Haresh Shah

Playboy – The Declaration Of Independence?


I have no hard luck story to tell about acquiring my Green Card. It was practically offered to me on a silver platter by the INS officer in Pittsburgh.  I had only one more day to go before my H3 visa expires. So I dump my stuff at the YMCA and rush to the immigration office. I am sitting across from a young immigration officer, a black gentleman who is scanning my application for the extension.

‘Everything looks fine.’ He says and picks up my passport to stamp the extension. Instead he puts the passport back down on his desk top and asks;

‘Why don’t you apply for Green Card?’

‘What’s Green Card?’ I answer. If he is astonished at my naiveté, he doesn’t show. After all he could see in my application that I have landed in this country for the first time just a week earlier. Practically gotten off the boat – so to say.

‘Its kind of permanent visa that allows you to live and work in this country indefinitely.’

‘But I don’t intend to live and work here.’

‘Maybe so, but you’ve got nothing to lose! You’ve got two college degrees, you will have further training here. You more than qualify for the third preference. Nothing in it says you have to stay here any longer than you want to. This way, should you change your mind or an opportunity knocks on you door… I mean, as long as  you are here.’

Third preference? Whatever that means. But the wheels in my mind are turning, though I’m not sure what kind of a trap I might be getting myself into. I hesitate.

‘What do I have to do to apply for Green Card?’

‘Fill in another form. Which is a bit longer.’

He now shuffles under his desk and pulls out a multi page form. I no longer remember what the questions were and how long it took me to fill it in. But somehow I manage and hand back the form to him. He asks me a couple of additional questions and fills in some more details.

‘Good. You’re all set. You’ll hear from us in a couple of months. Welcome to the United States.’


Not such a smooth sailing with my citizenship. Normally once you get your Green Card, there is a five year waiting period before you become eligible to apply for the citizenship. Of these five years, there is a requirement called physical presence in the country.  I believe the total of two and a half years of which a continuous physical presence of six months is required preceding the filing of the citizenship application. This never even crossed my mind when Playboy hired me and immediately shipped me off to Munich.  The only requirement I was aware of was that to maintain my legal residence status the Green Card afforded me, I must return to the United States at least once a year.  That too could be waived by filing of the form N 470, the petition to preserve residence for naturalization purposes.  This was discussed with the lawyers and taken care of during one of my earlier trips to Chicago. Once settled in Santa Barbara and having fulfilled the condition of six continuous months of physical presence, now eligible, I applied for the citizenship and was summoned by the INS to present myself at their district offices in downtown Los Angeles.

Its March 18, 1976 and I am driving south on Highway 101, with two of my Santa Barbara friends to be my witnesses on this one of the most important days of my life. I have studied hard and am prepared to answer whatever questions I am asked about the American History and its Constitution,  rattle off the names of the presidents and all of the states in the Union. I am looking forward to raising my hand and pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes. I am taken into the office of an immigration officer for the customary interview that precedes the citizenship procedures. A bit nervous, but very excited. But as the interview progresses, I am absolutely deflated at being told that while working abroad, I had failed to return to the States once a year, and in lieu of that also failed to file N 470 to preserve my residency.

I swear that I had filed, nay, believed that Playboy hired attorney specializing in things immigration had done so on my behalf. Nope. He did, but then in whatever confusion it entailed, the application was withdrawn. So I stood there, dumbfounded. This meant, I would have to start all over again from scratch and wait out remaining four some years before I would become re-eligible to apply.

The INS officer in Los Angeles was sympathetic, even friendly: What’s the difference Mr. Shah? You’re  back in the States and you would be re-eligible before you know it.  He was absolutely right of course, that is: if I were one of those “normal” subjects who stayed put.  In those days, green card holders were still considered “outsiders”, more so than today, with separate immigration lines at the International Airports and the visa requirements from other countries  – they hardly if ever took into consideration your US legal residence status, even to cross borders of the neighboring Mexico and Canada. Besides, if you were a US citizen and worked abroad you could exclude up to the first $20M of your yearly earned income. (currently $91,500.-) from your tax obligations.  Not so for the resident aliens in the possession of the Green Card. During the years I lived in Germany, I religiously filed and paid the US taxes and continued to contribute into my social security to keep in tact my legal resident status. But the most important for me was the freedom of movement, something that an American passport would immediately afford me. Something that had become an integral part of my life and the pre-requisite of my employment, as would be evidenced by my double bound passports piggy backing on each other in order to accommodate all the visas I required.

I would feel echoes of my predicament more than thirty years later, when President Obama’s chief of the staff, Rahm Emanuel returned to Chicago to run for its mayor. His opponents immediately made a big fuss over the residency and the physical presence requirements. Questioning, whether he was eligible to run for the office. A court case ensued. In the end, he was declared eligible to run and is now the mayor of Chicago. I wasn’t so lucky. . Nothing I could do.

But I am not the one to give up that easily. However rigid the laws, I believe that there is always an exception to every rule. So a little over a year later, I wrote a detailed two and a half page letter to the newly elected and new in the office President Jimmy Carter.  Requesting that considering the unusual circumstances of my case, the usual physical presence requirement be waived and I be allowed to immediately re-apply for the citizenship.  While writing to the President, I subconsciously must have thought that if anybody, he would be sympathetic also to the fact that I worked for Playboy. It was his Playboy Interview as then candidate Carter, in the magazine’s November 1976 issue, that caused an incredible amount of stir and a media blitz across the country.  Not because anything he said of his politics, but what he said at the tail end of the interview, as if reflecting on something: I have looked on a lot of women with lust. I have committed adultery in my heart many times.

I doubt it if the President ever read my letter, but it certainly triggered a flurry of communication from Washington, DC to Los Angeles. The first response I received was from the INS commissioner in DC, followed by letters from Los Angeles, acting director, assistant district director and eventually the district director himself, granting me a face-to-face interview with the INS attorney to further discuss(my) naturalization, resulting into a 22 page transcript of our interview.  In the end, I was still denied immediate citizenship in a 5 page summary signed by the district director.

As the officer in Los Angeles had said, the years flew by faster than I would have thought. In the meanwhile, Playboy has brought me to their corporate offices in Chicago. I am at the immigration office, sitting across from a young INS officer –  once again all prepared to flaunt my knowledge of the American History and its Constitution. Its August 12, 1980. Waiting outside are Carolyn and my friend Denise, they are to be my witnesses, and crawling on their laps and all over the aisles is our barely 18 months old daughter Anjuli. They are  waiting eagerly and anxiously for me to come out and are now getting antsy and beginning to feel nervous at why it was taking so long behind the closed doors, while other doors opened and closed every few minutes with soon to become citizens coming out with big smiles on their faces.

Playboy!  That is why. My citizenship file quickly opened and closed, the examining officer thumps it on his desk. If not exactly in the same words and the sequence, this is how our citizenship interview unfolds:

‘So what is it like to work for Playboy?’

‘Oh, not much different than working for Time & Life’.  I answer, alluding to the fact that I had worked for them equally as long.

‘No, I mean what is it that you really do for Playboy?’

‘Oh, I take care of the printing quality of our international editions. Travel a lot and also edit photos.’

‘Edit photos?’

‘Yes, you know, Playboy shoots thousands of photos for every pictorial and Playmates. I select the ones that appear in the international editions. The tastes and the censorship laws differ from country to country.’

‘You mean they are not the same with the text translated?’

‘No, they are individually tailored for the local readership.’

‘Oh. Have you ever met a Playmate? Been to the mansion? Met Hugh Hefner? What’s his daughter Christie like? 

Now relaxed and no longer worried about flunking the test, I indulge the officer with long and detailed answers as if I were briefing one of my new international editors who had just come on board.

Glancing at his wristwatch, he picks up a piece of paper, signs it and hands it to me with: ‘I better let you go before the swearing in begins.’ We shake hands. I thank him and with his ‘Its been pleasure talking with you. Good luck to you!’ I slowly walk out of there. Everyone else have cleared out of the waiting hall except for Carolyn, Denise and Anjuli. They are relieved to see me smiling.

© Haresh Shah

Illustration: Jordan Rutherford



Next Friday, March 15, 2013


Not until four years after I had left Playboy, did it ever cross mind that my leaving issues of Playboy on my living room coffee table, along with half a dozen other magazines I subscribed to would be deemed offensive to some people. It has been as much a part of my life as anything else. An angry outburst from my girlfriend conjured up some funny stories about coffee table display of the magazine.