by Kelly Macias

You could easily write a list of 30 places you’d like to visit before you die. Or a list of 30 of your favorite foods or 30 reasons that summer is your favorite season.

It is not, however, as easy to give 30 pieces of evidence as proof your marriage is legitimate.

Yours is not a common immigration story. There are no family anecdotes about hungry, impoverished European relatives making their way through Ellis Island to speak of. No one dangerously crossed the border in search of the American Dream. This tale will not make the news. Still, whenever the topic comes up, you feel raw, exposed. Debates about border walls, separated families and whether English is the official language of the United States are everywhere—all reminders that life is not fully in your control.

You had met Arturo, a Colombian, in a bar and had fallen in love, getting thinner in the first few months of courtship by dancing salsa every Friday night. Your Spanish improves as he teaches you to say phrases like hijo de puta (son of a bitch) as one long, connected word—hijueputa—with gusto. A temporary legal resident, he has already navigated a long, complex process to remain in the country. You don’t think much about it, instead becoming enamored with his family too: enjoying late-night, red-wine-fueled talks with his musician father about jazz and spending your first Nochebuena learning from his mother how to make three different kinds of empanadas.

Documenting your love never occurs to you. Why would it? How do you record long hours spent talking on the phone or laughs over inside jokes only the two of you get? Desperate to avoid the expense of an extravagant wedding, you get married at the local courthouse with only four people in attendance. Married life is blissfully happy until six months later when you begin the process of filing for his permanent residency and are presented by the immigration lawyer with a bill for $10,000 and the list of 30 things.

You feel nauseated at the idea of having to prove your love to anyone and have night terrors wondering what happens if the government decides this marriage is a sham. Will he have to go back to Colombia? If so, will you go with him? It haunts you to remember that your enslaved African ancestors also had fears of being forcibly separated from their loved ones.

Begrudgingly, acceptance sets in. Petitioning the government to stay together is something that must be done, just like eating your vegetables or paying taxes. So, in resignation, you begin gathering the 30 things for your application.

You should be planning for the honeymoon you never took. But instead, nearly a year goes by as you spend days scrambling to document every shred of your relationship, every detail, to submit to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Pictures taken at social events, movie ticket stubs, the cards you exchange for Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Every token of affection taking on a new meaning. Some days, it’s like a beautiful jigsaw puzzle. Seeing your love laid out in pictures and documents is comforting. Other days are filled with dread, the uncertainty too much to bear.

You print out the wonderfully mushy e-mails you sent to each other when you first met. You obtain cell phone records, so you have actual proof that you made calls to one another. You change your last name (No. 1 on the list); you ask friends to write letters supporting your relationship (No. 25); and you start to build your defense, as if you were criminals going to court to plead “not guilty.” You contemplate having a baby (“Excellent proof,” your lawyer says). You consider doing this earlier than planned, much sooner than you are ready for, so that you can have living, breathing confirmation of your love.

Bravely and fearfully, you prepare your paperwork and your 30 things. You send them off to a government adjudicator in a small office in Somewhere, U.S.A. You hold your breath, pray, and wait for someone else to decide your marriage is real.

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