Yesterday, I performed a simple civil ceremony for a groom that works for immigration. He and his wife had a marriage license that was about to expire as they were trying to decide what to do, so they hired me to sign it and just get the legal part over with. I was so excited to learn what he does for a living!! International weddings are special to me. Sham weddings fascinate me, as I’m rather certain I’ve performed more than one. Speaking briefly to someone on the inside where they actually separate fact from fiction was a bit of a thrill.
I want to write several blog posts about my experiences marrying foreigners. I’m writing this blog post first to put them into context. My first immigration and green card experience is my own. Here is a little backstory about me to explain my point of view...
How I Met My Foreigner Husband
When I graduated from high school, back in the 80’s, I attended Culinary School at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. (It was still Johnson and Wales College then.) I graduated with an associates degree in Pastry Arts. I then set off to become a pastry chef. I was all of 19 years old when I graduated so I went home and looked for a job. A month or so later, I had an entry level position in a four star luxury hotel about 30 minutes from my parents home. It was even on the bus route so I could commute before buying my first car. This was an amazing job opportunity! This hotel was part of the community and had a very good publicity department. Their Sunday Brunch and their dessert buffet was legendary. Their most recent pastry chef had been a well known culinary olympics winner. They had recently finished a state of the art renovation of their bakery and pastry shop and somehow, they hired me!
Start with a J-1 Visa
The bakery itself, was staffed with Americans. The pastry shop, on the other hand, spoke a different language all together. The executive pastry chef was from Holland and was a Certified Master Pastry Chef in Germany. There were three pastry cooks from Austria working legally on J-1 visas through a student exchange program. The main language being spoken there was German. When the Austrians went home, they were replaced by a woman from Germany and a man from Holland. The main language spoken was still German. The General Manager of the hotel and the Executive Chef were both Austrian. The assistant manager was French. One of the restaurant chef’s was German. There was an entire department in the kitchen that was staffed mainly by Italian women. I was friends with an american woman who worked with them and we declared “only we could find a job in our own country and not speak the language!”
One day, there was a new cook from Germany and they were giving him a tour of the hotel. He walked into the pastry shop and I knew immediately I was going to marry him. I repressed that feeling for a few months, but we did finally have that first date where we were sitting in a bar and I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. I just kept smiling and shaking my head….
When your visa expires...
I always say when my husband’s visa expired we didn’t, and I moved to Germany with him. We were engaged a month after I moved there and we were married five months later. After our wedding we applied for his green card. A year after moving to Germany, with his green card in hand, we moved back to the US. I’m pretty sure, when I moved there it was with the intention to live there longer. I was excited to work in a German pastry shop. But after living in the US, my husband was no longer really interested in just living in Germany. He was ready to get back to things like 24 hour grocery stores.
Temporary Green Card - Permanent Green Card - Citizenship
The first green card, when issued on the grounds of a marriage less than two years old is temporary. After two years, you need to prove that you are still married. That was no problem. We supplied the required documents and he was then issued a green card good for 10 years. Over those 10 years, we broke up for a few months and he entertained the idea of moving back to Germany. Then we got back together and he entertained the idea of applying for citizenship. We started filling out the paperwork and didn’t go much further with it at the time. Not for any particular reason, more like laziness or other important things like work and life took precedence. There was no urgency or need. Fast forward a few years and he decided, once and for all, he wanted to be an american citizen. We filled out the paperwork, he had his interview and testing, which lasted a matter of minutes, and he was granted citizenship.
Immigration is the American Family Way
My father and I attended the swearing in and celebrated afterwards with a glass of champagne at a hip restaurant near the courthouse. My grandfather was an immigrant from Poland, becoming and american citizen really meant something to my dad. Honestly, I don’t think my husband and I thought too much about it. Obtaining the first green card was just part of us staying together. Becoming an American citizen was just as much a business decision than it was anything else. We’d been married 12 years and he was working as an Executive Chef. We owned a home. His life was firmly planted in the US.
There was lots of paperwork that needed to be done over the years. I didn’t need a visa to just visit Germany. A stamp in my passport was all that entailed. I did have to obtain a residency visa in Germany in order to get married in Germany. That required a medical exam, paperwork and money. We actually stumbled upon a German doctor that had attended medical school at Harvard. He proved very helpful to me over that year with this English language skills.
We had to fill out paperwork to get married, including legally translating documents and hiring an interpreter for the actual wedding. Since I was living in Germany, I didn’t have a job in the US able to support us so my father had to sponsor my husband’s green card. More and more paperwork.
Then, a lot of waiting. So much of the immigration process is waiting. You fill out papers and you wait until it's your turn to have your application processed. I've spoken to couples I've married going through the immigration process now and the first thing I was told was not to pay anyone to expedite your paperwork. No one can do that. I've also heard to only hire a lawyer if you need to go to court. More recently, a couple told me that the lawyer is actually worth it to make sure all the paperwork is completed correctly or then you have to fix your errors and then go to the back of the line again and wait some more.
Interviews, Tests and Questions.
We were never questioned, like in the movie Green Card, when the temporary green card was expiring. My husband wasn’t questioned much during his citizenship interview. He’d been living and working in the US for over ten years. It was obvious he could speak English well and was employable. His knowledge of the US and it’s government is probably better than many people born in the US, as is normal for many people visiting the US. (Even the interviewer said that.) He may have been asked a few questions, but according to him, it was more perfunctory and friendly than anything else. That particular immigration office, due to its location, dealt with more Hispanics who were working on farms and struggling to pass the English language test. My husband was the easy appointment of the day.
When I moved to Germany, I attended a German language class. It was really interesting time to be in Germany. It was a year after the wall came down and Germany was opening up wide. My teacher grew up in the eastern part of Germany. She didn’t speak English. Her second language was Russian. My classmates were from all over the world. There were several people from the Ukraine. One woman was from a part of Poland that used to be Germany before WW2, so she was allowed to move to Germany. There were many students from the middle east. They loved me and my blonde hair. I had a US dollar everyone was fascinated by. They had brought American whiskey to the Christmas party and everyone wanted to have their picture taken with me and my dollar. Not all, but many, students from the middle east were in Germany on student visas. One was a dentist, working towards an advanced degree. A very good friend of mine was from Egypt and seeking an advanced degree in Engineering. There were women traveling to different countries just to learn languages as part of their greater education.
Most of the students from the middle east were in Germany on student visas just to legally get into Germany. They had no intention to actually study in the university. I didn’t think much of that then. I do understand it better now. They found the easiest way into the country and then disappeared into the crowd.
Looking for a ride to Hollywood...
When we were applying for all of our visas we had to visit the American embassy in Frankfurt. There were a LOT of people there applying for green cards. There were a lot of young soldiers with seriously hot, blonde, German women that were most likely looking for a trip to the US and a green card. I was really just observing all of this, not really thinking about it seriously. I knew I loved my husband. I knew I was going to marry him the first time I set eyes on him. This was just part of the process. Observing things like this were part of the adventure.
It’s all so very romantic to look at from the outside...Traveling to a foreign land… But, my experiences in Germany were more with other foreigners then with actual Germans. Those “students” from the middle east were either going to get a degree and go home or disappear into a community of people from their country or culture. We communicated through English and broken German. There was no internet to just log onto to connect with friends and family back then. Communicating could be hard. I've learned there is a difference between communicating and properly speaking a language. When you are just trying to communicate you use all your senses and you are communicating as people. Others will badger you about using the proper gender for your nouns or criticize your accent. Both are important. Those looking to criticize are usually used to having the upper hand in the situation and know how to use it. They don't even realize they are doing it.
I had intended to work when I got to Germany. We went to the German Embassy in Washington DC to inquire about getting a working visa. They insisted we could get that in the town we lived in when we got to Germany. My husband went to the visa office and asked before I moved to Germany. They said, “yes, just bring her in when she gets here and we’ll issue her a visa.” I got there and they said I had to get that in the US. (WTF?!?) At that point, if I had to go back to the US for a visa I wasn’t going to come back to Germany. It was too overwhelming. So, he asked me to marry him! While we were in the grocery store, buying cheap pasta on our budget. It was the height of romance... not. But kinda...
Learning to speak the language
I was able to legally secure a job without a visa in a pastry shop for student wages. It was the perfect opportunity where I could gain experience and work legally. That was actually enough for me at the time. I decided to go to language school for a few months first. Language school turned out to be a great experience, so I decided to continue with that instead if going to work right away. I couldn’t do both because language school was full time. If you finished the 9 month course successfully, you would be qualified to study in a German university. It made more sense at the time. I had only taken a short course in German for tourists in the the US so taking the time to actually learn German seemed most beneficial at the time.
I signed up for the second language course thinking it would be the same as the first but it wasn’t at all. There were all new students and a new teacher. Foreigners were flowing into Germany pretty steadily with the reunification for east and west. As part of some reunification immigrant packages, the government was paying language school tuition. The first class had been taught by a German woman but she was essentially a foreigner in western Germany, having grown up in the former East Germany. She was our teacher but we all felt like equals. We all had interesting stories. The teacher of the second class was a German teacher and the dynamic was completely different. It felt more like “us and them.” She was the teacher and we were the students, albeit adult students. She was the German and we were the foreigners. A lot of Germans born and raised in western Germany weren’t happy about all the people flooding into the west. My background dealing with “foreigners” was different. When I was working with Germans in the US I thought I was friendly and helpful. We had so much to learn from each other. I was learning a skill at work, they were learning about the US. They were new and different to me and I found it exciting. I was young and naive. What I was now experiencing in Germany was definitely a cultural difference.
When dealing with culture, you have to accept it for what it is. You can’t really look at it as good or bad. The first German teacher I had was raised under communism. In communism, everyone is basically equal. She treated us all as equals. The second German teacher was German. She was much more matter of fact and down to business. It can definitely be interpreted as cold if you aren’t used to it or understand it. Germans are actually very warm once you get to know them. I’m always a little shocked when I hear my husband speak to other Germans forcefully. It sounds forceful to me, it’s really just cultural. There are many languages, when they are being spoken, sound harsh, like they’re fighting, but it’s usually not that case.
In the time between the end of my first class and the beginning of the second class, the first gulf war broke out. Being that blonde american in a class of middle eastern men was no longer as fun as it had been a month or two earlier. The second language class I was in had a whole different group of students. We were practicing dialogue one day and I was paired up with a man from the middle east. We were doing something basic like asking for a hotel room with a view of the sea. Over the course of the conversation he asked me if I was an American. When I replied that I was, (he already knew I was) he said for an American, all he had was a room with a view of the cemetery. I didn’t know the word for cemetery in German yet. The woman sitting next to me drew her breath in shock and looked it up in my dictionary and showed it to me.
What would you do in that situation? I went home and stayed there for a while. I was literally afraid to go out alone after that. Was he joking? The teacher had laughed it off, but the woman who translated that word for me was in hijab and didn’t think it was funny. There were two sides of that story. I used to spend hours walking around the city. I was afraid to do that now. The silly part is, I look German. People always looked at me a little crazy when I opened my mouth to speak not sounding German at all. Here were these middle eastern men that knew me to be an American. They were literally saying things like "All Hail Saddam Hussein!" That didn't bother me too much until the cemetery comment. What if something did happen and I couldn’t communicate? That was long before the internet and cell phones.
We ended up expediting our marriage. It would take time but better to start earlier than later. It would just be all around easier for us, as a couple to move back to the US. It wasn't just for this particular reason. There were a LOT of reasons.
Finding a feeling of home in a foreign land
When we moved back to the US my husband got his same job back, his next job was working for an Austrian man, followed by another job working with an Austrian man. These were men with very similar backgrounds to him. They had moved to the US as young cooks ready to explore the world. They always spoke English together but they still had knowledge of the same general cultures.
My husband moved to the US with a job with people who actually spoke his language. Yes, he was here to work on his English language skills too, but it was very helpful having someone who could translate, if needed. He was working in a hotel where he had a room to stay in until he got an apartment. The hotel had extra furniture to help furnish the apartment too. After he got his green card he went back to that same job for almost two years. We had my family to stay with until we secured jobs, got an apartment and a car. Realistically speaking, that’s all easy.
There are people immigrating to the US all the time in much more difficult situations. My husband had a choice to come to the US or got to Ireland. He had student visas for both places. He could have worked on his English and gained work and life experiences in both places before returning to Germany. We were young and we were having an adventure. Sitting in our apartment in Germany, the Colorado Rocky Mountains seems like a much exciting adventure so we pointed in that direction.
Adventure or a better life?
Many people moving to the US today are fleeing from their countries in search of a better life, not just a different life. They have to work a lot harder to earn the US dollars they need to get here. They will get here any way they can and once they are here, they will do anything to stay here. I respect that.
Legal or Illegal?
I’m very much against illegal immigration. However, there are ways to legally get into the US and if you somehow get here, there are legal ways to stay here. Marriage is very much one of them. Your immigration status has nothing to do with being issued a marriage license. One of the requirements to be issued a marriage license is not “are you living in the US legally?” You could be getting married while here on vacation. Since it is not a requirement, they don’t ask.
My point of view as a wedding officiant
As a professional wedding officiant, you are paying me to sign a license that the government issued. All I’m attesting to is watching you sign the license. Essentially, you need to meet the legal requirements to enter into the legal status of “marriage” and you have to enter into the contract in a legal way. It can be one piece of the puzzle for obtaining a green card. It might work, it might not work. That is not for me to say.
The people working in the immigration office have a hard time separating fact from fiction when it comes to marriage and your intentions on entering into one. I've heard that in many cases those who are faking their marriage get approved and others who legitimately entered into marriage don't. The point of this article is my background and experience with obtaining a green card. My experiences marrying couples who are wanting a green card are an entirely different story. Stay tuned!
Victoria Meyer, founder of Marry Me In Indy! LLC has been a wedding officiant in Indiana for over 9 years and married over 3000 couples. She shares her experiences and is happy to be your "Wedding Officiant Insider"