Saturday, February 09, 2008

Sooper Toosday

I couldn't vote in this week's primaries, because I've never become an American citizen. A fact that Netflix appeared not to be aware of when it decided to send me Maxed Out and Sicko this weekend. Both have been languishing on my 'queue' for a while, but interestingly popped up right before election time. Hmm. Nice try with your subliminal brainwashing Netflix! I wonder how many people across the States were going, wait, 'Sicko' was #1327 on my online DVD list - what the chuff, where's my 17th season of Lost?

One of the reasons I've not yet become a citizen, despite being out here for over a decade is because the US and the UK do not observe dual citizenship, unless you happen to be born with parents from each nation (although a lot of 'aliens' I know hold 'secret' dual nationality). Basically, if I chose to agree to bear arms for this dear country, then I would technically have to relinquish my rights to being a British citizen - and quite frankly after watching Sicko, not bloody likely!! Also, Anna has dual citizenship and so will any future K-spawn, and in this increasingly unstable world giving them the opportunity to hedge their bets citizenship-wise seems no bad thing. I have visions of them flitting between Berkeley, and the Sorbonne, living for a year in Paris then Prague, just because they can; whereas I'm sure they will actually use their US/EU citizenship to bum around Europe in a VW van until they find some equally directionless creature to marry so that they can live thousands of miles away from me.

Just like their dear old mother.

Anyway, I am a little conflicted about the issue of jury duty, err, I mean citizenship. Unlike a lot of immigrants to this country, I did not move here for the chance of a better life (Lord knows), I moved here in hot pursuit of some fine California ass. I do feel some form of obligation to the States though. I understand that citizenship for me, is not a right it is a privilege. I should support my adoptive country with more than my taxes, I should be more involved. I know that I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to move here, live life on the other side and move on from that deeply ingrained opinion that America=arrogance, waste, conspicuous consumption and insularity that most non-Americans hold.

The main reason I will not become an American citizen any time soon is because of the US Immigration Service.

Does any native-born American have any real idea how rude, inefficient, degrading, chronically underfunded and understaffed the INS is? I suppose if they did you'd hear fewer stories about how awful the DMV is. The DMV is a cupcake picnic compared to immigration.

I've been meaning to write a post about my experiences, but quite honestly even years after the event I am still so angry at the way I was treated that I can only throw down a couple of 'gems' by way of bullet-points. Spit them out as it were:

  • The Los Angeles INS (Immigration & Naturalization Service) opens at 6am, the line starts forming at what, 4am? I live over two hours away. If you arrive at 6am and get to the back of the queue, chances are you won't get in because they have already seen their quota for the day.
  • My fingerprints expired 3 (three) times during my 'adjustment of status'. The third time I had them done I had a small cut on one finger, which rendered my fingerprints 'invalid', but they failed to notify me of this, and closed my case.
  • I had to get 'parole' each time I went back to the UK and wished to re-enter the United States, so that I could keep my green card application ongoing. The second time I applied for 'parole' they sent it to me with page 7 unsigned. Stamped, but unsigned. When I arrived at Atlanta airport they allowed me to carry on to LAX but took my passport from me and promised it would be returned. After hours or frenzied phonecalls, misdirected transfers and hang-ups I had to drive down to LA one month later, and stand in line at 5am to get it back.
  • When they take your photo at the INS there is a big sign that states 'if you blink you will be charged $10'. There are also posters everywhere in the INS building alerting people to overpopulation in the United States. As if they're trying to say, 'no breeding on the premises you filthy immigrant breeders'.
  • When I received my notice of receipt of application, the only piece of paper I was to get from the INS for a couple of years, my 'alien number' had been transposed by whatever muppet had filled in the form. For the next 4 and half years I had to explain at every work permit application, parole hearing, and fingerprinting, that I was not in fact Kim Phan from Vietnam.
  • Each INS official has a sign next to him/her that states 'we will not answer questions'. If you blurt out 'but am I even in the right line?', they will keep their heads down and gently tap the sign with their pen.
  • When I finally had my green card interview, four years later, the INS official said 'you guys don't have any kids?' (we gave you enough time, dammit). When we shook our heads he said 'Pets?' He then asked me to verify my phone number, that we filed our taxes jointly, then he apologized and said my fingerprints had expired (no joke) and my application would be held up until I got them redone. I was more amazed that he'd apologized than the fact that my fingerprints had expired again.
  • About three weeks after we went down to LA for the eleventy-billionth time to appeal that our case should not be closed, that my fingerprints were in fact valid, that I was not in fact, Kim Phan, my green card with arrived stealth-like anti-climax in the mail.
A green card when issued, is good for 10 years. Mine is due for renewal in a couple of years, which means I should probably get in line right about now. So you see, I will not be upping the ante and applying for citizenship any time soon. Well, not until you can check your application status online anyway.

I realize that getting an immigrant application in Southern California probably means I witnessed the worst side to the INS, and that hopefully people in North Dakota, Michigan and Washington are sailing through the requisite hoops with smiles all round. I would also like to say that for the record, the first time I re-entered the US with my Green Card, the immigration official at LAX smiled at me and said 'welcome back Ma'am'.

My point, to this diatribe, is that there is a general misconception in this country that it is somehow easy to immigrate here. That you just stroll across the border, or sneak across, and then a couple of months later fill in the papers and you're in. The truth is that it is so amazingly difficult, but that the States has a border with a country where people would happily stand on their heads for five years if it meant the chance of a work permit here. These same people are met with incompetence, hostility, rudeness and contempt. Their first introduction to the bureaucracy in the country is the INS. What a terrifying thought.
I would have liked to have voted in this week's primaries, but I won't be doing so any time soon.


Anonymous said...

According to the British Embassy you have to make "a formal declaration of renunciation in front of a British Consul or other British official authorised to accept such declarations" to actually lose your UK citizenship. Here is the link if you want more info:

Also talks about dual nationality for children. - Another accidental expat

Anonymous said...

I knew it had been a hard process for you to go through, but not that hard! Well done you. I've just discovered that, despite my own glorious dual citizenship, any kids of mine have no hope at all, unless I move over there for 5 years before having them...any room at your place for newlyweds? S&G x

AliBlahBlah said...

Thanks anonymous - I had no idea, maybe I will go through the process - you can never have too many passports after all.

and S - you must be in the same situation as Anna, her nationality is 'by descent' rather than by birth so she can't pass it on either. Still, it you're volunteering to live here and babysit for 5 years you're more than welcome!!

Rachel said...

This sounds like fun. I'm so looking forward to doing all this nonsense AGAIN! We just got my stuff sorted for being in the UK, now we're moving back and have to get his stuff sorted. I don't even know where to start. I better start reading up.

TrickyVicky said...

Makes staying in the UK sound not so dull after all! For now I will stick to weekend lie ins rather than 5am queues, and spending my Saturdays idling in a pub, followed by a good old curry. Mind you it does mean I miss out on some California ass but I have a rather tasty Yorkshire version at home so I'm not complaining...!

British Daffodilly said...

No way you were a campervanner! I was too for a year working around Europe in a Ford called "Betsy."

If you do become a citizen you can keep both passports.


Expatmum said...

Anonymous is right - you can have both passports (I have). The US government now recognises that many people are in a position to require two passports, but even when they still used to make you remounce the Queen at the airport, (which they technically cound't) a British Embassy employee told me that the passport would be sent to them and they would just return it straight to the individual!
I became a citizen in 2002 and it was almost as bad as all the green card stuff. I got told off by the "officer" for leaving it 12 years, then because the FBI was behind in their background checks, I wasn't even made a citizen there and then. Last thing -
on the day of my swearing in, you are warned on pain of death not to be late, and then the judge was about 45 minutes late. He made some comment about some people not loving the USA so much, and added "as we have recently seen". I thought he was referring to 9/11. When it was over, there were camera crews all over the foyer. I thought "Wow, this is a bigger deal than I thought" then discovered that some idiot had tried to blow up Chicago's federal building with some device in his backpack WHILE I WAS ON THE 27th FLOOR!

Sugarplum's Mom said...

I used to not understand what was so darned hard about it and why people didn't do it legally to begin with and save a lot of hassle. Then my brother got engaged to a lovely girl from Columbia and they've been working on her K-1 Visa process for nearly a year now. It just got approved. We're ecstatic for them but I've learned in the meantime just how screwed up the INS is.

jenny cook said...

i always wondered what that process was like - that is insane! talk about wanting to rip your hair out!

i do hate the dmv so maybe next time i'm there i'll count my lucky stars. :)

ExpatKat said...

...and this all happens before the Surgeon General gets his/her hands on your unmentionables! I found this the most degrading experience of all. It didn't help having to watch my 13yr old daughter cry while they took blood for an Aids test. My nice healthy, naive innocent girl! We had to prove we'd all had the chickenpox too and ofcourse I'm the only one without a scar, so they jabbed me with a needle instead. I got another MMR shot because I had no medical records to prove that either. Frankly, I've never been so prodded and poked with such disrespect in my life!

Little Britainer said...

I've been dithering over trying to apply for a green card via work and I know I ought to, but I can't quite face it...

When I got my social security card (after handing over passport, birth certificate and driving licence), my name was misspelled. I pointed this out and, even though the error was theirs (me having provided three different forms of my correct name, after all), they told me that I would have to bring them new proof of identity to prove my name was spelled correctly on my passport, birth certificate and driving licence. I didn't even have that much of an identity! I had to call home frantically to get random old bills and pay cheques with my name on sent over. It was all ok in the end, but extremely stressful and time-consuming...

Summerland girl said...

Okay, so you have citizenship, and you were going to vote for who? I know the answer to this, I'm so glad you can't vote : )

Anonymous said...

I was met with T.B. posters in my previous local office. Six years ago, it was a dirty nasty cattle ranch filled with people 'doing the right thing' and being verbally abused and treated worse than a mangy dog.

Just two years after that, they introduced their online appointment maker. Wow. What a difference. You walk in with an appointment, knowing you'll be seen at your alloted time.

I created a folder of evidence of my relationship with my husband, had my in-laws (all 7 of them) and my place of employment (plus three people I worked with) write an affidavit and have it separately notorised. It weighed 10 lbs. No joke. I walked in for my interview armed with the folder. He said, "what's that?" so I told him. He sighed and didn't even look through it. I was in and out of there in 13 minutes, I couldn't believe it. I hate to say it, but I think I was treated a little better because I am British and not South American.

Like you, I'm an accidental ex-pat and still a British citizen. Thanks for voicing this.

Expatmum said...

Come on over to my place and you can have a couple of awards for all your trouble!

Labella Labella said...

Hrmm that was weird, my comment got eaten. Anyway I wanted to say that it's nice to know that someone else also mentioned this as I had trouble finding the same info elsewhere. This was the first place that told me the answer. Thanks.
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