Permanent Resident, Expiration: Never — “A Better Life?” Podcast

Xuan Liu, left, and Youkun Zhou with their personal fake green cards at the Market of Dreams at Brick Aux on Feb. 5, 2023. Photo credit: Diana Cervantes.

Last year, nearly half a million people applied for a green card to permanently live and work in the United States. The process costs thousands of dollars and in some cases, can take years. 

But what if there were no years-long backlogs, or lengthy visa-processing times? What if getting a green card took just 15 minutes? And what if everyone who applied was eligible and automatically approved? 

That’s the world Philadelphia artists Xuan Liu and Youkun Zhou have created through The Fake Green Cards Project. At pop-up events at community fairs and art markets they issue hand-drawn “fake green cards” to anyone who would like one. Their art pieces have sparked conversations on the meaning and use of identification cards, the official terminology used to refer to immigrants, and of the immigration system as a whole.

Liu moved to the United States from China as a grad student to pursue a degree in Video Art at Syracuse University. The transition to life in the U.S. was difficult. It planted a seed that would eventually turn into the Fake Green Cards Project.

“I was speaking a language that I wasn’t that familiar with. Trying to make new friends, trying to figure out how do I go to [get] groceries,” Liu recalled. Things got even harder when she had to fill out her taxes as an international student for the first time. 

“I was just thinking, oh, what if I have a green card?” said Liu. “I don’t have to file all this documentation I feel so detached from, just to prove who I am or just to prove that I am legal to be here–whatever that means.”

A version of Danya AbdelHameid’s story was aired on The World.

So Liu grabbed a piece of paper and her art supplies, and issued herself a hand-drawn green card–effective immediately and expiring never. At the time, it was a much-needed break from tedious government paperwork and helped her cope with the many challenges of immigrating to a new country.  “I felt good about being able to laugh about what I did,” said Liu. 

Nearly two years later, Liu still carries her fake green card everywhere. It has a spot in her wallet next to her other ID cards and bank cards. It’s become a conversation starter.

Xuan Liu left, draws participants while Youkun Zhou, middle, interacts, scans finished green cards and talks with participants Manman Li, middle right, and Ziyan Xin. Photo credit: Diana Cervantes

In fact, it helped her connect with her collaborator, Youkun Zhou. After graduating from grad school, Liu moved to Philadelphia and met Zhou through the arts nonprofit Asian Arts Initiative. It didn’t take long before they realized that they both had been thinking a lot about green cards and what they represent. 

“I think we connected over kind of our time being students in the U.S.,” said Zhou. And when Zhou, who is currently a graduate student studying language and communication, saw Liu’s fake green card, it reminded her of a big public push to change negative narratives around immigration from a decade earlier–the Drop the I-Word campaign.

Using a similar cultural strategy, Liu and Zhou’s began the Fake Green Cards Project. They see each green card they issue as an opportunity for immigrants to define themselves, on their own terms.

“People can really put whatever on [each application form]” said Zhou. “We’re not judging. We’re not taking your answers of why you’re here, like really asking, as they would in an actual application for a green card.” 

At Liu and Zhou’s most recent pop-up at a small storefront-turned art gallery in Brooklyn, NY, individuals with all sorts of immigration experiences, requested fake green cards from the artists. As they reflected on the questions on their fake government form, they had the opportunity to share openly and honestly with other future ”fake green card holders” what they have gained and lost in their own immigration process.

More from our Immigrants in a Divided Country Series

On How to Wash Your Brain writer and producer Boen Wang dives deep into the epistemology and history of the term “brainwashing” as he tries to understand the profound political disagreements between him and his Chinese-born mom.

Green cards made by the artists from The Fake Green Cards Project. Photo credit: Diana Cervantes

“I feel like sometimes a lot of questions couldn’t be answered or couldn’t be explored in any other ways,” Liu said. 

The duo don’t know where they’ll be issuing fake green cards next, but they see the project growing into something bigger. “We are hoping to build up some kind of community throughout this whole process and eventually make some kind of publication like books or zines,” said Liu. Zhou added, “I think both of us like the uncertainty of this…And I like that this project’s kind of like coming along with both of us.”

This story was produced as part of Immigrants in a Divided Country, a multimedia online magazine series by Feet in 2 Worlds that explores the current political landscape from the perspective of immigrants. 

A Better Life? and Feet in 2 Worlds are supported by The Ford Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, an anonymous donor, and readers like you.

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AboutDanya AbdelHameid
Danya AbdelHameid (she/they) is an audio producer and writer from Virginia, by way of Sudan. She almost became a scientist and loves telling stories about the messy ways science intersects with culture and history. Danya has worked as an associate producer and fact checker on a handful of shows, including season 4 of How to Citizen with Baratunde, Good Words with Kirk Franklin, and the award-winning independent science podcast In Those Genes. They strive to create work that does too much, is carefree, and produced for, with, and in community.