started about four and a half years ago.

Feel free to skip all the stuff between the dotted lines...the kicker is at the end.

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First we had to get a special "fiancée visa" for my wife. This is rather silly in and of itself, as Japanese citizens are visa exempt and can come to the US freely. Getting the fiancée visa requires planning almost a year in advance in order to match up your fiancées arrival with the wedding, costs around $500, and requires two in-person interviews and a mountain of paperwork.

Once we were through that hurdle, my wife arrived, we got married, and we applied for her conditional green card. This took about four months, and cost another $500. At this point, we hadn't need a lawyer yet, at about $1000 per petition, because I was stubborn and wasted a lot of weekends sorting it out myself. Another issue that crops up at this point is that your fiancée cannot work, because they won't get their work permit until about the same time as their green card. Also, because they have a pending green card application, they can't leave the country. So they are simply forcibly unemployed. This is true of almost all family-based immigrants. In January, four months after our wedding and a year after we started the process, my wife received both her work permit and her conditional green card (conditional on being married to me...after two years, she could apply for her own permanent residency unrelated to me).

Now the fun begins. I am assigned overseas. My wife needs a special "reentry permit" to live overseas. You MUST be in the US to file and you have to do biometrics at the USCIS office a few weeks later. Our company pays for the lawyer and filing fee, she receives her reentry permit, which lasts as long as her condition green card, and we are good to move to Japan.

Fast forward a year and a half. My wife applies for her permanent green card. The mere act of applying extends her residency for a year, or until USCIS makes a decision. But we get put in an "overseas hold" because were are, well, overseas. She also needs a new reentry permit, because her old one will expire before we come back. So there is two trips to the US, merely for the purpose of "being present" and getting fingerprinted for the fourth time. Oh, and all of these are costing us or my employer $500 to apply, $1000 for the lawyer, plus travel expenses and time off from work. Since my wife's temporarily-extended residency is only for one year, the reentry permit lasts only until her residency expires. That's all good, because we are coming back a few months before it expires...

Oh wait, maybe not. The company asks me stay another year. Now she has to go back to extend her residency, merely showing up at the USCIS office to get a stamp in her passport. Oh, and to "be present" in the US when we file for yet another travel permit. Of course, she will have to make a second trip to be fingerprinted for the fifth time. At this point, Senator Brown's office is helping us too, but even they wilt before the insanity of USCIS. More money, more time. Who needs vacations when you can spend all your paid holidays and spare cash flying to the Cleveland USCIS office over and over?

So we are up to the present. If all goes well, the third reentry permit will be approved, we will return to the US safely next year, the "overseas hold" will be lifted, and my wife will finally get her green card. It will only have cost us or my employer something like $40,000 in cash and lost wages, and a few weeks' of vacation time. Pretty sweet deal, eh?

Oh, and did I mention that even though she has spent less than one year of her life in the US, she has to pay US taxes on the income she is earning here in Japan (as do I)? The US is one of the few countries that does this. Not only is it costly, but it is a huge pain for both us and my company.

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Now I want you to imagine a world where everything is reversed. I go to Japan to marry my wife, she is transferred to the US to three years by her employer, and I follow, both with the intent of returning to Japan afterwards. Here is what we would have done.



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I fly to Japan on a tourist visa and we get married. No planning necessary other than for the wedding itself. I apply for a spouse visa, which costs under a hundred dollars, requires half the paperwork of the US, and would have been received within the 90-day tourist window. Of course, I could have flown back to the US and worked in the interim if I wanted. My choice.

After receiving my first spouse visa, probably one year, I would be free to live and work in Japan, and travel in and out of Japan to my heart's content. When my wife were assigned to the US, all I would need to do is...nothing. Just turn in my visa and alien card on the way out of the country. That's it. About six months before our return, I would need to apply for a new spouse visa, using pretty much the same documentation as before. I could whip it together in a couple hours, and when combined with the interview at the consulate, you are looking at about one day's worth of bureaucracy.

Once back in Japan, I would apply for new spouse visas whenever the old ones ran out, which would eventually be extended to three or five years at a time. After three years, I could also apply for permanent residency. Or I could just keep rolling the spouse visas. Either would be cheap and easy. Oh, and Japan only charges me taxes on money I earn in or bring to Japan.

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And THAT folks, is why the US has such problems with illegal immigration - we make it hell to do it the right way. Unfortunately, the Senate's immigration bill does almost nothing to change this.