I have been thinking for a long time that I should post some entries based on my stay in the United States 10 years ago, but my initiatives usually vanish sooner than my best intentions on New Year’s Eve. This elusive idea has actually managed to stay clear of me for a decade. Now I have finally begun writing, and here is the first of hopefully many posts from the melting pot.
U.S.A. is a country of immigrants, apart from the few Indians that are left. It is also a country that still relies on immigration, and it therefore seems strange that they make it so difficult. There are no Americans, understandably enough, who want to accept low paying jobs at for example Tyson Foods or ISS, but those kinds of jobs are fulfilling many Mexican dreams.
I traveled to Little Rock in 2001 to marry and the plan was to work there as well, while my wife completed her studies at the university. It should have been a straightforward matter, but it proved to be a very taxing process. The wedding went well, but getting the residency permit was a different matter. I certainly understand how Kafkaesque bureaucracy can be now. The process for me started with an application for a fiancé visa to the American Embassy in Oslo. It almost seems as if the immigration authorities in most countries have consciously developed a very effective procedure to make immigration more difficult. They say they welcome immigration, but their actions speak differently.
I had to wait for this visa before I could travel, and before I could do the interview at the embassy I had to x-ray my lungs. There were only two clinics in Norway which were approved by the embassy to take chest x-rays, one in Stavanger and one in Oslo. I went to the one in Stavanger which was closest to me. Then I had to go to a specific doctor in Oslo. Finally I had to take a passport photo with a particular profile, and it is apparently so difficult that few photographers know how to do it. I brought images from a photographer in my hometown, Haugesund, and from the local police station, but both were rejected. It was obviously a known problem; the embassy had a deal with a photographer down the street. The woman working there told me that the embassy sent many people to them because most applicants’ photos were rejected.
I was told to take the big x-ray both to Oslo and on the trip to the United States, but no one ever asked to see it. I was so tired of dragging this very large envelope through Oslo, Amsterdam and Memphis International Airport, because I couldn’t fold the image and put it into the luggage. So I wandered around in big airports, probably looking like an awkward Amish boy unequipped to live outside his own community, as I was struggling not to ruin that damn x-ray. In addition to that I had a substantial amount of luggage, but of course I couldn’t leave it. Those hours in between flights where I had no food and no visits to the restroom were not pleasant at all! As for my lungs, they could at least have checked that I was healthy! There was nothing they needed to worry about, but the purpose of this picture was to prove I did not have tuberculosis or some other lung disease. I thought afterwards that I ought to have coughed strongly on the troublesome guards while asking if they had trained a long time to be an idiot, or if that was a talent given to them from birth. Just as well I didn’t. I don’t think they’d understood the humor. Besides, if you try to answer an American police officer with humor (or something similar), you are quite likely to be handcuffed. That would have been something. I could have called my fiancé and said: “This is John. You know, the man you were supposed to marry next week. Unfortunately I was deported before I even entered the country.”
When I sat on the plane from Amsterdam to Memphis, I could finally relax because I thought all the paper work had been done, but it wasn’t that simple. As we approached landing, I had to fill out several forms. In the passport control in Memphis, I was asked to fill out a new form as I confirmed that I was planning to work in the United States. They told me I’d get a letter in the mail 2 weeks later where I’d be asked to come to Memphis to complete the application. It turned out that it was completely wrong, because I wasn’t supposed to submit that until after the wedding.
After passing the passport control, I was stopped by another guard who was eager to show his authority, he asked a number of critical questions. People say that God has a plan for everyone, and sometimes it feels a bit like His plans with me includes having to cope with all the dumbest people on the planet. You thought maybe I had a residency permit after I had passed the last checkpoint, but no. I only had permission to stay in the country, but could not leave and come back again. I could of course, but then I would have to start over again and apply for a new visa. Now the actual application process for permanent residency could start. It was so complicated that we contacted the Catholic Church for help. They help many Catholic immigrants, and are open to helping others if they have the capacity. So I got help there. After we filled out a wide variety of forms together (I was even asked if I cooperated with Germany during World War), I had to wait for a response. Bye the way, I was born in 1968! After a while I got the message in the mail to come to the immigration authorities’ office in Memphis. I got my sister-in-law to drive me, but we were both confused. We did not succeed in navigating through the big city, and had to go home empty-handed. The problem is that if you do not show up for an appointment, no matter what the reason is, you must start the application process again. Your fess, amounting to over $2000 are not refunded. So it was back to the Catholic Church once more. I eventually moved back to Norway, however, and then you start over again, too. So I never got my permanent residency.
My work permit application went a little better. I “only” needed to wait a year to get it approved, so I went around searching for jobs during my second spring in Little Rock. I tried places like Wall Mart, McDonalds, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, Walgreens and Kroger. I didn’t have much success. Even in places with “help wanted-signs” in the windows they were less than enthusiastic when they heard my accent. That’s not much different from home, so I guess I wasn’t surprised. One thing that is different is the dress code. In Norway you are expected to have on nice clothes for an interview, but a nice sweater is adequate. In the United States you are expected to wear a suit and tie, even though you are just trying to get a job at McDonalds. That seemed unnecessary to me, but I don’t argue. I do whatever is the norm where I live. I almost had a heat stroke walking around in a black suit in hot Arkansas.
By comparison, my wife sent an application to the Norwegian Consulate in Houston when we moved back to Norway. She was granted residency and a work permit within 2 months. Then she had to renew the application once a year, for 3 years. After the 4th year she applied for and got permanent residency. The forms you fill out in Norway can be done in about 10 minutes. That’s a piece of cake compared to the U.S. hassle.