The Cost of Immigrating to the United States

It took over a decade and thousands of dollars.

Photo credit: Celso FLORES, CC BY 2.0.

I don’t subscribe to the idea of an “ideal immigrant.” Nevertheless, when some people use the phrase, I realize they may very well be imagining someone like me. I boast degrees from several of North America’s finest institutions. I’m fluent in English and speak it with barely a hint of an accent. My love for rules borders on the neurotic, so I have fulfilled all government requests to the best of my ability. All my i’s have been dotted, my t’s crossed, and my taxes filed. The fascination for the Super Bowl still eludes me, but it’s safe to say that my assimilation to American culture is pretty complete, if singing to Bruce Springsteen and eating cold pizza for breakfast is any indication.

When some people talk about the “lucky immigrant,” they could also very well be imagining someone like me. Unlike many newcomers to this country, I have the financial resources necessary to cover the multiple visa and residency applications I’ve had to fill. I also have the language skills, education, and understanding of how government agencies work to navigate the system. I initially came to this country because I was accepted to a PhD program, fully funded. In the grand scheme of things, this is one of the cushiest forms of labor you can enjoy. I met a man, fell in love, and got married. This, in turn, is the easiest way of immigrating to the United States.

In other words, my road to becoming an immigrant is arguably that of the most privileged and fortunate. Every step of the way was akin to hitting the immigration jackpot and I am well aware of that fact. Whatever sacrifices I made are nothing compared to those who cross deserts to give their children a better life or flee wars to secure their safety. Still, despite all my lucky breaks, the process of becoming a citizen has taken over a decade and thousands of dollars.

To be blunt: even in the best situation, the cost of immigrating to the United States is expensive AF.

Too many Americans appear to be blissfully unaware of this. Throughout the years, even while living in so-called liberal bubbles, I have heard countless variations on the following myths:

  • You get citizenship as soon as you marry someone. (Not true.)
  • You get permanent residency as soon as you marry someone. (Also not true.)
  • Only citizens pay taxes. (Not true.)
  • Only citizens and residents pay taxes. (Also not true.)
  • Citizens and residents are the same thing. (Not true.)
  • Residents and international students are the same thing. (Also not true.)
  • What’s the big deal? Just file the forms and pay the fees, the way my great-great grandpa did. (Where do I even begin?)

Since landing on these shores with two suitcases and a laptop, I have gone through three different immigration processes, am currently working on my final one, and have spent thousands of dollars, countless hours and a few headaches to come and stay here legally. Below are the steps I took to achieve such a feat.

The cost of getting an F1 visa

SEVIS fee: $200

F1 visa application: $160

TOTAL: $360

As a wee 23-year-old, my big dream was enrolling in a PhD program and embarking on a professional life in academia. Since I’ve been an insufferable overachiever since day one, I had my eyes set on the best-ranking universities in my field. Almost all of them were in the United States. When I got accepted into my dream school, my F1 visa application process began. The F1 visa allows foreigners to attend an academic program in the United States. It is considered a nonimmigrant visa, meaning they are given to those who want to (or need to) be in the country for a temporary period of time. In this case, it usually lasts for the duration of your studies.

To get the F1, I first had to pay the SEVIS fee in order to be enrolled in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. The United States government likes to keep current and updated information on international students from day one, and this is the network system that allows them to do so.

Having done that, my school provided me with an I-20 form. With this in my hands, I could fill out the online visa application and schedule my interview at the United States Embassy in Peru. You do not receive a refund if you are rejected. On the day of my interview, I grabbed my forms, my passport, my passport pictures, my receipts, and an official letter from the university stating my program would be fully funded thanks to fellowships and teaching appointments. The nice Texas gentleman at the consulate chatted with me in Spanish, then in English, stamped a few things, and sent me on my merry way. A few months later, I was on a redeye flight to New York.

Going to a fancy-schmanzy graduate school meant that I had a tuition waiver, a monthly stipend, health insurance, and ample opportunities to crash cocktail receptions with free food. But even at its best, a PhD program is not even close to giving you a comfortable lifestyle. Money was always tight and my F1 visa prohibited me from working anywhere outside of the university campus. I took on a few tutoring jobs, taught summer classes and applied for summer fellowships as well. Still, I spent most of the year carefully balancing my budget and saving up what little I could to hold me over during breaks.

Also, though I was not a resident, all international students are still obligated to pay both federal and state taxes. Hundreds of us would pack hellish and confusing workshops come January, where a couple of frazzled tax accountants tried their best to guide us through the intricate forms, all while fielding questions like, “If I am divorced in Turkey but do not receive alimony in the States, do I need still to claim the alimony I get in my Swiss bank account?”

Those were fun.

Usually, I got a return on my federal taxes. Most of it would go to pay the state taxes I owed. This isn’t counting the dollars I spent on sales tax and other miscellaneous taxes you end up paying simply by virtue of existing in a city.

I was in my PhD program for five years before changing over to my second documented status in the United States: conditional legal residency. That’s right, conditional.

The cost of conditional legal residency, AKA my first green card

I-130 fee (Petition for Alien Relative): $420

I-485 and biometrics fee (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status): $1,070 in 2011. Now it’s $1,140.

TOTAL: $1,490

In grad school, I met and fell in love with a born-and-bred American. We dated a total of five years, lived together for two of them, and sustained a long-distance relationship after he graduated law school and moved back to Chicago. We decided to get married. In addition to finding a wedding dress, making a guest list, and fretting over the menu, we had “talk to immigration lawyer” on the top of our to-do list. It’s not mandatory to get legal counsel for the process, but I had heard enough horror stories about the green card application to want to risk it. Besides, my soon-to-be husband had a union job and one of the union benefits was having access to lawyers. The first thing our lawyer told us was to go down to the county office and get married. The big ceremony and party could wait.

The application forms weren’t necessarily difficult but they were cumbersome and lengthy. Immigration officials want to be absolutely sure that your love is real. I spent hours tracking down documents to prove just that: joint bank statements, phone bills, personal emails, pictures with his family, holiday cards. If you have real issues with invasion of privacy, I recommend you never deal with Homeland Security. Those guys know more about my relationship than most family members and several of my friends. There were also a few bizarre questionnaires, where I had to indicate whether I had been a sex worker or part of the 1941 Nazi party. My husband also had to sign an affidavit basically stating that he was financially responsible for my care. If I was to take any public support, the government had a right to ask for reimbursement. This applied even if we got a divorce.

After submitting my forms and what felt like a two-pound envelope of personal information, I waited. I wasn’t allowed to work until I became a resident, so I kept house, took improv courses, and explored the city. In other words, I went slightly insane with frustration. At a time when I was trying to switch careers, I had to take a step back and let myself be financially dependent on my husband. My mind always wondered what people who needed two incomes to support themselves did in this situation.

My green card came four months later, at what seemed like record speed. As I mentioned before, it was conditional legal residency. It had been granted to me for only two years. This is meant to prevent fraudulent marriages. If we were to get a divorce or if my husband passed away, I was at risk of being sent back.

We filed joint taxes.

The cost of permanent legal residency AKA my second green card

I-751 fee and biometrics (Petition to Remove Conditions): $590 in 2013. Today, $680.

This application was a lot less painful than the previous one. It involved a few forms, copies of tax returns, and a few other documents indicating we were still married and had a functional relationship. My husband’s union dues once again paid for our lawyer. An interesting thing to note is that for all of these adjustments in status, I had to have my fingerprints taken at government centers. This on top of the fact that my fingerprints are scanned every single time I enter the country from a trip abroad.

I kept paying those taxes.

The cost of citizenship

N-400 filing fee (Application for Naturalization): $680

Lawyer fee: $600

TOTAL: $1,280

GRAND TOTAL of all visas, green cards, and citizenship costs: $3,720

Residency gives you a lot of rights, like the ability to live permanently in the U.S., work in the U.S., and be protected by the law. Still, it is not the same as being a citizen. Citizens get to vote, serve on a jury, and obtain an American passport. Residents do not. Because residents are not Americans, they could also be subjected to deportation proceedings.

Most documented immigrants can apply for citizenship after five years of being a permanent resident. Those married to U.S. citizens can do so after three years. That was the plan. Unfortunately, my marriage fell apart right around the time I was able to do so. Since I didn’t want to be embroiled in two simultaneous legal procedures, I focused on my divorce first. That took a total of two years and was only just finalized in August of 2016. Figuring I could use a break from bureaucracy, I decided 2017 was the year I would focus on naturalization.

Instead, I called my immigration lawyer on November 9, 2016. Any new administration may bring changes to immigration law, but the Trump campaign had been hyper-focused on doing so. Whether it would affect me or not was not anything I could predict. Supposedly I was part of a protected class: a green card recipient with no criminal background, no use of public benefits, and a good record of filing taxes. Yet, I am cautious to a fault, and wanted to jump on the process as soon as humanly possible. My trusted lawyer told me that there was probably no need to use her services. After the hurdles of getting a green card, citizenship forms were very straightforward. Nevertheless, I wanted to retain my lawyer in case, I don’t know, the president decided to sign executive orders banning immigration from specific countries. Something like that.

So far, everything has gone smoothly. I went to get my biometrics done only a few weeks ago and am currently studying for my citizenship exam and interview. If you know of a good tax accountant, let me know. There is so much room for error in those things and I want to make sure everything is correct.

My story isn’t the romanticized story of immigration that people like to narrate, nor is it either the kind that most people want to hear. After all, it is basically a narrative of red tape, forms, fees, more forms, and waiting. Lots of waiting. But that’s what makes it a true and honest account of what is arguably the easiest, quickest, most by-the-letter form of immigration. It only took about a decade and over $3,500 to tell.

Ines Bellina is a Chicago-based writer, storyteller, and co-host of the XX, Will Travel podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @ibwrites.

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