My friend is asking for too big a favor

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, AUG 5, 2005

To stay in the country, he needs someone to sponsor him.


Dear Cary,

A friend of mine is in the U.S. on a work visa, and has recently married an American citizen. They married for all the right reasons — undying devotion, etc. — but an added bonus is that they thought he would automatically become a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, they didn’t thoroughly investigate this before marrying.

Now, I don’t understand all the intricacies of immigration law, but as he tells it to me, someone still has to sponsor him before he can become a citizen. The intent of this sponsorship is so that he doesn’t become a public burden. If he applies for any sort of public aid, the government will look to the sponsor to support him. This responsibility continues until the sponsee has 40 Social Security credits.

Now, the wife would be the logical sponsor, except that she doesn’t meet the financial requirements set forth. She’s actually on the dole herself, for reasons I haven’t bothered to understand. So, in desperation, he’s asking me to be his sponsor.

This man has been a very good friend to me. He’s directly responsible for my relationship with my fiancé, and has helped me through a multitude of rough times. If I called him at 3 a.m. to come kill a spider, he’d do it. (I want to point out here that we have never been romantically or sexually involved. There’s never been any interest in either direction.)

But, I have to say no. My fiancé is soon-to-be-unemployed, and I will be supporting him as he searches for a new job. We’re moving in together. I’m starting grad school. In the next few years, we’ll likely have kids. Aside from all that, the friend in question has an unstable financial history, and now he has the new wife and her two children to support, in addition to an elderly mother. I think that needing public assistance is a very real risk.

My friend believes that friendship involves unquestioning loyalty, and he will be very upset when I say no. I may well lose his friendship over this, but I honestly feel it’s too much to ask. I understand I’m his best friend, and he feels he has nowhere else to turn. I feel horrible that he may have to leave the country and his new family due to this. What should I do?

Divided

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Dear Divided,

What you should do is promise your friend that short of becoming his sponsor you will help him in every possible way to obtain whatever papers he needs to stay in the country. Tell him you will help him find a lawyer. Tell him you will go with him to the state agencies and to the lawyer’s office and anywhere else he needs to go to settle this matter. Tell him you will help him find a sponsor. If that means drafting letters, you will draft letters. If that means doing research, you will do research. If that means making phone calls, you will make phone calls. Tell him you will do everything under the sun to help him. Tell him you will stay by his side until he finds a sponsor and settles this matter. Tell him you won’t abandon him. Tell him that you will be his loyal friend but that he has to trust you to be his loyal friend in your own way.

Who could refuse a speech like that? Especially if it is delivered, say, on the banks of a river as you watch tugs and barges crawl toward the sea, maybe as the sun is setting and a little chill is coming up and with it the prospect of a warm drink in a crowded pub.

Then begin work immediately. At first, I thought it would simply be a matter of finding a sponsor other than yourself. But the more I looked at the regulations, the less I understood. I now see how your friends made their relatively simple error about the effect of their marriage on his immigration status. The laws have changed. There were major changes to immigration laws in the 1990s, and there have been larger changes in the post-9/11 era. The beloved INS is now, alas, the USCIS, under the USDHS. So welcome, dear suspicious-looking person from somewhere other than here, to the Office of Citizenship!

This is what you’re up against: When bureaucracies change, things don’t work so well at first. What do bureaucrats do when things aren’t working so well? They find ways to decrease their work load. One way to do that is to decline as many applications as possible. In an atmosphere of fear, the incentive to refuse applications also increases. So you have to be really smart and really prepared to make things come out the way you want them to in a period of rapid bureaucratic change and systemic fear. (On the other hand, maybe you’ll find an official who’s so freaked out he’s handing out citizenship like lollipops. Who knows?)

So do lots of homework. Look into aid societies for immigrants from his country. Read everything you can get your hands on. Make contact with immigrant groups in your area. Identify any red flags in your friend’s record. Contact the embassy of the country your friend is from and see how they can help. Commit to understanding all the subtleties and details of the immigration law that pertains to his situation. Go over it all with him and his wife together. Discuss what resources they have available to them. Add up all the fees and decide where the money will come from. Make a list of all the questions you want answered. If you can get them answered for free, get them answered for free.

TuscanAd_Jan2015I cannot stress this enough: Be thorough. Do not skimp on any detail. Every paper you are required to have, gather it. Every requirement, understand it. Every deadline: Meet it. Your friend and his wife were not as thorough as they should have been the first time. That’s understandable. The law is complicated and it is changing. Nevertheless, it’s not a mistake you want to make twice. So leave nothing to chance.

When you finally understand the situation as well as you can on your own, then choose an attorney and make an appointment. When you meet with the attorney, dress up. Dress to impress. You will be putting on a show, after all. You want the attorney to see your friend as a credible and likable petitioner. You want the attorney to sense that you will do everything you can to win. You want him or her to feel good about taking your case, should that be necessary. Ask all the questions on your list, and then ask some more.

You might not need the lawyer to actually represent you. You might only need to know that you’ve overlooked nothing. But you will at least have a relationship with a lawyer if your initial petition is denied.

Ask the lawyer if you’ve overlooked anything. Ask if there’s any part of the application that could be done better. Then, and only then, make your application. If all goes well, in a few months you’ll be able to celebrate.

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