I could easily write a list of 30 places I'd want to visit before I die, or a list of 30 people (living or dead) I'd like to meet. I could even give my 30 favorite foods, or 30 reasons that summer is my favorite season.
It is not, however, as easy to give 30 pieces of evidence as proof my marriage is legitimate.
When our immigration lawyer sent us the list of 30 things we'd need to submit as part of my husband's application for permanent residency, I instantly felt nauseated. Can you imagine trying to sum up your marriage - your life together - on 30 scraps of paper?
We're newlyweds, and instead of planning for the honeymoon we never took, we are scrambling to document every shred of our relationship, every detail of our time together, to submit to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. Pictures at parties and family events have taken on a new meaning for us.
We aren't the typical face of immigration, and we don't have a story about how we dangerously crossed the border in search of the American Dream. Still, our lives are very much affected by immigration issues, and the constant media attention about immigration reminds us of how our lives are not really in our control.
Andr?s and I met two years ago and fell head over heels in love. He was born and raised in Colombia and is here as a temporary legal resident; I come from a heritage in the U.S. that is largely African-American but is mixed with other cultures. I had spent time traveling and living in Latin America and felt a kinship with the people of African descent in the region, so for us the relationship didn't feel like a cultural clash. It wasn't a long courtship filled with dramatic breakups and make-ups. We met, moved in together, spent almost every moment together that we weren't at work, got engaged and got married.
Andr?s and his family became the close family that I wished I always had. I loved showing them how I celebrated Thanksgiving, and I loved that his mother taught me how to make arepas. I loved that we had a natural pattern to our conversations, lapsing back and forth between Spanish and English. I got thinner during our courtship, spending countless hours dancing salsa and merengue in the clubs that we frequented before we were an "old" married couple. We taught each other to love and respect both of our widely misunderstood cultures - Colombian and African-American.
Of course, it never occurred to me to document any of this. How can you document the long hours spent talking on the couch or the laughs over the inside jokes that only you get? We never thought to care about photographs and birthday cards. As much time as we spent together, who would ever question that we were genuinely happy and in love? Who knew it would raise eyebrows that we only had four people at our wedding and did it at the courthouse? Wasn't it just a reflection of the fact that we are very private and simple people?
We began our married lives together blissfully happy in our ignorance - until six months into our marriage, when we began the process of filing for permanent residency for Andr?s and were presented with an enormous bill for the immigration lawyer and the list of 30 things.
The horror stories we'd heard didn't prepare us for what would ensue. It's truly invasive and humiliating to have to prove to people you don't know that you married for love. What business is it of the government's, anyway? People get married for all kinds of reasons - money, sex, looks, companionship. Marriages are even arranged in many cultures - including some communities in the U.S. Why should we have to prove ourselves to anyone?
I sense that people often assume that we only got married for "papers." It's true, people sometimes do get married to change or adjust their legal status. But for a legitimately married couple with different citizenships, immigration is the elephant in the room - something you never talk about. Neither of you wants to admit that having a blue (American) passport makes all the difference in the world. Neither of you wants to talk about travel (hard for people who love travel the way they love breathing), because it likely means that one of you can't go until you have a green card.
What can you do? Continue to forge your lives together and grudgingly accept that it must be done, just like eating your vegetables or paying taxes.
So, in resignation, you begin gathering the 30 things for your application. You print out the wonderfully mushy e-mails you sent to each other when you first met. You get your cell phone records so you have proof that you made calls to one another. You change your last name (No. 1 on the list); you ask friends to write letters supporting your relationship (No. 25); and you start to build your defense, as if you were criminals going to court to plead "not guilty." You contemplate having a baby ("Excellent proof," your lawyer says). You contemplate doing this earlier than planned, earlier than you are ready for, so that you can have living, breathing proof that your marriage is real.
Bravely and fearfully, you prepare your paperwork and your 30 things. You send them off to a government adjudicator in a small office in Somewhere, U.S.A. You hold your breath, you pray, and you wait for someone else to decide your fate.
Kelly Mac?as, a Baltimore native and Columbia resident, works at an international professional services firm in Washington and as an ESL instructor at Howard Community College. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.