Eight years ago, I applied for a green card.
I was a fledgling Canadian freelancer selling album reviews for $30 a pop and short stories to literary journals for $150 if I was lucky.
I saw New York City as the Mecca for Western literature. Who wouldn’t want to move into a dive in Alphabet City or an abandoned tenement near Morgan and Bogart in Brooklyn and live the starving-artist experience while writing the Great Canadian Novel? I figured I could get an internship at a magazine or a newspaper, and cut my teeth. Canada loses most of its creative talent to the U.S. anyway, like our only two handsome Ryans; maybe I could be one of those hosers abandoning ship for the land of multifold opportunity and endless wealth?
I did have a little bit of experience in this kind of process. Years ago, I got my Portuguese citizenship for the sole reason of going through European passport control quicker. Little did I know I would end up moving to Europe for many years. Having EU citizenship ended up saving my keester, and had I not had that foresight, the fit would’ve hit the shan, as they say. With that in mind, I figured the same might apply with the green card. With global politics in a state of never-ending instability, all I wanted was a little protection.
My father became an American citizen about 20 years ago, so he sponsored my application. I didn’t hear back for six years, until 2018. I had figured my application was lost but when they contacted me to say my application was active, I went for it. There were massive hoops to jump through just to be considered for an interview at the American consulate in Montreal, and every step toward getting that interview—background checks, a medical exam, the endless forms—was designed as a deterrent to prevent people from completing the application. And the cost! The police certificates, courier fees, travel tickets, fingerprints, and medical exams alone came in at just under $1,000, on top of the exorbitant application fees (another $1,000).
The police background check involved fingerprinting (which made me wonder where my biological data was being stored and how it was being used). The medical exam could only be done by four specific doctors in Ontario approved by the Americans (and thus, not covered by Ontario’s healthcare). I was required to show up to the exam with my entire history of inoculations and vaccinations. But my family doctor had died many years before and I hadn’t received my medical records. Toronto Public Health didn’t have my immunization records either, so I had to go be a vaccination pin-cushion (sorry anti-vaxxers) prior to the exam.
The interview for my specific type of visa had to be done at the consulate in Montreal, so if applicants live in Vancouver or Whitehorse, they would need to travel 4,000 kilometres on their own dime for what amounted to an hour.
When I finally landed an interview in Montreal in August of 2019, I was jonesing for a green card. I had managed to make it through the labyrinthian system and came out alive on the other side: for that reason alone I felt I deserved it. But my luck being what it is, my visa was denied because one of my police background checks was a year old (“But it took you a year to schedule this interview,” I said to the consular official, who just shrugged her shoulders), so my future was dependent on more fees, more costs, and more documentation. I finally received the visa pasted into my passport months later at the end of November and entered the U.S. a few weeks ago in order to finalize the process.
Even with everything in order, I was pulled into secondary at the border for further questioning. I don’t know if you’ve ever had angry men in uniforms bark questions at you in a secluded section of the airport while the fluorescent lighting burns your retinas, but let me tell you, every answer you give is received with scrutiny, making you start to even doubt yourself. “Yes, I swear I am unmarried, sir.” Wait...am I? I ended up having a panic attack, and the cabin crew had to board me separately from the other passengers because I couldn’t compose myself.
So I’ve got it now, and even one of those Social Security Numbers go with it. I can live and work in the United States without restriction. There are people around the world who would give their left tit for that, and many others who are stuck in year two of their decadelong application, wondering how they’re going to pay for all of it.
So, it is at the end of this entire arduous, expensive process that I ask myself a pretty privileged question: after eight years do I even want to live in the United States?
A lot has changed since January 2012. Eight years ago I was wearing leg warmers with every outfit (I secretly still think they’re punk rock). Eight years ago I was schleppin’ across Europe, living only out of a backpack. Eight years ago, I was afraid of having sex standing up because it might lead to dancing. Eight years ago, I thought Benedict Cumberbatch was the sexiest man alive (but that last season of Sherlock made my vagina make the Windows XP shutdown jingle).
As people change, so do nations. The United States is a decidedly very different place today than what it was in 2012. Barack Obama was elected to his second term in 2012. Gosh, remember that guy? The president who signed up for the Paris Climate Accord, and legalized same-sex marriage?
Now there is a president who has instituted a Muslim ban, paid off porn stars, bragged about sexually assaulting women while mic’d up on an entertainment news bus, and banned trans people from serving in the military. He’s only the fourth sitting president to be impeached for corruption and abuse of power. Now there’s a country where white supremacists now unabashedly march about the streets with tiki torches, when they used to hide in basements and hood their faces.
It is no coincidence that since 2016, Canadians of diverse ethnic backgrounds have either been detained at the border for hours of intense questioning, sent back to Canada for obscure reasons, or banned entirely. And I may only be half Lebanese, but my eyebrows alone are fluent in Arabic. So imagine my reticence.
I know I should consider myself damn lucky for having these options open to me. But I can’t help but feel like I’ve sunk costs into a country I don’t think I recognize anymore. If I had known what would become of America back then, I wonder if 2012-me would have bothered. Have I done this for the woman I used to be, rather than the woman I am today?
Do I still want to move to NYC to write? The short answer is yes. The long answer is fuck yes. Sure I could stay here and get a coveted spot in a writer’s room for a Canadian TV show, but let’s be honest, it’s not the same. In my line of work, you really must swallow the bitter pill that there are greater opportunities in the U.S., just as immigrants have seen for 200 years.
I’ve always been the type of person to take a strong stance on things: everything is either black or white. It’s a way of making order in a world full of chaos. If there are only two options, then that’s a modus operandi that I can hang my coat on. It’s stable.
But since this is a world of instability, I am finding myself more and more in a world of grey. The grey zone is a world of I-don’t-knows. When I saw children shoved into concentration camps at the southern border and separated from their parents, I was reminded that I am an Arab with a Latina name. Having options really just seemed to me like the best preemptive strike against global turmoil.
Looking down at this visa pasted into my passport, I recognize the look of bewilderment on my unsmiling, monochrome, visa photo staring back at me. I have worn that look so many times. It’s a face that says, “Who the fuck are you?” “What the fuck do you know?” “What have you become?” When dreams clash with principles, isn’t that the definition of a sellout?
I guess there’s only one way to find out: I’m coming to America.
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