Since the terror attacks of September 2001, the obstacles have become ever more daunting, even for tourists who find themselves finger-printed and photographed at customs even if they only plan to spend a weekend in Vegas.
Winning a visa to study or work here for any prolonged amount of time has become a task that is nerve-wracking and can cost thousands in legal fees. Very fortunately, my travels in the Byzantine world of American visa-dom came before 9/11. For several years I had remained here on a so-called Information Visa reserved for reporters for foreign publications. I renewed it once. Then, in 2000, I went for broke. I applied for the hallowed Green Card.
The process - I was applying for myself, my former wife, and my son all at once - was painful enough even back then. My Los Angeles-based lawyer, who eventually billed me $4,000, some of it going to the government, advised that my only option was to apply as a person of (don't laugh) "exceptional abilities".
This was a 15-month exercise in self-aggrandisement. Begging letters were written to acquaintances in high positions - including former Times editor Harry Evans - asking them for gushing testimonials as to my character and professional achievements. On my lawyer's urging, I even submitted dog-eared Christmas cards received from former President Bill Clinton and recordings of appearances I had made on television chat shows.
Finally, after months of anxious anticipation, word came from an immigration office that they had bought my story. I was indeed an exceptional person. But I had a little more work to do. Fingerprints had to be given and I was obliged to travel with the family to London for an "interview" at the US Embassy. It turned out to be a perfunctory business, but we were dispatched the same morning to some gloomy doctor's office for a comprehensive check to ensure we wouldn't be importing tuberculosis or any other drastic disease to the land of the free (and healthy).
About four weeks before 9/11, the Green Cards arrived. Hallelujah. The size of a credit card with our photos and our most intimate details encoded in an electronic strip, it isn't green at all, but never mind. I now guard it with my life. Lose it and I will be forced to apply all over again. The advantages are many, not least that on arriving at JFK from England I am now allowed at passport control to skip the long queues of restive tourists and masquerade as a US citizen. But I am not quite that. In fact, somewhat unsettlingly, my official designation in this country is as a "resident alien". I can stay for as long as I desire. I must pay all US taxes (though, infuriatingly, I still cannot vote) and if I leave the country and live elsewhere for any length of time I must continue to pay them. Unless I give the card up. Which is not something, after so much sweat and humiliation, I would easily be persuaded to do.