In August 2021 I entered the US on a greencard. We applied after my US citizen wife and I (Irish Citizen) married in Mexico and the process took 1022 days. It was wildly stressful and completely worth it. I write this for those going through something similar, but also to give a greater appreciation to what the process can be like, though my experience is nothing close to the worst that people have trying to be reunited with loved ones in the US.
Love and Marriage
I met Natalie in NYC in 2014. A year later we left to travel around the world for a year, visiting a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, and LATAM. After that, we spent a couple of years splitting time between Vancouver, NYC, and Mexico while I worked at and on several startups. I had been a bit of a marriage critic so it came as a shock to her and everyone else when I proposed at a Canadian music festival in August 2018. Separately I had wanted to return to live in NYC for a while and Natalie agreed, so we started looking into visa/GC options for me.
I have many connections to the US including a GC as a child from 1988-1995, which we gave up when my family returned to Ireland to manage the family farm. From 2012-2015 I worked in the US on a ‘specialized knowledge’ L1B visa. I have paid US taxes from 2012-present. I founded a US company. I have entered the US hundreds of times. I have a US citizen sister (living in Ireland). Many of my closest friends are there. I love the US for all its flaws and it is the place where I want to be building world-changing companies and being surrounded by my closest friends. These connections were sadly irrelevant to my ability to get a greencard (GC) and so we soon got married in Mexico and started the process that was available to us, an out-of-country GC through marriage.
Hurry up and Wait
The GC total timeline was supposed to be 12-15mths which worked fine with our plans at the time. The application is a PAIN. Background checks are needed for every country you resided in since age 18 which meant for me Ireland, UK and Mexico. You also need to prove your relationship is legitimate which means submitting +100 pages of documents including screenshots of multiple years of text messages, letters from friends and families, dozens of plane tickets together and +50 photos of us. There are a number of other forms from financial to educational to fill out. We submitted everything and expected to get notice on next steps in a couple of months.
In 2019 the US dramatically and purposely slowed down GC and visa processing (you can guess why!). Our documentation was in pending status for 5 months when I sent an email; they said to keep waiting. I emailed again in month 7 and 10 and 12 and 13. Then we received a letter about an issue with one of the forms, so there was a wild scramble to fix that and resubmit. We finally received notice that our paperwork was accepted in month 14.
Ok, now we are making progress, we just need to have the final GC interview! In Dec 2019 we were mailed that the GC interview would be scheduled imminently. By March 2020 there was no word, so we messaged them and they said it was very close to being scheduled. Then COVID. The relevant immigration offices were put on a minimum crew for 9 months until January 2021 when they started to get restaffed with the new administration. We reached out and they said that we would need to wait until staffing restrictions changed. Finally, on May 27th 2020 we got the notice that I would have my US consulate interview on June 22, 2021 in Juarez Mexico.
Juarez has a bit of a reputation, which was accurate 10 years ago but is pretty overblown now. It is a city of strip malls, highways, and dust. I scheduled a week there as I would need to do a medical, get vaccinated, and have biometrics taken several days before my interview. Also gave myself two buffer days after the interview as I had heard about last-minute reschedules. The medical was first. My Spanish is shamefully not as good as it should be, so I was given a translator for the morning at the medical center. He was excited to meet his first Irish person and was very helpful. I, like everyone else there, had blood work, a full medical, and then was given 4 vaccines, 2 in each arm. Note, I had had all these vaccines as a child in Ireland, but the documentation was not accepted so I needed them again. It's surreal to watch the covid vaccine “controversies” in a year when between my GC vaccines and covid, I will have 7 shots in the arm.
The wildest part was the full medical. During it, I stripped down completely so that any tattoos could be written down and described in the medical packet sent to the consulate. I have rather large tattoos on my back and had to explain them in depth so they can make sure they are not gang-related. The doctor was the sweetest man and ever so apologetic, but they were the rules.
The Interview! (Nope)
After a day at a different office getting fingerprints and photos taken, it was finally the day of my interview! My bag was heavy with any possible document in triplicate. I was staying in an Airbnb about a 20min walk away along the highway and because you cannot bring your phone or any technology whatsoever to the consulate, I walked over along the dusty road. There are a number of check-in points and airport-level security at the consulate. Eventually, you are brought to a large space with a roof, but uncovered on two sides, with chairs spaced 10 feet apart. You are given a number and over the next 3 hours, you are moved to a different section a couple of times. It is around 92 degrees and I was dressed business casual. Some of the people around me had young kids, who had to sit in chairs 10 feet from their parents.
Do not lie is the absolute rule as you have no idea what a consulate agent has in front of them, but there are so many things to remember over multiple decades so it’s stressful that you will accidentally give a contradictory answer. As we waited, I mentally went over the entire, monthly history of my life to be ready for whatever they threw at me. There was a grey door that people in the waiting area started being invited into. I had brought a book to read, but it seemed like reading it would generate unwanted attention, so I left it in my bag. Hour after hour was spent staring at that door, waiting for my number to be called.
Eventually, I was invited into a waiting room out of 1994. All around you are dozens of windows where people are submitting paperwork and getting their consulate interview. Over the next hour, I watched people get granted their GC and cry with joy and around a dozen very upset people who were denied. My number was called to a window, where all my paperwork was checked and approved. The lady said, you need to come back for your interview in two days, we ran out of time today. I was given a special document to help with that, and so I left and walked back out to the airbnb off the highway.
The Actual Interview
I arrived outside the consulate at 625am for a 7am appointment. I was roughly the 50th person in the queue. There were easily 500 people behind me when the doors opened at 730am. The first 100 of us were accepted into the consulate and this time sat in a different outdoor waiting room, but only for an hour. I was called in and soon at a window having my interview!
The consulate officer I dealt what was perfectly nice and her questions were mostly around how I met Natalie and my Irish citizenship. She was also interested in whether Natalie and I planned to have kids. All the documents were accepted and then we got to the financial sponsorship part. For a family green card you need a sponsor who proves they have the income to support you should you not work. Though I have personal, US based assets that exceed any and all requirements, I am literally not allowed to use them as “there is no guarantee that you will be able to access those assets once you move to the USA”. But no worries, my wife’s income was plenty for what was needed. The consulate officer asked me if Natalie was my sponsor and I said yes. She then said, “but you said she is in Mexico? She can’t be your sponsor if she is in Mexico”.
It turns out that because Natalie became a temp residence in Mexico during COVID so we could be together through lockdowns, she could not be my financial sponsor as “she did not earn money within the US” (despite all her income US-based and all taxes being paid in the USA). The officer told me to wait and I could see her walk to a desk across the hall and talk to a senior officer. They were wearing masks and so I had no sense of what was happening and was already preparing myself for a denial. The officer came back to the window and proceeded to type on her computer for 5 minutes without saying anything to me. Then she turned to me and said, “Mr. McWalter, we have approved your green card.” I thanked her, accepted the form she gave me with the approval and did not ask questions, just felt relieved and walked outside.
The walk along the dusty highway with no way to tell the people I loved what had happened was this short, heavy space where I knew our future but my wife did not. I got back to the Airbnb and called and texted the dozens of family and friends who had been such amazing support throughout. A month later I received the last pieces of documentation needed to enter the US on a GC, which I did with Natalie and our dog on August 7th 2021.
I cannot express enough how every single individual person I dealt with was great. They were professional, kind, and explained as much as they could. The system itself, though, is incredibly tough, confusing, and alienating. It is only now, months later, that I really have a sense of how much GC uncertainty was buzzing in the background for the last few years and how it slowed down progress across a number of parts of my life.
I have views on how the system could be improved and will do my bit to make changes. Despite it all, I never wavered in my desire to come to the US. There is no greater place to work on a climate change startup and try to tackle the world’s biggest problems. Since I have returned to NYC, it has been wonderful, the quality of life, the quality of people working on big problems is extraordinary. It was all worth it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.