Michael Giesey spent thousands of dollars in immigration fees to try to keep his German-born wife as a legal resident of the United States. For a while, Giesey thought all the money and time spent on forms and interviews would finally pay off. He and his wife and their 7-year-old daughter were going to be able to stay in Florida and help take care of his brother, a Fort Lauderdale firefighter who was injured on the job.
But an e-mail arrived on July 30 from Citizen and Immigration Services. In it, Marina, Giesey's wife of more than 10 years, was asked to leave the country within 30 days. Giesey, who is 50, was serving in the Air Force while stationed in Germany when he met Marina. He doesn't know what went wrong.
"I feel betrayed by my own country," he said in an interview with The Lookout.
Making mistakes early in the immigration process can doom a person's chances for a green card. In the Gieseys' case, the mistakes happened during the rush to get home to care for a relative, and were compounded by a belief that the government would make it relatively easy for an American citizen to live in the United States with his wife.
Giesey, a 20-year veteran who served in Saudi Arabia, near the Iraqi border, during the first Gulf War, retired in 2000 while he was stationed in Germany. He had met his wife Marina at a New Year's Eve party two years earlier, and they married in 1999. Marina worked as a nurse in Germany, and Giesey began to work in aircraft maintenance. They had a daughter in 2003, and they planned to stay in Germany for the rest of their lives. "I had pretty much resigned myself to a life there," Giesey says. "I enjoyed it and it was a nice place to live, a beautiful country." (Giesey does not have German citizenship. Because he is married to a citizen, he merely needed to register with the city government to legally reside there. There was no fee.)
But Giesey's brother Stan suffered a serious spinal injury in 2008 while on the job as a firefighter. Giesey quickly looked for aircraft maintenance work in Florida, so that he could help take care of Stan. When he was hired by the company Gulf Stream, he was told to be at work in two weeks.
"Because of what happened with my brother it was kind of a rushed deal," Giesey says. "There was so much to do before I got here. We didn't have time to go to the consulate in Frankfurt and didn't have the money to pay the fees. We figured we could do it [once] she got here."
Marina entered the country on a 90-day tourist visa, which she overstayed while Giesey tried to scrounge up the more than $1,000 in fees required to get her a green card. In 2009, Marina and Michael returned to Germany. Marina stayed a little longer to have some dental work done, and tried to return to the United States by herself in July of that year. She was detained for five hours by customs officials who said she didn't have the legal status to enter the country.
The customs officials seemed sympathetic to Marina's situation, Giesey says, and they gave her what's called a "paroled" status. That was supposed to give the Gieseys time to fill out the forms and pay the fees to get legal residency for Marina. In the meantime, Marina started a small business selling German cookies and became the regional president in Florida of the United States Nordic Walking Association.
But what the officials did not mention is that after a first visa violation, it's very rare for the government to grant a green card. Federal law says that anyone who overstays a visa may not re-enter the country for at least three years.
In April, customs officials in Palm Beach told the Gieseys to fill out a form to prove that Marina's deportation would cause undue hardship to her family. This time, the forms and a green card application cost more than $2,000, but the Gieseys were assured that everything would work out.
In July, Citizen and Immigration Services declined to give Marina hardship status, saying that it is usually granted only if an immediate family member has a severe disability--and that a brother-in-law did not count. No one told the Gieseys that, Michael Giesey says.
A lawyer told Giesey that an appeal would cost at least another $2,600.
Giesey had hoped that the Obama administration's controversial move to dismiss most deportation cases against non-criminal illegal immigrants would help his wife. But in order to benefit from the government's "prosecutorial discretion," a person has to first enter deportation proceedings. Letting his wife enter that process was unthinkable to Giesey.
"I absolutely cannot allow a customs official officer or a sheriff or whoever...to show up at my front door and handcuff my wife and take her away in front of my daughter," he said.
Giesey decided to quit his job, short-sell his house and move the whole family to Germany. No one has offered to buy his house, so he plans to turn the deed over to the bank to pay his mortgage.
"My idea of a family is that you're together," he went on. "I spent 20 years in the military traveling around and I know what that does to families."
Giesey says he is disillusioned with the entire immigration process, which struck him as too complicated and expensive for an ordinary person to navigate. "The system almost requires that you have legal representation for something that should be able to be done by any citizen," he said. "If you don't have a lawyer and can't afford a lawyer," you're doomed.
Crystal Williams, the head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, agreed. "Unfortunately we have a very complicated and trap-filled immigration situation," she told The Lookout. "There is nobody who is going to tell you what the traps are. People do think, 'I'm married to a U.S. citizen--I'll just come as a visitor and it'll be fine.' That's unfortunately not the case."
The Gieseys flew back to Germany on August 30. "My brother will have to return to try and sell his house, cars, furnishings, and all other belongings to have to start over in Germany," Stan Giesey wrote in a letter to his local newspaper. "This breaks my heart."