Note: Let me apologize up front for writing a post that’s only tangentially related finance. Such posts won’t be frequent; however, we just finished a fairly involved bureaucratic process with the USCIS, and one for which not much help was available, so I wanted to share what we went through in the hopes that others out there in similar situations might find it helpful.
My husband (a Spanish citizen) and I (a US citizen) married in 2003 and in 2004 went through the process of filing for his US permanent resident status (commonly known as getting a green card). Anyone who’s gone through the fun of filing papers with the USCIS (new name for the INS) can imagine that that in and of itself was a barrel of fun. (If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky. Just imagine the DMV on steroids.) We were living in Beligum at the time of filing, and ironically, it actually took us a mere 4 weeks for the USCIS to process and approve our application from there, much less than the 6 months or 1 year that it would have taken had we been living in the US at the time and had filed from here. Apparently, the processing dates at some USCIS service centers are really behind.
US laws state that if you’re married for less than two years when you file for permanent resident status, you will only be granted a conditional permanent resident status that expires in two years, assuming you’re approved. In order to remove the two-year condition and receive a “regular” green card, it’s up to you to file form I-751 within the 90 day period before the second anniversary of your entry as a permanent resident into the US. (That’s straightforward, right? Don’t you love bureaucracy?) For example, suppose my husband entered the US on June 15, 2004. Then we would be required to file form I-751, the application to remove conditions of residence, sometime between March 15 and June 15, 2006, or risk deportation.
The 2-year conditional resident status and complicated filing deadline are just ways the government uses to prevent immigrants from entering the country under false pretenses and marriages of convenience. Of course, whether or not it works, plus the debate over how paperwork can prove that your marriage is “real” are things we won’t get into right here. It’s an imperfect solution for an imperfect world.
If you’ve read this far, the main reason for this post is that the instructions for form I-751 are very vague. Other than the application form and a few typical requirements, and the requisite $205 processing fee (!!), the USCIS suggests you send in “supporting documents providing evidence of the relationship” as part of your application. They recommend birth certificates of any children born into the marriage, lease and mortgage contracts, financial records, and “other documents”. Interesting how evidence of financial commitment serves as a practical proxy for proof of emotional or marital commitment.
The USCIS also requires you submit sworn affidavits from people who have known you since your conditional permanent residency status was granted attesting to your relationship, meaning they write letters addressed to the USCIS that are signed and sworn in front of a notary public (in the US) about how in love you are, when and how they’ve seen you together as a happily married couple, etc. Needless to say, as someone who values my privacy, this was really a really awkward request for me to make of friends and family.
We weren’t sure what other documents to include with our application, and the few resources on this subject on the Internet were were agencies willing to charge money for advice. We hadn’t had any children yet, and most of the bills and accounts were only under one of our names simply because we’d been too lazy to file for joint bank accounts and add both our names to the utilities. (We really should have looked at what was required in the I-751 form far ahead of time and prepared.)
Luckily, we also had a friend who had just gone through the I-751 filing process. Upon filing, he and his wife had actually filed and then received notice from the USCIS that they needed to send in more documents showing evidence of their relationship before their petition was approved. His advice was just to simply overwhelm them with paperwork, include as many affidavits as possible, and send photographs as well. Beat the bureaucrats at their own game, so to speak.
So, I spent several weeks calling our old auto and renter’s insurers, previous apartment complexes and utility companies in an attempt to get written proof that we had been living at the same address, mostly because I’d opted to go paperless and use e-billing options instead of receiving paper bills on most of our utilities.
We certainly don’t have the most complicated relationship to prove, but we were still surprised to receive our approval only two months after submitting our application. This was especially unexpected given that we had received a notice of receipt that included an automatic 1-year extension to my husband’s permanent resident status simply because the USCIS was so behind in processing.
And so, here’s the list of the documents we filed. I’m in no way claiming that if you file these things your petition will get approved (or even receive expedited processing), but if you’re just wondering, as we did, about what in the world we ought to submit, below are some ideas. Some people also include a letter addressed to the USCIS, but it’s not required, and we didn’t.
List of documents submitted:
- A list detailing each of the documents submitted (more specific and detailed than this one)
- I-751 Application Form
- Additional addresses page (required if you’ve lived at more than one address during your residency)
- Two 2”x2” passport photos
- Copy of Permanent Residence Card (front and back required)
- Sworn affidavit from my father
- Sworn affidavit from friends who’ve known us (2)
- Sworn affidavit from my mother and stepfather
- Photographs of ourselves taken on trips and events during the conditional residency period (we submitted 30 prints from digital shots using Snapfish’s service)
- Air way bill and receipt for move to the US
- Certificate of group health coverage
- Residency verification or copies of leases from apartment complexes (we’d lived in two complexes during this time and submitted both)
- Puppy guarantee from breeder showing both our names
- State vehicle certificates of title for each car
- State Vehicle Registrations for each car
- Flight itinerary from Orbitz for trips taken
- Any IRA or other beneficiary forms showing spouse as beneficiary
- Copy health insurance cards
- Letter from apartment complexes showing renewal options
- Renter’s insurance policies at each address
- Energy bill showing letter of credit and service period (they couldn’t send us back copies of our bills since we were on e-bill)
- Copy of credit cards showing our names using the same number
- COBRA coverage documents
- Copies of current and previous auto insurance for each car and at each address
- Phone bills/phone service confirmation at each address showing both our names
- Copy of lease on the house we’re currently renting
- Current and previous water bills showing both our names
- Purchase contract for car showing both names (if applicable)
- Joint bank account statements
- Federal tax returns filed for each year
- State tax returns filed for each year
There you have it. Pretty much anything that has both your names on it and shows you lived at the same address that covers any part of the period of time in question. Fill out the required forms, gather the documents, package it up, and send it by some sort of method where you’re sure to receive proof that you’ve sent in the forms and that they’ve received them. (Within the US, USPS’s Overnight Guaranteed is a good service to use because you must send to a PO Box.)
Although we’d like to never have to go through such a process again, we have to say that things are still less bureaucratic here than in Europe. Having lived Brussels, that continent’s political and bureaucratic capital, we have very little to complain about in comparison to some of the things we went through there!