The Marriage-based Green Card Application and Interview

by Elizabeth Brettschneider

We’ve published a couple of posts previously regarding the process of the marriage-based Green Card interview including a list of Dos and Don’ts as well as a personal story about Ashley’s experience. This is a more basic post getting to the nitty-gritty of what goes into the marriage-based Green Card application when a couple applies in the US with US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) as well as what happens in the typical interview.

Before getting into the details, it must be said that there are many local district offices around the country and each one has their own intricacies and rules; however, the general guidelines and procedures tend to be the same. The discussion below is based mostly on the New York City District Office as that is where our firm is located and thus where most of our clients attend their interviews. 

Filing Green Card Applications with USCIS

What we commonly refer to as the “Green Card application” in cases where a foreign national on a temporary visa living in the US marries a US citizen really includes a large package of forms and supplementary evidence. Essentially the US citizen files an immigrant petition for the foreign national spouse (Form I-130) and based on that application the foreign national files the adjustment of status application (I-485). There are also separate forms for employment authorization (I-765) and international travel permission (I-131) to allow the foreign national to travel while the case is pending as well as a form that demonstrates that the US citizen will ensure the foreign national spouse does not become a public charge (I-864).

The forms are accompanied by a great deal of supporting evidence including proof of the validity of the couple’s marriage (such as the marriage certificate, and any previous divorce certificates), evidence that they have a legitimate or “bona fide” relationship (such as joint lease, joint bank account, photographs, etc.), and evidence of the financial stability of the couple (such as taxes, bank statements, and job letters). This package of documents and the applicable filing fees are filed with USCIS.

After USCIS receives the package, they will mail a notice to the foreign national beneficiary to appear at a USCIS support center in order to capture the foreign national’s biometrics (fingerprints and photographs). After several months (more precise processing times can be checked online), the foreign national will receive an Employment Authorization Document and Advance Parole Travel Document.After approximately three to five months, the foreign national will receive an Employment Authorization Document and Advance Parole Travel Document.  This interim combined “work and travel card” is usually valid for one year or until the Green Card petition itself is approved. This card will allow the beneficiary to work in the US while the Green Card application is pending. Unlike a visa, it is not employer specific, which means that the person can work for any company in any capacity, including self-employment. The Advance Parole Travel permission granted with the card will allow the foreign national to travel internationally while the Green Card application is pending.

Before the Green Card can be approved, the couple will be scheduled for an interview with USCIS at the closest Immigration District Office to the couple’s home. The interview timing will be dependent on which local office has jurisdiction over the filing and on the current backlog of cases in that area.

Before the Interview

It’s important for the couple to be organized at the interview. The best way to do that is for applicants to prepare themselves before the day of the interview. Organizing the evidence by category to easily find it when asked during the interview is key. Using an accordion file may make it easier. Arranging the original vital documents (such as birth and marriage certificates) into one section, financial documents (such as taxes, pay stubs, and job letters) into another, and all the bona fides (i.e., proof of the bona fide nature of the relationship such as joint bills, affidavits from friends, photos together, among other items) into another section. 

It’s also a good idea to read through the I-130 and I-485 applications that were filed with USCIS for applicants to remind themselves of the questions asked on the forms as they will likely be asked many of the same questions during the interview. 

In the Waiting Room

Get to the government building early. Like the airport, everyone who enters the building must pass through a metal detector and have their bags pass through a security scanner. The lines can get long—especially around nine in the morning when government workers who also need to go through the security screening are competing with interviewees to get in the building for their day at work. 

When the couple gets to the waiting room, they will have to go up to the window in front to let the receptionist/officer sitting behind the window know they are there for their interview. Generally, the receptionist will take the interview notice to put it in the queue for an officer to pick it up and call them for an interview. The foreign national spouse (also referred to as the beneficiary and/or applicant) will sometimes have their fingerprints taken (to compare with the prints they took during the biometrics appointment that happened weeks after the case was initially filed and thus ensure the same person is in front of them for the interview).  Applicants will then be asked to take a seat and wait for their name to be called.

Many offices will not allow people in the waiting rooms to use electronic devices but due to the commonness of a long wait, they may want to bring a book, newspaper, or magazine to read. It is not unusual to be waiting a long time to be called. It’s reasonable to go up to the front window if waiting more than an hour to gently remind them/check on the timing.   

In the Interview

When it’s time for the interview, the officer will either come to the doorway and call the name of the beneficiary or call the name into a microphone to come to the door. Beneficiaries should listen for their names or anything that sounds remotely close to their names being called. The couple will follow the officer back to their office. Typically the officer’s name is on a plaque on the desk or outside the door. It’s a good idea to write it down in case there is follow-up after the interview. The couple will be asked to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” before sitting down.

Every officer will conduct the interview differently but in general there are usually four parts to it: 1) original documents; 2) bona fides; 3) finances; and 4) security. In the original document review officers are looking to see if the passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate, and other documents are indeed the identity documents that prove the basic elements of the case—who the parties are, their citizenships, and that they are legally married. Officers will carefully examine the stamps/seals to make sure they are the originals. Once satisfied, the interview can move on.

This photo I took on a trip with my now husband in front of a shop called Bonafide is a great example of a "bona fide" to be used in a marriage-based Green Card application.

This photo I took on a trip with my now husband in front of a shop called Bonafide is a great example of a "bona fide" to be used in a marriage-based Green Card application.

The heart of any marriage-based Green Card interview is determining if there is a bona fide relationship. Did the couple marry for love or is it a marriage solely for immigration reasons? That is what the officer has to determine. All officers have training but it would be impossible for them to ignore their instincts and life experiences in their assessment of the couple. The officer will talk to the couple and review documentary proof of their relationship. Joint documents such as cable, water, electric bills with both names on them; joint taxes, bank accounts, rent statements, and other documents showing a co-mingling of funds are all helpful but it is not the only evidence a couple can show. Joint ownership of property, proof of joint travel, affidavits from friends and family, photos, even something from the vet showing joint care and ownership of a pet could be helpful.

Besides looking at documents, typically officers will ask the couple numerous questions to assess whether the relationship is “real.” Officers have their own set of questions. They may be questions such as, “Where did you meet,” “Who was at your wedding,” “What is your spouse’s birthday,” and “What does your spouse do for work,” for example. It’s virtually impossible to predict the exact questions that will be asked but usually the questions are not too tricky for a genuine couple to answer. 

In terms of the financial element of any interview, the officer has to be convinced that the beneficiary is not likely to become a public charge—meaning that they won’t have to seek government financial assistance in the future. To determine that, the couple has to show that they earn over the “national poverty level” or at least have a “joint sponsor” that agrees that if the government has to pay public assistance to the foreign national, the government can seek reimbursement from the joint sponsor. 

The last part of the interview involves what we refer to as the security questions. Basically, this refers to all the questions asked on the Form I-485 regarding criminal activity or other issues that may make the applicant ineligible for a Green Card. This is where any arrests or immigration violations would be discussed. If any of the security questions have an answer of “yes”—meaning that there has been a past arrest or violation—the applicant should speak to an attorney about the possible consequences of that fact.   

In total, most interviews usually only last for twenty minutes or so. The wait time to get into the interview usually far exceeds the time once in. Officers are expected to get through a certain number of interviews per day, which is why they will appreciate an organized couple that have their documents ready when requested and directly answer the questions put to them. Being prepared will go a long way to making the experience better for all parties involved.

After the Interview

At the end of the interview the officer should give the applicants a document that confirms they attended the interview and states the current status of their application—either that the case is approved, there are additional documents needed, or that it is pending further review. In practice, it is common for officers to skip this. They should, however, give the couple some idea of what to expect next. Even if a case is going to be approved, newer officers may not be allowed to approve the case without a supervisor signing off so they may give indication that “things look good” without actually saying the case is approved. 

If the case is approved during the interview and no supervisor approval is needed, the officer is permitted to stamp an I-551 stamp into the applicant’s passport as evidence of lawful permanent resident status. This practice seems to be becoming less common and it is now much more likely that an officer will tell the couple to just wait for the card to arrive in the mail. The actual Green Card is produced at the National Benefits Center and mailed to the beneficiary usually within thirty days of the interview, assuming there are no additional complications.

Applicants would be well advised to make sure their name is on their home mailbox and alert USCIS immediately upon a move as the Green Card will not be forwarded even with the postal service alert. When the card arrives, applicants should make a copy of the front and back of the card in case it is ever lost. Finally, celebrate! You’ve made it through a complicated bureaucratic process with success. It’s worth a cheer.