One of the logistical challenges I’ve recently been focused on is my immigration status in the U.S. I moved to America nearly a decade ago, in 2008. Since then, I’ve graduated from being an H1-B holder (a working visa for specialty occupations) to a conditional permanent resident (a green card given to a spouse of a U.S. citizen during the first 2 years of marriage) to, most recently, permanent residence – a green card that’s all mine to keep, regardless of my marital status. It was a huge relief to finally be granted, after six years, indefinite leave to remain (the British immigration term for permanent residency) in a country that felt like home, and which I had no desire to yet leave. It’s worth noting that the U.S. government refers to people living in the country who aren’t yet citizens as “aliens”. Welcome to America – nation of immigrants! Besides the unwelcoming name, there is a practical catch to only having permanent residence status: My green card only allows me to live and work in the U.S. as long as I maintain continuous residency. If I leave and that absence is judged to be more than temporary, there is no guarantee I’ll be let back in.
Obviously, riding my bike from Alaska to Argentina involves leaving the country for a significant chunk of time. I have every intention of returning afterward, so I need to protect my green card as I embark on this trip. Unfortunately, the details about what I can and can’t do start to get a bit vague here. How long can I leave for before returning is not guaranteed? If I were to come back, how long would I need to stay in order for it to count as being here, and restart the clock? Six months seems to be the totally safe number – where I’d have no problem returning on my green card. But more than six months out of the country and it starts to get a bit dicey; as far as I can gather from my research, if I were to leave for more than six months but less than a year, letting me back in the country is at the discretion of the border agent I encounter on my return. If you’ve ever experienced how friendly and welcoming homeland security agents are at the border, you’ll understand my reluctance at rolling with this option. For trips of a year to two years, like the one I am planning, the only option is to apply for a re-entry permit. Essentially, this informs United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that I am going away but I plan to return, and it helps ensure that they don’t hold the absence against me when I return. A re-entry permit costs $575 for the permit and $85 for a biometrics appointment which you have to attend to get the permit (more on that below). I want to be clear here: This permit doesn’t guarantee re-entry, it just ensures that having been away can’t be used as the sole reason for denying re-entry. There are all sorts of other stipulations about what I’d need to do to not be considered as having abandoned my residency, such as maintaining U.S. ties, filing taxes, owning property and the like – all of which help to establish that my absence from the U.S. was always intended to be temporary.
Applying for a re-entry permit seemed like the sensible thing to do, and this was the route I started down, until it dawned on me that getting a re-entry permit was a temporary solution to a potentially permanent problem; should we decide to stay away for more than two years, what then? A re-entry permit expires after two years, so we’d be tied to coming back within that time-frame. Half the point of this trip for me is not having a solid plan about what comes after, so that didn’t feel like a good situation to be getting into. Also, I’m always going to want to travel, and the idea of being restricted to six months each time without facing immigration hassles felt….claustrophobic.
In researching re-entry permits, I stumbled across a questionnaire flowchart for naturalization (applying for citizenship) and I found to my surprise that I currently met the requirements. Having been married to a U.S. citizen for more than three years (while being continuously resident in the country) was all I needed to apply. I’ve actually been eligible for over a year. I hadn’t ever looked into the requirements before, because I hadn’t ever been able to come up with a good reason to apply for citizenship. Not being able to vote in the last election was admittedly, pretty galling, but it never felt like reason enough to apply for an American passport. However, having a U.S. passport, that would allow me to travel and be able to return to live and work the U.S. whenever, forever, now holds real appeal; it’s a permanent solution to my permanent desire to travel freely. The cost of naturalization is $725 ($640 filing fee + $85 biometrics) – just a hair more than the re-entry permit. So, following a brief discussion with Chris, the decision was made.
The application process was surprisingly painless; the questions are available online, and while it involved answering questions to fill a 20-page form, most were easy to answer, like, how long I’ve been in the US, where I’ve lived and worked while here, who my parents are, and who I’m are married to. A little more arduous was rounding up all the paperwork to show that Chris and I have lived together for the past three years (tax returns, insurance policies, joint bank accounts, properties owned). Nigh on impossible is figuring out what days I have been outside of the U.S. in the last five years – yes, list every single day I’ve traveled abroad since May, 2013. Then come the affirmations at the end of the form, in which I surmised I was expected to answer “No” to the question “Have you ever been a habitual drunkard” (my 20s were borderline, I’d say), and “Yes” to “Are you willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States” (I’m far more likely to advocate for arming bears).
The process of naturalization is a three stage one: First I have my biometrics appointment, in which I visit a USCIS field office and they fingerprint, photograph and scan my irises (creepy much). Next comes the naturalization interview, another visit to a USCIS office, this time for an interview with a USCIS officer in which I answer questions about my application and background, demonstrate I can read, write and speak English, and take a civics test which I have to answer 6/10 questions correctly about U.S. government, history and geography (there are some practice questions online if you want to see if you’d pass – Chris would be out on his ear!). Assuming all this goes to plan, the next is the naturalization ceremony, in which I will take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. I’ve been given an estimated completion time of 15 months for my application.
All of this sounds relatively painless until you remember that starting in under 6 weeks, I’ll be somewhere between Alaska and Argentina on a bike when USCIS writes me a letter to tell me I have to appear at the Las Vegas USCIS field office for one of these appointments. USCIS aren’t known for their flexibility with scheduling, so when they tell me I need to appear, my plan is to cycle to the nearest city and get on an airplane and show up at the damn appointment, on time. On one website, it tells me I should appear in ‘business casual’ dress to ‘respect the dignity of the event’ – hopefully someone will lend me something other than my tattered cycling shorts and flip flops for the occasion. Lucky for me, one of those three appointments already happened. Imagine my utter delight when the first interview (the biometric appointment) by sheer chance was scheduled for one of the nine days I was back in the Southwest between my trip to the UK and leaving for Detroit next week.
I knew what to expect for this appointment because I attended the same appointment three years ago, when my conditional status turned permanent. I have kept every document I’ve ever submitted for every visa application over the past ten years (because it’s that important, and because this is the sort of person I am), so naturally, when they told me I had to appear at the same filed office so they could collect biometrics data they already had, I dug out the receipt and called to ask if that step could be waived. Of course, I already knew the answer. The person I spoke to informed me that biometrics data ‘expires’ after a period of time (because everyone knows that fingerprints aren’t very stable), although he was less clear on the amount of time it took for this data to degrade – irrespective, whatever the time-frame of my last appointment, it was too long.
So, one morning earlier this week, I got up at 5am and drove two hours to Vegas. When I got to the office, the man at the front desk gave me a booklet to study for the civics test and joked with me that our shared British/U.S. history might help or hinder my ability to answer the question – since presumably we are taught different versions about what happened back in 1776. I filled out their paperwork and took my seat. Less than a minute later they called me back to a booth, took one photo, fingerprinted my right hand, found they had all my material already on file and told me I was all done. Five minutes after entering the building I was out the door for the two-hour drive back to St George.
One down, two to go.