Couples in murmuring discussion glanced nervously up at my wife Rocio and I as we entered the second-floor waiting room at the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. The room was segregated by ethnicity, incidentally on purpose. Eastern Europeans whispered with their lawyers near the front while Latinos wrangled rowdy kids toward the back. Ro and I sat on the border. “Everything’ll be fine,” I said. “You’ll see.”
Her fingers gripped the pink folder held close to her chest. It contained the tokens of our 39-month relationship, including the close to one-year marriage. Inside were photos of our first Christmas together, the trip to Cedar Point, us kissing at Niagara Falls, the Halloween we dressed up as Batman characters, dinner dates, parties, another Halloween, another Christmas, our wedding in Vegas, the reception back home, me with her mom, her with my grandma, us with our friends. There were official documents, of course — birth certificates and passports (Mexican and American), tax returns, bills, bank statements, a border-crossing card, a marriage license, photo IDs and affidavits, diplomas, transcripts and W-2s.
The previous night had been spent gathering all this evidence of our love for one another, of the fact that Ro has lived in the United States (albeit in the shadows) since she was two, that she has a natural born American daughter, that she has a good-paying job and an associate’s degree, that we could provide for ourselves and were good people. We even scoured the web looking for videos of what to expect from the interview process, what we should bring, what surprise questions they might ask, and what happened if one of us gave a wrong answer.
We went over questions and answers for over half an hour, piecing together the story of us, as though the events of the past three years weren’t already vivid memories.
On the Green Line train to the Loop that morning, we barely spoke a word to each other. I seized the opportunity to look calm by finishing up a book while Rocio stared at the city drift by outside. The weight squashing both of us grew heavier and heavier as we got closer and closer to our destination. One Blue Line train later and we were standing outside of the imposing edifice. Ro and I exchanged nervous smiles. “Here goes nothing.”
In the waiting room I watched the morning news on a nearby LCD TV. “Look, babe,” I said tapping Ro on the leg. “They’re not delivering mail on Saturday anymore.”
She stared blankly at the screen. “Hmm.”
As names were called by a security guard, Ro and I watched as couple after couple marched through a door at the front of the room. Fifteen to 20 minutes later they’d reappear through the same doorway smiling and hugging and kissing. Those who’d brought their lawyers along thanked them with ebullient handshakes. Ro and I glanced at each other with raised eyebrows each time, thinking we were clearly a better match than the couples being approved.
Our interviewer was a hefty middle-aged black man with a blank expression but a touch of light-heartedness in the way he said “Hello.” Ro and I took off our winter coats and hung them on the backs of our chairs, a process which felt like an eternity. When he asked for our IDs, we placed them on his desk in unison. We were coming across as too nervous, so I decided to lean back in my chair and try to relax.
He introduced us to his trainee, a young black woman sitting in a chair next to him. Ro and I gave her a nod. He started asking Ro basic questions about where she lived, when she was born and where she worked. Then he asked me the same questions (and I aced them all).
Ro gave him what she had in the pink folder. She handed him her border-crossing card with the boyish picture of her as a little girl. The man smiled to himself as he looked at it. “I think he’s laughing at your picture,” I said. We all laughed, except for the trainee, who never laughed.
“I was two years old when I came,” Ro said. The man made a noise of what sounded like astonishment. He asked Ro how we met and what she liked about me when we first met. “He’s actually very smart,” she said.
“What do you mean ‘actually?’” I cut in. More laughing.
“Was she easy to talk to?” the man asked.
“Well, not really,” I said. “She had the stank face on.” That made him laugh again.
“What hotel did you stay at in Vegas?”
“How did your daughter react to you getting married?” he asked Rocio.
“She was upset that she wasn’t going to the wedding cuz she wanted to be the flower girl.”
“Who’s this?” he said showing us the picture in his hand.
“That’s me with his grandma, Blanca Colon.”
“Do your parents get along?” he asked me as he worked his way through the last of the photos.
“Yeah,” I said, my voice going up a bit.
He placed the photos in a neat stack in front of him and said, “Do you know what conditional permanent residency is? Has anybody told you about that?”
“Yeah,” we said.
“Well, you should be getting your permanent residency card in about two weeks. It expires in two years, so you’ll have to send in the application to renew it without the conditions 90 days before the expiration date.”
I gave Rocio a big smile and threw my arm around her tight.
“Congratulations,” the man said. In her disbelief, Ro kept trying to give him more of the evidence she’d brought with her. I just shook the man’s hand.
In the waiting room we squeezed each other for the audience and gave each other kisses in celebration. Once outside we made the necessary phone calls to her mom, my mom, my grandma and our sisters. We lingered for a bit outside the building trying to process what we’d just experienced. We’d walked into the building at 8:50 and were already leaving at 9:30.
I didn’t read a single word of the book on the train ride home. Ro and I kept smiling at each other and giving each other hugs and kisses. We’d only mailed the application two short months earlier, but we both realized that Rocio’s decades-long ordeal had come to an end. Pretty soon she’d be able to get a driver’s license and drive herself to work (though the state of Illinois removed that restriction for all undocumented immigrants anyway). She would be able to build credit and own things in her name. And, most crucial of all, she would now be able to travel to Juarez and introduce her husband to the loving father she hasn’t seen in seven years.
Rocio was now documented.