The Ordeal of Immigrating Legally

It took 18 years for Andrew Sullivan to get word he could stay in the U.S. It's shameful that it took so long. statue of liberty full2.jpg

My former boss and friend Andrew Sullivan has received some life-changing news. Since June 23, 1993, he's been afraid that his immigration status would be revoked - that he'd be forced to leave the United States:

Nothing scared me as much; nothing was able to get into my heart and soul with this level of anxiety and fear. Not HIV. This was deeper than HIV. It was a threat to the home from where I could fight the HIV.

Nothing in my future could confidently be planned; everything was a gamble that one day,  I could actually, simply, finally be secure in my own home with my own husband in a life that would have been so hard to rebuild from scratch somewhere else.

After 18 years, however, it is finally official. His green card arrived in the mail.

He can stay.

As an American, I am thrilled to welcome Andrew as a permanent resident. But I am also embarrassed that my country made it so painfully and unnecessarily difficult for him to attain this status. Yes, I recognize that it is untenable to place zero restrictions on those who wish to immigrate here.

But think about what his case says about our system as a whole. Here's a guy who was born in Britain, our closest ally in the world. He did his undergraduate work at Oxford University, and holds two post-graduate degrees from Harvard University. He speaks fluent English, and is better versed in American civics than the vast majority of US citizens. Tremendously successful in his career, he's a huge net plus for the federal treasury, and a small a financial risk as can be imagined: if his employer shuttered tomorrow, he could survive on donations from readers, or get a lucrative book contract without trying, or start doing more speaking engagements and survive on fees alone.

Finally, Andrew had an immigration lawyer - one imagines a very good one - helping him through this years long process. Despite all that, it took this man, an ideal immigrant as measured by the self-interest of the receiving country, 18 years just to get permission to stay permanently!

This is absurd, and as effective a disincentive to go through the legal process as can be imagined. Thankfully it all worked out in the end for Andrew, as so many things seem to be doing - the America that just welcomed him is more tolerant of gay marriage, more accepting of HIV (one of many complications in his bid to become a citizen), and more celebratory toward beards than the one where he first arrived. Still, the story of Andrew Sullivan's immigration ordeal is as powerful an example you'll find of the need for a better immigration protocol - one that is easier on folks who want to come here legally, and more advantageous for an America than can always use more intelligent, hard-working achievers.

Image via Flickr user Global Jet 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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