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

Xuan Liu, left, and Youkun Zhou with their personal fake green cards at the fair. Photo credit: Diana Cervantes
Xuan Liu, left, and Youkun Zhou with their personal fake green cards at the fair. Photo credit: Diana Cervantes

Last year, nearly half a million people began the green card application process to permanently live and work in the United States. The bureaucratic process costs thousands of dollars and in some cases, can take years.  While headlines about America’s treatment of immigrants and promises and controversies around immigration reform are all powerful reminders of the chasm separating Democrats and Republicans, with so many issues now dividing the nation, the challenges facing those navigating our broken immigration system can easily fade into the background. 

What if there were no year-long backlogs, or lengthy visa-processing times? What if the process for getting a green card took 15 minutes instead of years? And what if everyone who applied was not only eligible, but also automatically approved?  That’s the world Philadelphia artists Xuan Liu and Youkun Zhou have created through their project, The Fake Green Cards Project. At pop-up events at community fairs and arts 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, 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. And 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.” 

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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 alot 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, nearly 20 people with all sorts of immigration experiences, requested fake green cards. As people reflected on the questions on their fake government form, they had the opportunity to share openly and honestly with the artists and 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.

Fake green cards created by The Fake Green Cards Project. Photo credit: Diana Cervantes

Liu believes that’s part of what’s so special about social engagement art projects like The Fake Green Cards Project. “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. 

To listen to earlier episodes of A Better Life?, visit

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 and listeners like you.