Politics Affects Individuals Like Us More
In September 2018 we received our present from the Trump Administration: we were requested to come in for an intimidating final Green Card Interview at the USCIS Baltimore Field Office with a Case Officer. This is a new step in the process, a true gift from the Government. In March 2017, the Trump Administration, through a series of internal memorandums and an Executive Order established a new heightened security requirement where Employer Sponsored Green Card applicants would now need to physically present themselves for an interview with a USCIS Case Officer before a Green Card application could be approved. Prior to this, EB2/EB3 applicants adjusting statuses while already being lawfully present in the U.S. were considered a very low security risk category and did not need a physical interview unless in extreme circumstances. This is part of the combined influence of the Extreme Vetting and Buy American Hire American policies that tighten the screws on legal immigration – even if it be for highly skilled innocent workers.
What you see in the news barely scratches the surface. The Administration is reshaping current immigration protocols and processes through internal policy memorandums, executive orders, and interpretations. A lawyer I spoke to told me “we haven’t seen anything like this; it (immigration law) is changing every day”. This is the power of a vote. It affects real people, especially the most vulnerable who are at the mercy of a large system. Theoretically, if we weren’t in today’s America Zuhur and I would have received the Green Cards three months after filing to adjust the status; so, September 2018.
There is little point in getting frustrated at forces in play that are bigger than you. What we can do is to navigate as much as we can the waters and paths within our grasp. So we prepared and prepared. Zuhur flew in again from Vancouver for the sole purpose of a half hour interview. We piled every tax form, certificate, qualification and photo ever taken into an evidence binder thicker than a Bible. We went through questions, researched online, and prepped for what was to be one of the most important interviews ever. Richard Purves, in his Green Card journey article, says it so well when he writes “[i]t’s nice to know that one guy can potentially ruin a life isn’t it?” as he reflects on his nightmare experience with a Case Officer in whose hands your fate of all these years now rests in. One slip up, even if it is innocent, could trigger an alarm in the interviewers mind and set off bells and everything could come crashing down and—pack your bags; leave.
So we went to Baltimore’s USCIS Office. The lawyers briefed us as much as they could on what to expect. The wait in the clinical waiting room felt tense but we also wanted it to be over. Having Zuhur by me at that time was perfect. We laughed and exchanged grins at this and that. At this point all I wanted was a decision. Yes/no, just tell it to me straight so I can get on with my life. As much as I knew I had earned this opportunity – being here for nine years straight, I also knew I had no guarantee or right to it in today’s America. It is a privilege and one that I could not take for myself – it had to be given to me by a suspicious system. But I also knew Sri Lanka was waiting for me too, so I trusted in fate and God to guide our outcome in the next hour. A woman’s voice called “Mohamed Baba?” and we stood up a little too quickly. The Case Officer had a smile on her face and was warm enough with her greeting (I was thankful). She held the door open to the secure facility and escorted Zuhur and me into her plain office. We sat down across from her. She had a sense of humor and seemed to be in her mid-30s, possibly an ex-millennial. I remember making a selfie joke and she laughed heartily. But then the way she adjusted her spectacles, blinked, and began to mechanically pull out two thick files containing our life histories told me she was sharper than she gave herself out to be. I swallowed some spit at the thought. In a monotone she read a few standard sentences from a government script she now knew entirely by memory. She made us rise, take oaths, and then turned on a camera to record our every word and micro facial expression. Then began her questions.
She didn’t ask for our curated couple photo album or any of my professional documents or crisp copies. She knew what she wanted to do before this interview even started. It started with the basics, and then some cross examinations of Zuhur and myself to know what we knew of one another. Soon she found blanks in some of our application sections—I saw the white spaces where there should have been answers we had already provided the lawyers to fill in (I made a mental note to blast one of the lawyers for missing that). She asked us for the verbal answers. We gave them as best as we could remember. I couldn’t tell if she was satisfied. She seemed to be scribbling furiously in red ink. I got nervous but didn’t let it show; instead, I smiled and tried to appear calm. The interview was over. She turned to her computer and began typing into it like it would speak to her in a minute with a decision or spit something out. I could hear the yes/no moment coming. From what I had read online, in the universe of US visa forums, if it was a “yes” they would give us a preliminary indication with a stamping of the passport or verbal confirmation. Instead, she smiled, handed us a white paper with a lot of text and told us “so at this time, for your country and category, your Priority Date is not current so we don’t have any available visas at the moment to issue and we can’t make a decision on this application right now. So I’d just sit tight for a few weeks okay”. My ears popped; I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly. Next thing I knew panic was bubbling up to my throat trying to spill out.
“I’m sorry” I spat, not even thinking. “No quotas? But…we are from Sri Lanka, right? We don’t have a quota or a backlog?”
Her smile was friendly, and somewhat comforting, even genuine. “So, for this year, we’ve run out of visa numbers that are available to be granted for your category. A fresh supply will be coming at the beginning of the fiscal year. Since I can’t make a decision on your case I’m going to have to wait till your Priority Date is current. I’ll make my notes and they’ll make the decision from there okay”. That day was September 27. Two business days later would mean October 1 – the beginning of the U.S fiscal year. I had arrived thinking I’d leave with my fate finally sealed and here I was yet again, a tiny number in this system, slapped with another wait for the unknown. We thanked one another and separated after she made some final copies of some documents.
Zuhur could tell this was not what I was expecting – I had expected a yea/nay, not a ‘wait longer’. Seeing our two applications sitting on her table at the Baltimore Field Office was comforting because we knew they were right there waiting for an action to be taken. But now my mind began to race through all the worst outcomes. If the Priority Date doesn’t become current soon, they are going to ship our precious applications away from any human contact to be transferred to this mysterious National Benefits Center (NBC) for a decision at an undermined date! If this was true, I could just see this NBC. Some massive industrial warehouse like some gargantuan Amazon datacenter with unlimited rows of library shelves stuffed with 100,000 applications just dumped in there and our precious two bundles would be joining that haystack. Who would look at those? When would they look at it? How do they prioritize it? Was it first come first serve or… the mental stress was too much to acknowledge – I remember shutting it out and not thinking about it. I’ve waited this long, what’s a few more months (years?) of uncertainty. Easy to think, hard to live through.
Would you believe that two business days later our Priority Date became current on their website, and new visa numbers were made available? Every month, the State Department and USCIS coordinate and update what is known as the U.S. Visa Bulletin which tells you where in the queue you are for that month. It could change every month. So my Priority Date being current this month doesn’t guarantee anything for next month. So if a decision is not made within October, chances are up in the air again next month in November as we are waiting on two factors: a current date, and a human somewhere picking up our applications and making a final decision.
Would you also believe, as I happened to learn online while following people’s stories, that some people who went after October 1 were issued Green Card approvals right away during their interviews? That should have been us, I thought! It didn’t matter that I had gone before them, or was in line first.
They were luckier, and we were not. This is the reality of this current system.