TAMPA — They place their papers on the conveyor belt, folders full of visas, work permits, passports. They pass through the metal detector, walk by the guard waiting with his wand.
The husband, Arshameh Taidi, picks up the paperwork. Wife Kateryna Taidi shoulders an Ann Taylor bag filled with framed photos. Two teenagers follow, flanked by the family lawyer.
In the crowded hall of Tampa's immigration office, they stand in line with dozens of other people trying to stay in the United States so they can bring over relatives, finish school or keep jobs.
Some have lived in America for years. Today, in the tiny offices off Cypress Street, some will be deported. Some will pass the test to become citizens. Their fates hinge on a few questions, the right answers, enough evidence.
Kateryna, 35, wants her green card so she can raise her kids here. She is Ukrainian and moved to Florida three years ago to work at a computer company. And get married.
The lawyer warned her: The immigration officer is going to ask personal questions to prove the marriage is legitimate: Where did you meet? When was the last time you showered together?
Kateryna has been preparing for five months, gathering bank records and birth certificates, pictures of the kids playing mini golf, getting dressed for that cowboy party. She thinks she is ready.
Forgotten in the clamor of the immigration reform debate are the millions of people who come to the United States legally — and seek permission to stay.
These immigrants come as students, as sons and sisters, to work as cooks and chemistry professors, to vacation … then they want to stay. To become one of us.
Last year, 1.1 million immigrants were allowed to permanently live in the United States. Another 743,715 became U.S. citizens. Florida alone accepted 82,788 new Americans.
At the Tampa Bay office, about 600 people pass through the glass doors each day. The regional office, which covers 11 counties, processed 10,000 citizenship applications last year — plus 8,000 for green cards. Of those, 7,587 immigrants were naturalized, the majority from Cuba, Colombia, India, Vietnam and Mexico.
"For most of these folks, this is their dream," says Brett Rinehart, who oversees the Tampa office. People have fainted at his feet, thrown up on his floor, cried, prayed, begged and bribed him with a Hungarian sausage. "But we have to make sure they have done everything we need them to do," he says.
About 65 percent of the people who get green cards receive them because they marry a U.S. citizen, says Rinehart. At least once a week, his officers spot a sketchy situation, separate the couple for questioning, and discover the marriage was a business transaction.
The day Kateryna and her children came to get their green cards, Rinehart's officers caught a Haitian woman with a toddler who had paid an American man $4,000 to be her ticket to a permanent passport. But "their answers didn't match; their addresses weren't the same," Rinehart says. The price of a fraudulent marriage: $250,000 or five years in prison.
• • •
An officer waves Kateryna and her family into his office. He slides in extra chairs for the lawyer and the kids. "Raise your right hand," says the officer, Marcus Hon.
He conducts 10 interviews a day, approves about seven of those people for green cards. Already that morning, he had run background checks on Kateryna and her husband.
He knows they both work at a computer company, live in Palm Harbor, got married in 2007 — six months after she moved to the U.S. He knows Kateryna is divorced, that the children's father lives in the Ukraine. He knows Arshameh grew up in Iran, became an American citizen in 2000 — and has been married twice before.
"A few red flags here," Hon had told his supervisor. The couple comes from two different countries, with vastly different cultures; the children, ages 12 and 14, are not the husband's kids; the husband is 20 years older than the wife. And Kateryna came over on a work visa.
If she gets her green card today, she can stay in the United States for 10 years. In three years, she can apply to be a citizen. If she becomes a citizen before her kids turn 18, they automatically become Americans.
If the officer denies her application, she and her kids have to go back to the Ukraine in 2012.
• • •
"May I see your identification?" asks the officer. "Your visa, any extensions, birth and marriage certificates …"
The husband starts piling documents on the desk. Kateryna hoists up her bag. All those framed photos weigh heavily on her lap.
"Besides you and your husband and these two children, who lives in the house?"
"Well," Kateryna says, "there is Alex, Arshameh's daughter from his last marriage, who is in high school." She pulls out a photo. "And, to be perfectly honest, we have a dog, a show dog." A portrait of Ziba, the nonbarking Basenji, is produced.
"Are you a member of any organization?" the officer asks. "Ever bet on a dog or rooster fight? Joined the Communist Party?"
"I was 17 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Too young to have to be a Communist," Kateryna says. No, she has never seen dogs or roosters fight. But she is a proud member of the American Hibiscus Society.
"Is that so?" asks the officer. "Do you have any giant hibiscus?"
"Of course," Kateryna says. Digging into her bag, she hands over more evidence. "This year, I have 10."
"Okay," says the officer. "Now, what kind of documents did you bring to verify your marriage?"
Here's a photo of her parents with them all eating dinner. Those are the kids, all dressed up. This is us in St. Augustine …
"You're supposed to let him ask you questions," the lawyer fusses.
Kateryna nods. But she can't help herself. Oh, and this is us at the beach, at Disney. See, this is us, in front of the castle …
• • •
"I see you were married in September 2007," says the immigration officer. Kateryna hands over their marriage certificate. "Then why did you wait so long to apply for your permanent residency?"
The lawyer starts to speak. But Arshameh slides an envelope across the desk. "We have been saving," he says. Applying for a green card costs more than $1,000 per person. "We wanted to take care of the kids first." Inside the envelope are documents for prepaid college funds he set up for Kateryna's kids.
"In all my years," says the officer, "I have never seen anyone do that."
Kateryna tells the officer they met through their computer company, when Arshameh was visiting the Ukraine; both were already divorced. She shows him certificates from their first marriages, both of their divorces.
The officer frowns at Arshameh. "What about your first wife?" She died in England, a long time ago. "Where is her death certificate?"
• • •
Two hours later, Kateryna and her husband drive back over the bridge, back to the immigration office, and walk back through those double doors.
They wait with all the other immigrants, hoping this time they will have enough proof, the right answers, to be allowed to become an American.
Back in Hon's office, Arshameh unfolds the death certificate, offers the officer another envelope. It's from the immigration service: temporary work cards. "When we went home just now," he says, "these were in the mail."
The officer puts the envelope in Kateryna's thick folder, then reaches to shake her shaking hand. "You won't be needing those," he says. "Congratulations. You are now a legal permanent resident of the United States."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.