The story of how Zahara and Mohammed met is unremarkable. It begins, as so many relationships have, on a dimly lit dance floor. It was at a now-defunct club in Midtown Manhattan during 2014. She was there for one party, he for another, and although they didn't have any mutual friends, they noticed each other. The volume of the music precluded any real conversation. Mohammed was too nervous to ask Zahara to dance, but, as she tells it, "His eyes were stuck: Whenever I looked at him, he was looking at me."
Finally, the two got to talking. They quickly discovered that they lived near one another; at the end of the night, Zahara offered Mohammed a ride home. (Mohammed and Zahara's names have been changed to protect their identities.) Phone numbers were exchanged, calls followed, an official first date at a local Indian restaurant was set, and the relationship bloomed. Over the next few months, she proposed travel plans—to Europe, the Middle East, Asia—but he persistently declined, putting off the issue until he was comfortable enough to tell her the truth: He was undocumented.
Mohammed was one of the more than 12 million people living in the United States who cannot legally travel, work, study, drive, or perform countless other tasks out of fear of deportation. And because he and Zahara were in a genuine, loving relationship that was confronted by a looming existential threat, they took the only avenue available to them: They got married and applied for permanent residency, as nearly 300,000 couples do each year.
Mohammed came to the U.S. as a minor during the 1980s. Hailing from North Africa, he arrived in California on a six-month tourist visa, but planned to stay in the U.S. while his older brother, who was already a citizen, went through the sponsorship process to get him a "green card" conferring permanent residency. In the meantime, Mohammed enrolled in high school and dove into popular culture. His brother had been inspired to come to the U.S. after becoming enamored with old Westerns, and Mohammed similarly took to the films, music, and television shows of their new home.
Unfortunately, Mohammed's threshold for sponsorship—16 years old—came and passed without he or his brother realizing how firmly the door to resolving his immigrating status had been shut. Mohammed completed high school, but was unable to attend college or legally begin a career. After spending his formative years in the U.S., he was also unwilling to return to his native country, where he would, in his own words, "feel like a foreigner."
So, like generations of immigrants before him, Mohammed headed to New York City. There, he was able to find work that didn't require documentation, working in taxi dispatch and food service. He could commute around the city without a car and find an apartment with roommates. He had been in the U.S. for so long that his English was unaccented, and, amid New York's flood of diversity, he never looked out of place. Although circumscribed in significant ways, his life was not unlike that of any other New Yorker. He went to the movies, enjoyed Starbucks, and enjoyed nights out drinking with friends.
"I didn't feel comfortable telling her in the beginning," Mohammed says, referring to Zahara and his undocumented status.
When Mohammed finally did open up, Zahara was understanding and sympathetic—in no small part on account of her own history. Hailing from South Asia, she had also arrived in the U.S. in the '80s on a tourist visa, which she had overstayed. She lived in New York City with her soon-to-be ex-husband, their children, her brother, his wife, and their children—all in one small apartment. Her husband and brother worked, first as dishwashers, but later as watch salesmen and travel agents, while she and her sister-in-law cared for the young children and tried to earn what money they could, mostly as seamstresses.
Zahara's break came in 1986 with the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the legislation included some severe anti-immigrant policies, such as requiring employers to attest to their employees' immigration status and making it illegal to knowingly hire undocumented immigrants. But the act also included broad measures of relief, such as granting amnesty to some undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before 1982, as well as to those working in agriculture. Zahara had entered the country after 1982 and hadn't worked on a farm a day in her life, but was able to apply for a green card under the latter provision thanks to the help of a few unscrupulous sources. By the time she met Mohammed, she was single, her children were grown, and she was a citizen.
"When he told me about that, I let it go for two or three months," Zahara says, referring to Mohammed and his undocumented status. "Then one day it came to me: Why not get him a green card?"
Truth be told, Zahara did not want to get married—not to Mohammed, not to anyone again—but she did love him. She wanted their relationship to be free from the tangles of anti-immigration policy so they could travel the world, but she also wanted him to be able to live a fuller life. She wanted him to be able to visit his mother, who resides in their native country and whom he hadn't seen for 10 years because she was too elderly to travel and he was unable to fly to her. Zahara wanted him to be able to return to school, where he hoped to study computer science and get a better job. She wanted him to get a driver's license so he could take the wheel on their weekend trips to Atlantic City. So she proposed.
At first, Mohammed was hesitant. He loved Zahara and wanted to resolve his immigration status, but he didn't want it to appear as if he was using her. Also, on a more personal level, he had spent the previous three decades living in the shadows and the sponsorship process would entail walking into the government spotlight for the first time. What if the process backfired? What if they had misunderstood the complex strictures of immigration law? What if he was deported? Immigrations lawyers and Zahara coaxed away his fears, and the couple eventually decided to wed at City Hall in New York.
Even with their marriage certificate in hand, the road to permanent residency is long. To get married, Mohammed had to renew his national identification and passport from his native country, a process that took nearly half a year, then he and Zahara had to begin submitting the paperwork for his green card. He obtained a tax ID so they could file their taxes together, and they've been collecting photographs, greeting cards, and other testaments to the authenticity of their relationship. They're now awaiting the in-person interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in which immigration officers attempt to ferret out fraudulent "green card marriages."
When asked if they're nervous about the upcoming interview, both Zahara and Mohammed say not at all. "If we would have done some monkey business, I would be nervous, but we have a relationship," she says. And he stresses: "Our relationship is real."
Asked what they're most looking forward to after the process is complete, they both agree: traveling.