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.

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