Since 2000, an average of one million people per year — about half of whom already live here under conditional family or work visas — receive green cards. I’m one of those people.
If that million were 10 people, eight would be here because of family, one would be a refugee, and one would be here because of their job. All of them have dealt with the years-long lines of the U.S. immigration system — they’ve filled in the numerous forms and paid the fees (to file alone costs $1,225 — and that’s before considering lawyer costs of double or triple that), all the while tracking the news to make sure that this country still wants them.
Once you’ve applied to stay, it’s impossible to know for sure what will come next. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has made it easier to figure out processing times (the California Processing Center Wait Time Estimate is between 9 and 43 months) but mostly it’s a mess. You become like the cliche conspiracy theorist connecting clues pinned to a wall intertwined with red string, but they only ever amount to telling you you need to just wait it out.
It says a lot about the U.S. immigration system that the best source of information for those in bureaucratic limbo is a website that looks like it was made in 1999 (because it was). But for every way the U.S. immigration system is bad, Immihelp is good. It’s a one-stop shop for everything an aspiring immigrant would need, a well-stocked general store in the wild west of online immigration advice. It is comfort blanket, therapist, and Wikipedia all rolled into one.
Its strengths do not lie in its aesthetics. Having survived Y2K, the site seems to have rested on its design laurels since then; on the homepage a flashing gif cryptically orders “FIND TRAVEL COMPANION: Click Here Now!”; a stock image of an airplane crossing the globe curiously flies away from North America; the footer declares in brazen type “Immihelp is private non-lawyer website” and it sure is. Where we’re going, we don’t need lawyers.
Like its outdated style, Immihelp is a callback to a simpler, better time of online interaction: the messageboard. The forum structure initially looks unwieldy — the 154,643 threads are arranged by what stage of the process you might be at, from the humble tourist (24,764 threads, 75,983 posts) to the more complex Adjustment of Status (12,125 threads, 55,076 posts). Alongside inspirational quotes, forum members use their signatures to show their stage along their immigration journey. It’s a lot like bodybuilding.com — with the date of your last biometrics scan instead of your bench press PB.
Immihelp’s greatest strength is in its breadth. No matter what Uncle Sam has thrown at you, someone else has been there before. Weirded out by the wording of your latest letter from USCIS? So were a lot of people in 2013, according to one thread, and it turns out it’s nothing. Immihelp is also the best place to find out if the latest impetuous government move is having a real effect on people. Members post about slowdowns, unusual lines of questioning, and share what their lawyer heard on the grapevine. Members also post detailed descriptions of their interactions with immigration officials, their totality forming a whisper network of Dos and Don’ts for whoever comes next.
No question is too silly — an earnest poster worries about whether to include his Facebook screen name under “other names used” on his forms. He’s quickly assured that he’ll be fine leaving that information out (even Immihelp’s forum admin weighs in to underline the point).
Hate has no home on Immihelp. It is different from the internet at large, and from the real world of immigration debate. Encouragement and perseverance pervade a comradely atmosphere. As members post about their successes (“the officer gave me the all-clear!”), others cheer and congratulate them. When things go badly, members are ready to offer condolences, fresh advice, and the most common question when all seems lost (“have you called your senator?”)
Immihelp also turns the lonely wait into a communal activity. “Good luck to all of us!” is the usual sign off. Even though U.S. immigration rules vary wildly on how different nationalities are treated; country-level limits on the number of people who are allowed in echo the racist quota system of the 1920s. Today India, Mexico, China, and the Philippines face the longest backlogs. But everyone is treated the same on the site; we’re all just travellers trying to find our way. After giving everything about yourself (including a urine sample!) to the government, the anonymity of Immihelp is a welcome respite.
For all its information and good cheer, using Immihelp won’t speed up your case or get you any closer to a green card. But it will help you stay sane while introducing you to people with whom you can ride out the next 9 to 43 months. Like the country everyone is trying to get to, it is imperfect. And just like America, it’s the people you meet there that make it worth the journey.