I came across a review “Green Card Stories: A Visual Catalog of Immigrants Trials and Tribulations” of a new book photo book. The review is by a writer for The Atlantic, Maria Popova, and focused on the role that determination, sacrifice, and stamina play in navigating the complicated immigration in the United States. As the book (and reviewer) note, it takes grit and determination to satisfy immigration law, and many end up spending years, and hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on application fees, lawyer fees, and so forth. And indeed, I know that this is true, since to bring my German wife to the United States in 1988, I dealt with this. For us it took hundreds of dollars in fees and multiple trips to Embassies and Immigration offices in distant cities and three years before the green card to which she was entitled under the law showed up in our post box. My favorite conversation with an immigration officer occurred after waiting in line for five hours at the San Francisco Immigration office went something like this:
She: “Your file is not in our Computer!”
Me: “But your computer sent me a letter to come here.”
She: “But you’re not in our Computer.”
Me: “But you are the one called us….”
She: “Harumph. Your papers will be processed.”
Me: “What telephone number can I call if to check to see if things are going ok?”
She: “The public number.”
Me: “But that number takes several hours to get through. And how do I ask for you in order to see that things are going ok?”
She: “You can’t ask for me. My name is secret, you need to call the public number.”
And indeed, I do agree that the determination of the immigrants profiled in the new book is commendable for dealing with systems and people like the woman I encountered. But I really wonder why all this is really necessary? Does immigration processing need to be so complicated?
As an American, I’ve been through immigration in Thailand, Tanzania, and Germany, in addition to my experiences with US immigration and my German wife. The US is the most expensive, the slowest, and the least efficient of the lot. As a result, perhaps, the United States also has the largest percentage of “illegal” immigrants, perhaps because that is the country that has the most cumbersome immigration requirements.
Germany in 2007 was my favorite. I was hired by a Germany university in 2007-2008 to teach for the year. The university gave me the papers to get my work permit when I arrived, and I threw my marriage certificate in for good measure. I rode my bike down to the local immigration office, where I waited in line about five minutes. I showed the immigration officer the papers. She swept the work from the university aside, and held up our marriage certificate:
“I see you have a real German wife!”
Yes, I certainly did. She asked: “Can you produce the real German wife and a photograph of yourself?”
Certainly I could—would tomorrow work? Yes certainly. The next day we rode our bikes to the immigration office and I showed the immigration officer my real live German wife, and gave her the photographs. She looked at her watch, and asked,
“How long are you going to stay in Germany?”
“One year,” I announced proudly.
Well, then, she said, “come back after lunch, and we will give you your passport with the visa!”
We went back after lunch, and lo and behold, there was my passport with the brand new German work permit, good for two years, which apparently was what I was entitled to under German immigration law.
Well, that’s my nice story about immigration agents. And it really is my only nice one (Oh, except for the counters at Chinese immigration offices where you can rate the service by pushing on buttons with a smiley face or frown—but who is going to do that when all you want do is avoid pissing the officer with the entry stamp off?)
Now for some more nasty immigration stories. There was the time I was briefly put in a rather nice locked “waiting room” in the Frankfurt airport for an hour or so because I left my passport on the plane. I was threatened with deportation—anyway it was a lousy way to spend the Christmas Day, 2010.
Then there was the time I was “deported” from the United States to Mexico for unknowingly getting in the Express Lane at the border crossing. The US Immigration Officer, thought he was a comedian (“Do you want to pay $5000, have your car seized, or drive back into Mexico?”).
And once I left my dad and his wife alone in Burundi for about an hour, while I drove 5 kilometers in to Tanzania to find the Burundian border guards who were drinking with their Tanzanian counterparts (talk about a good way to guarantee good international border relations—perhaps the Americans and Mexicans should give it a go).
And then I spent a whole week once in the Tanzanian Immigration office waiting for paperwork to be processed—I took a book and waited with all the Malawians and Indians. I was never threatened me with deportation; but it was very slow as they went through the paper files.
Anyway, this all brings me back to all those immigrants whose photographs and stories are in Green Cards Stories. Through perseverance they made it. Sure, ok. But I really wish that they had had the same experience I had in Germany. Follow the rules, and you get your passport back after lunch, and all you have to do is follow the law by bringing in a real live German wife.
Oh, and I think I forgot to mention how much it cost to get my German “green card” work permit. The answer is that it cost what the photographs cost me, and the wear on my bicycle tire—the visa was free; regulation of immigration is done at the cost of the German government, and not the individual immigrant. Which perhaps helps explain why legitimate immigrants rush in to cooperate with immigration officers in Germany. And funny enough, despite the absence of immigration torture, immigrants to Germany are as happy to be there as the American immigrants described in “Green Card Stories.”
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.