Legal Love

Legal Love

The Struggle Of Having to Prove Your Marriage Is Legit as a German-American Couple

By Julia Bell

In January of 2018, I married by now-husband – for the second time. The first and official wedding was in March the year before. We were engaged for five weeks before we headed to the courthouse with a handful of friends and family to “seal the deal” and get married “on paper”, as we call it. On the one hand, it was a big deal, of course, because we were officially married. Yet, we both knew we would have the big – and to us more meaningful – church wedding the following year. We had to go this route if we wanted me to stay and get my permanent residency application going. For our future together.

I knew he was the one and vice versa. We talked about our future, about getting married a few months into our relationship. It all happened so naturally. But we also knew my visa would expire at some point. We were going to get married eventually. But first, I was ready to leave for Germany and we’d figure things out. We had to. It was tough. However, unexpectedly to me, he then popped the question – 9 months after we started dating, on a secluded beach in Morro Bay, CA. My world changed that day, and so did his, as we both knew that this next step would come with obstacles as I was having the German citizenship.

After the initial high, everything had to happen quickly. We had three more months to get married and file my adjustment of status application before my visa would expire. Despite the excitement of getting married, there were a lot of fears and doubts. What would people think why we got married so quickly? Would everything work out the way we wanted it to? Would there be a lot of skepticism towards our decision? After all, we had not been dating for an eternity – if this is a criteria for a solid relationship.We told a handful of close friends and family and my mom and grandma spontaneously flew over from Germany to be with us on our big day. I bought a pretty black and white cocktail dress with lace; he got his black suit out. My best friend in town went to the hairdresser with me that morning in March, we bought coffee, and then got ready together at the house where my then-fiancé and I had lived together since the weekend of our engagement. I was nervous. Ecstatic. Anxious. I hated the fact that immigration law was the reason why we had to go this route and didn’t have more time to plan a bigger church wedding, just like we’d both always imagined. But I so wanted to enjoy this day, nonetheless. It should be our day after all.

We got married on my 26th birthday. Everything happened so quickly that it was almost surreal. I never had a doubt, though, that he was the one. The day was still magical. We had a photographer, went to a fancy restaurant to have lunch, my mom and grandma went out of their way to prepare a little German-style tea party at their rental apartment, and then we spent the first night as Mr. and Mrs. in an incredible hotel downtown. For a few hours, it was just us in our bubble, married – before the thought of having to document everything, saving the cards, lunch and hotel reservation receipts, crept back into my head.

We were officially married. But now the real mental struggle began: Proving that our relationship and hence wedding is bona fide. It’s a tough call, as we obviously knew that we could not be more legit. But we had to prove it. And this is what caused an uneasy feeling in my stomach, even though I knew we married out of love. I fell in love with a U.S. citizen; he fell for the German girl, which ultimately meant that being together permanently in a country that doesn’t make it easy to immigrate (given the fact that you choose the legal route, undoubtedly the only option for us) would be quite the ride, or process, that is.

It was a stressful few months. Lawyer meetings. Biometrics appointment. Background checks. Collecting all the personal information we had (USCIS probably knows more about our relationship than anyone else). A lot of paperwork. And nerves. A hell of a lot of nerves. And a long wait. Almost seven months that came with a lot of uncertainty and emotional breakdowns on my end. So many questions were going through my head at that time: What if they reject our application? What if they don’t say “yes” right away? What if…? We only had one shot, for our future together.

My husband was my rock during that time. If he was one bit nervous, he never showed it. And I should have been more relaxed, too, but because of the fact that U.S. immigration law is not only scary but was also challenging my sense of perfectionism (all those binders with personal information and photo albums). I was a nervous wreck. We knew we were in this together and were well aware that we had to literally present the legitimacy of our relationship the moment we decided to officially get married and set a date – doing the courthouse run – before the expiration of my visa. It was a lot of pressure. Proving our true love to U.S. authorities as a trans-national couple was an emotional and mental struggle. It still is. The journey is not over yet.

Of course I knew we were legit and they would see that during the interview. But we also knew that marriage is the easiest way to be eligible to apply for a green card – hence permanent residency and eventually U.S. citizenship – and there is so much fraud going on. Some marriages are not real, totally fake and staged. Because of those cases, laws have been changed and the process an international couple (that is, if one is not a U.S. citizen, like me) has to go through has become even stricter. It was this sickening feeling of having our relationship – physically and based on the documents and information we’d provide – evaluated and most likely even questioned. Naturally, applying for my permanent residency to be able to stay and build our life together meant we were subject to scepticism. It was on us to prove that “we’re good” and our love is real. Bona fide, the legal term our lawyer used.

It’s really hard mentally. It makes you feel observed. Your relationship analyzed and questioned, and you feel as if you have to get proof of every step you take up to the official interview, every purchase you make as a couple to have enough evidence that you are deserving to stay together in this country.

It was always clear to us that we wanted to get married in a church, have a real wedding reception and plan the whole party in advance. An actual wedding celebration because we love each other and want to spend the rest of our lives together, not because we need to get married right now. Yet, we had to make a detour if we wanted to lay the ground for my permanent residency application.

We received notice from USCIS around the end of September 2017. Our interview would be on Halloween. Was this a sign? Should this whole process end in a nightmare for us? I almost laughed out loud if I hadn’t been so shaky and my stomach about to turn upside down when I read the official letter. A few more weeks and it would be showdown. Someone would literally evaluate the legitimacy of our relationship, which was difficult for me to understand, as this was ultimately going to decide our future together in this country. And so the five weeks leading up to d-day were spent collecting more receipts, photos, going through the sample questionnaire our lawyer provided us with, and stressing the hell out of myself. Why do we even have to go through those sample questions? I know my husband. He knows me. Are they seriously going to ask me what the color of his toothbrush is – and yet, I would know it, because I am prepared. My husband seemed cool; everything would work out just fine, he assured me twenty times a day. I was having a hard time controlling my nerves.

On the morning we were scheduled for our interview I woke up before my alarm, with what felt like a million butterflies in my stomach. My husband was still sleeping and so I tapped into the kitchen to make some coffee. Just a sip for me that very morning, as my heart rate was already through the roof. I tried to relax for about thirty minutes until I realized my head was spinning, I had thoughts like “Will this be one of the last days we’ll spend together in this country?”, which, and I know that now, was completely irrational at that time. So, I popped one of my “only when really needed” calm-me-down pills, as I literally thought I wouldn’t make it through this interview without vomiting.

The pressure of presenting ourselves as a couple to a USCIS officer during our final interview which would decide whether permanent residency will be granted or not was daunting and absolutely stressful. We wanted to be natural, we knew we were good as we weren’t faking love. Why even worry? And yet, we walked into the building with our lawyer, all dressed up, carrying binders and photo albums feeling prepared like never before. Prepared for what, though? Why do I have to feel prepared for an interview where it’s technically just about being natural and coming across as a legit couple – which is all they want to see. We entered the building downtown and went through security check before we were directed upstairs into a waiting area. My hands were cold, I was shaking. I imagined how I would feel without my calm-me-down pill. We looked around the room and saw all kinds of normal to odd looking couples squeezed next to each other and waiting for their call – the call of destiny. Literally, as we sat there and doors opened on all sides with nicer to absolutely terrifyingly looking officers calling people’s last names, I could not help but feel like a an animal that was about to get slaughtered. The last walk – or something to that extent. Every time a USCIS official opened the door, we asked ourselves for as split second before he or she opened their mouth whether we would want them to call our name or not.  

The pressure was on. We needed to present ourselves. Oddly enough, though, we just wanted to be all natural, ourselves. Yet, the whole situation and environment we found ourselves in did not contribute to us feeling all “natural”, on the contrary. Nerves were running wild and for some reason, all preparation, going through our sample questionnaire our lawyer provided, deliberately questioning ourselves at home desperately trying to find out what there is that we possibly didn’t know about the other person but they could ask us about somehow made me feel as if we were fake. The mental struggle was real.

And then we were called in. My heart was pounding while I squeezed my husband’s hand. The officer was surprisingly young, friendly, probably early 30s, so anything but scary, which didn’t mean I was more relaxed. I got tunnel vision as we all, including our lawyer, entered the tiny room and took a seat almost squished between the wall and desk. What happened next seems like a blur in retrospective. I was burying my nails into our binders as if I was holding on to dear life, as the USCIS official was going through our application package of roughly 130 pages. I was anticipating the first question – and then it came: So, tell me about how you guys met. Instant relief. That was a good first question. We got this down to the T, obviously also because our story was real so we didn’t have to make up a “how we met” tale. I started chatting, and as I continued telling him the story of how my husband picked me up for the first time, in his pick-up truck, country blasting, to give me a ride to the gym, I felt that the tension in my body was easing just a tiny bit.

And that was question number one. Okay, we got this. We’re doing good. My mouth was dry. My husband seemed a little more nervous now, at least I thought I could feel the tension. Maybe it was just the whole room that was full of tension. Our lawyer was quiet. I just wanted to get this interrogation over with and run out of this room. I felt slightly claustrophobic. The officer then asked a couple other questions that were already answered in our application package, such as whether I’d been arrested before.

And then, after less than ten minutes – and we were prepared for a full hour of questions and suspicion – our USCIS official signed the approval form. We were not just doing it, we did it. We walked out of the room, hugging our lawyer. I couldn’t believe it. All the stress of the past months, worries, emotions, doubts, and pressure fell off our shoulders. When we arrived back at the car, I cried and couldn’t stop. We proved our love. We proved our legitimacy as a couple. We were finally a big step closer towards creating our future in the U.S. as a German-American couple. It was the biggest obstacle yet that we had just overcome. Emotions were running wild. I felt free – ironically in the Land of the Free. And now we could go on and freely plan the wedding we had always wanted, to take place in January of 2018.

And here we experienced a similar struggle than we did when we rushed to the courthouse after five weeks of being fiancés, just in reverse: How can we enjoy our, to us, more meaningful church wedding, that we began planning shortly after the courthouse ceremony, knowing we are technically, legally, married already? Also, we technically took a chance as we didn’t know if I would still be in the country at that point. I think this is a mental challenge only couples who have been in the same situation can fully understand. We had people ask us why we would plan a second wedding, why we would want to go through all this, after all, we were married already. We obviously knew this. And there were moments when I thought: “Heck, why not save all this money. I am married to the man of my dreams already, why plan a large church wedding with lots of people that will take place in eight months when we’ve been living the married live already?” But luckily, those were only moments. I managed to stay true to myself and realize that there are things we needed to do for us, under the law, for love, to be able to stay together, but that we were also on the same page regarding wedding planning. Call the courthouse run the quick and dirty version that still turned into a wonderful, memorable day. Yet, we had both always wanted a church wedding. Just because we “had to” go a slightly different route than other people doesn’t mean that our second but more important wedding ceremony was less meaningful. It wasn’t, because it was meaningful to us.

We are good until summer of next year. Then, we have to go through another interview round to show that we are still married and living life together. I am more relaxed about it now, though, as we have made it through the crucial first round that ultimately granted me permanent residency for 18 months. We continue to document our lives together – for ourselves. But we joke about how “this is for immigration purposes” – and it partially is, of course, especially when it comes to keeping receipts.

However, during this next interview, there will be three of us. Our baby will be the ultimate proof of our love. However, I will never see it as a proof for a legal case. I refuse to.

We live a very happy life together and granted, having two different passports makes our relationship even more special. If anything, the nerve-racking experience has brought us closer together as a married couple and actually made us appreciate the legal obstacles we have and will overcome to continue spending our life together as a German-American couple in the country that has so very much grown on me.

Images courtesy of Julia Bell

Julia Bell is a German expat in her late twenties who has been calling San Diego, California her home for more than three years now. She is a bilingual (travel) writer (theredheadstory.com) who has previously lived in New York and London, UK. Initially coming to southern California for 18 months, life had other plans for her and now she is living by the Pacific, exploring California and beyond with her husband and 5-months old son, creating and writing her very own story. Inspired by the ordinary and having a thirst for the outdoors, as well as all things cozy (throw in coffee), Julia has restless feet and loves exploring near and far. Find snippets of her life on instagram @theredheadstory

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