The Hidden Human Costs of a new Life
Even the simplest immigration cases are far from straightforward
How many born and bred Americans know how immigration really works?
Ask anyone with a Green Card and we’ll be happy to tell you how we may have an American life but no guarantee of being allowed back into the country if we go away on vacation, for example.
And if you want to go further and hear what commitment means then ask a naturalized citizen like me, someone who became an American by choice.
And yet, my story is neither extraordinary nor unusual. I fell in love with an American and we thought we’d make a life here rather than in the European Union, where I come from.
With hindsight, this wasn’t a smart move but America was another country back in 2013, with no indication of what was to come.
Immigrants tend to feel very strongly about policies that made our presence on American soil possible.
But while some of us have an innate kinship with anyone who comes here from elsewhere, others turn into raging racists.
Although the latter remains incomprehensible to me, I’m only too familiar with it. As a French-American, I can never forget where I come from (or that I’m also descended from immigrants to France on both sides) but I have an American relative who is also an immigrant but has rejected her roots. If she could, she’d erect walls on both borders and put a lid on the lot so no one could get in.
When I arrived in 2013, she deemed me trash because I came from a “socialist bloc” called the European Union. What’s more, I had a trash education (my degree is from a British university and not an American one). Worse even, I have a trash profession: I’m a journalist rather than a doctor, an accountant, or a lawyer. And it was the first time in my life I was asked what I was even multilingual for. (As an aside, the US has never had and still doesn’t have an official language.)
For two very long and very painful years, I was shunned by my new family, and so was my husband on account of his reprehensible choice of bride.
Coincidentally — or not — this is also when major depressive disorder felled me. It proved so incapacitating I only started getting back on my feet in the summer of 2018.
But because I was no longer living in socialist utopia where health care is a basic human right, I found myself in a bizarre situation whereby I had insurance but could not afford therapy co-pays.
Many sacrifices were involved in making immigration happen.
That I should still be surviving on one single meal a day six years later and my husband on supermarket own brand mac ’n’ cheese is another clue.
After filing, it took over four months for my work authorization to arrive during which time I wasn’t allowed to do any kind of work. None. Not even freelancing, for to do so would have been breaking the conditions of my stay in the US. There was no leaving the country either, not that I could have afforded it.
This is standard procedure and I was among the lucky ones as my local USCIS field office had fast processing times back then. Some people in different parts of the country have to wait much longer while relying on savings, partners, or relatives to survive. And it’s gotten exponentially worse since Trump took office.
But hardship isn’t the aspirational story anyone tells, because America is always synonymous with a better life, an improved life.
Even in France, to cross the Atlantic and settle in the US is to be rendered mythical, an uncommon achievement. To my dad, you’d think I was Lindbergh because America has always loomed large in French popular imagination.
Meanwhile, there’s immense pressure on immigrants to prove themselves worthy of this new home. We’re expected to be infallible and America asks of us what she doesn’t even ask of her own people.
My entire life story was laid bare for the FBI to comb through, I was photographed and fingerprinted several times, and background-checked. I also had to go through a comprehensive physical that included blood works and a chest X-ray. (And a doctor with zero bedside manner who boomed to my husband with a lewd wink that I didn’t have syphilis. By the time the consult was over, the whole waiting room also knew. I’m surprised and a little disappointed no one clapped when I came out.)
I also had to unpack my failed first marriage again, which wasn’t exactly joyful as it had been abusive. And I had to disclose any former union affiliations because unions have a bad rap in the US whereas they’re an intrinsic part of work life in Europe.
Finally, I had to swear I wasn’t a communist, a prostitute, or someone engaged in moral turpitude, a word deliberately chosen to weed out shady folks, no doubt.
When depression hit, my brand new life promptly fell apart.
The bills piled up and my husband and I never got the chance to enjoy our permanent togetherness. We had had to find those lawyer and government fees somewhere so we had maxed out credit cards when we still had them. And taken out loans.
Ever since we got married, we’ve never not been cash-strapped, we’ve never not struggled but at least I can’t be deported if I become a little too loud about the current regime.
Back in 2013, the total cost of this new life of ours was around $5K, which is a lot more expensive these days as fees have gone up.
Because we wanted to do everything right, we hired a lawyer although we didn’t need to as our case wasn’t complex at all.
And yet, all this tells you a lot about what makes a worthy immigrant: Someone who can pay.
Those $5K do not take into account overdraft fees and late payment fees from utility companies. To afford immigration, we had to shuffle money around and put off paying bills. The day of my Green Card interview, $7 in cash is exactly what my husband and I had between us and we promptly handed them over to the parking attendant at the USCIS field office with a resigned sigh, knowing we wouldn’t even be able to afford a cup of coffee afterwards.
Those $5K do not take into account the printing and courier fees for the paperwork. The amount of documents we submitted is best measured in trees rather than pages. Years of tax returns, bank statements, proof of insurance, rental contract…
Even when there was no money for food we had to find some to pay for immigration. Neither the government nor lawyers did payment plans. It was cash upfront and at the time that meant banker’s drafts for us.
USCIS only started accepting credit cards a while ago.
Not everyone can afford to drop $5K on a new life.
We could not but we did in the name of love because being apart had become more difficult than being together. Now please try and imagine this for more than one adult, add a couple of children to the picture and then ask yourself how you, personally, would pay for it.
Ask yourself what you’d be willing to sacrifice for a new life for your family. Would you kill your credit score? Would you risk your home and face eviction? Would you stop eating more than once a day? Would you put your health on the line? My husband and I both did.
Immigration is a privilege, and one that I’m very grateful for even though we’ve been paying for it ever since.
This probably isn’t the kind of narrative you expect from a college-educated, professional woman with extensive international experience. And reacting to immigration with major depressive disorder doesn’t fit in with the American dream either, especially when the dream is best likened to an organ transplant that didn’t take.
But this is my story, and the only reason I’m sharing it is because many are quick to hate on immigrants but have no idea what any of us have been through, nor what happened afterwards.
In spite of it all — and because of where I come from, what I look like, and how I came here — I’ve had it easy.
And I’m only too painfully aware that many might find my immigration narrative more relatable than that of a refugee from a country on the Muslim ban list, and it breaks my heart.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.