Green card status has put me in the running at last

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The Independent US

Nobody ever said anything about being fingerprinted.

Nobody ever said anything about being fingerprinted. But the immigration officer at JFK airport in New York was not about to engage in debate. He grasped my forefinger, rolled it right to left on the inkpad and pressed it firmly on some form. He smiled, as if to say: "There, that didn't hurt, did it?" and stamped my passport.

That was the instant, on a recent Sunday night, at which the customs hall should have erupted with balloons and confetti – I had become the proud holder of a US green card. Nothing of the sort happened. I shuffled off to look for my suitcase. Even the passport stamp failed to thrill: "PROCESSED FOR I-551 TEMPORARY EVIDENCE OF LAWFUL ADMISSION FOR PERMANENT RESIDENCE." Apparently the card itself will come in the post in about six months.

But I am happy. Now I can hold my head high at expat functions. The same question always comes: "So, do you have a green card yet? You don't? Oh, you really should get one, because you never know when it'll come in handy."

And now I have all these new rights. A green card allows you to remain and work in the US for as long as you like. Get one and you are one step short of becoming a citizen and knowing the words to the pledge of allegiance. My family and I can stay here for the rest of our lives, if we choose. I still can't vote, although I could, technically, be drafted to fight for Uncle Sam in a war.

What I really am, though, is relieved. Because getting the green card has been a monster pain in the neck. It wasn't so much the money paid to my immigration lawyer but the tedium of assembling all the paperwork. Every time we thought we were done, something else came up.

The first stage was embarrassing. The only hope I had of getting a green card was to demonstrate that I would truly be a catch for the US. I had to apply as an "Alien of Extraordinary Ability" (this makes my colleagues laugh). That meant finding six high-profile people willing to write letters vouching that I was such a person.

Things would have gone faster had I been the author of weighty books and recipient of many journalism awards. I could satisfy on neither front. But finally, six months ago, some immigration official concluded that the testimonial letters as well as the pile of dog-eared cuttings I had submitted were sufficiently impressive to grant the Usbornes a preliminary acceptance.

The real work was still to come, however. A final interview for me, my wife and my son had to be set up at the US embassy in London. But before that, other documents were required. We needed certificates, for instance, from every country we had lived in for six months or more proving that we did not have criminal records. This meant filing applications to Scotland Yard and the Belgian Justice Ministry. The latter replied with a question – what had been our national identity card numbers during our seven years of residence in Belgium? Oops. We never did get those cards.

Eventually, everything was in order and a date in London was set for the end of July. Then yet another set of forms arrived with questions on our medical histories and our finances. Some were hard to take seriously. No, we would not be practising polygamy once resident in America.

Everything about the process, I had begun to see, was designed to intimidate and lower expectations of success. The instructions for our day at the embassy were awesome. We had to be there by eight in the morning sharp. With everything. "A visa CANNOT be issued if you do not bring ALL the required original documents." Vital, apparently, were detailed vaccination records, to be produced at our medical check-up. I didn't have any.

But I shouldn't have fretted. The kindly consul briefly perused our dossier and had us hold up our right hands to swear we hadn't told fibs. And the doctor got around the vaccination problem by ordering the nurse to pump me full with everything all over again. The required chest X-rays revealed nothing worrying and we were, I am happy to report, all HIV negative.

So, we had passed. We were in the door. Never mind that we had been living in America on visas for 10 years already. At last, we had been deemed worthy of the hallowed green card. We were each handed colourful certificates saying so. Sadly, these were taken away by the man at JFK. But before giving it up, I noticed something strange. I was being granted my "Alien of Extraordinary Ability" status as a "writer, entertainer, artist and athlete". Athlete? I am expecting a call from the US Olympic Committee any day.