American Passports

Under the Child Citizenship Act, our four sons- as the children of a US citizen and permanently residing in America – became US citizens when we emigrated here in October 2013.  However, in order to make that officially part of the record and make it concrete and provable, we had the option of either applying for a Certificate of Citizenship or a US passport.  We thought the passports were a better option so that was what we decided to do.

We filled in the forms and took them to the Post Office for checking and processing.  Just as in Britain, there is a fee attached for this service but it is a more sound and secure way to submit a passport application so is well worth the money.  We could not, however, get the Post Office person handling the paperworks to appreciate that the applications were being submitted under the Child Citizenship Act rather than by standard birth-right.  We talked it through with him several times and he got the idea on some level but not that there was a requirement for additional supporting evidence regarding the boys’ residency qualification.  Finally my husband insisted that he enclose at least copies of their Green Cards and other such documentation with the applications.

We were not surprised, therefore, when a month later four identical envelopes appeared in my mail box all bearing the same message from the US Department of State: we needed to submit a whole bundle of supporting evidence within 90 days or else all four applications would be void.  This was so supremely frustrating that it made me want to primal scream.  It was also far too reminiscent of the beauracratic tangles and annoyance of the Green Card saga.  A phone call to the relevant section of the State Department confirmed how to handle having only one original copy of our Marriage Certificate to split between four applications and that we only had to send all the boys’ Green Cards to evidence the residency qualification.  All of which could have been done at the Post Office.  We essentially paid the PO’s handling fee just so they would get the applications from A to B and nothing more.

Thankfully – unlike the debacle with my oldest son’s Social Security card and Green Card – this was the only glitch in the bureaucratic path and a few days ago four envelopes appeared in the mailbox, each containing a US passport.  Of course, there is still an opportunity for a stuff up as there always is – they have not yet returned our marriage certificate or the Green Cards – but for now it looks like the passport saga is at an end.  Our sons are now, after two years of living here, officially dual nationals and will be legally recognised as American citizens.  I am now the only Pict family member who remains un-American.  This Presidential election, however, increases my frustration at not being permitted to vote so I may have to make my own citizenship my next big bureaucratic project.

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The Green Card Saga Concludes

If you have been following my blog since its inception a year ago, you will know that my year has been liberally peppered with stress over my oldest son’s missing Green Card.  It has been a long, drawn-out, sorry story of shambolic bureaucracy, acute ineptitude, willful inflexibility, an extortionate additional fee and a day of school missed so that my son could attend a biometrics appointment despite technically being a US citizen and definitely being under 14.  And lots of waiting.  Lots and lots of waiting.  But finally the waiting is at an end.  My son’s Green Card arrived in Friday’s post.  We could scarcely believe it.  Finally, over a year since we first pitched up in America, all five of us British Picts have our Green Cards.

Now we can progress with applying for the boys’ US passports.  I can hardly wait to find out what bureaucratic nightmares that holds in store for us.

Change of Address Cynicism

As a parcel of immigrants, one of the things the children and I have to do is notify USCIS of any change of address.  They need to track our whereabouts.  Mr Pict also has to notify them of a change of address because he is our sponsor.  They need to know where to find him should any of we immigrants turn out to be reprobates.  Therefore, one of the first things I had to do upon moving house was to notify USCIS, via their website, of our address changes.  One per person.  Tedious but necessary.  With print outs as evidence.

Here’s the thing though: the last time we notified USCIS of a change of address, they entirely ignored it, despite apparently and allegedly updating their records, and sent our documentation to the old address anyway – which was, at that point, an unoccupied, flood-damaged apartment.  That total cock-up was then compounded by the fact that the Postal Service who should have been redirecting all of our mail from that address to our actual address failed to forward the documentation pertaining to our oldest son.  He, therefore, ended up with no Social Security Number and – when it happened again – no Green Card.  We have now been legal permanent residents in America for eleven months and yet still my oldest son has not received his Green Card.  This was seriously frustrating but it became downright infuriating when USCIS, having admitted fault, then made us pay to have his Green Card reissued and required that our son attend a biometrics appointment.  Ridiculous.   And that was five months ago and STILL we have not received his Green Card.  The Green Card we have now paid for twice.

You will, therefore, understand my cynicism and degree of anxiety surrounding the likelihood of the Green Card making it to us given that we have changed address and have set up mail redirection again.  There is only so much incompetence one can dismiss as a small glitch or a temporary blip.  When it happens over and over, it does smack of incompetence.  I would, of course, be delighted if my cynicism this time was proved to be without foundation.  I will no doubt perform an epically embarrassing happy dance should the missing Green Card make it to us without further ado, drama, stressful hassle or – gulp – expense.  If, for once, all the bureaucracy that seems intent on thwarting our son’s possession of a Green Card actually synthesises into something that functions adequately enough to deliver that document then I will hold my hands up and admit that I was wrong to be so sceptical.

This time.

The Green Card Saga Rumbles On. And On.

When my husband took our oldest son to the Biometrics appointment, we thought we were at least mercifully close to the conclusion of the stressful saga that has been obtaining his Green Card.  But no.  No, no, no.  This appears to be an epic tale of woe without conclusion.  Mr Pict was told that the replacement card would be delivered in two or perhaps three weeks from the date of the appointment.  He double-checked that USCIS had everything they needed (you know, like sucking us dry of funds, making us deal with the brunt of their own incompetence since it was they who lost the Green Card in the first place) and was assured (too cynical to be reassured though) that they did indeed have everything required to issue the replacement card and that they would do so in a timely manner.

Two weeks passed and no Green Card arrived our mail box.  Three weeks and still there was nothing.  Then we got to a month and thought the time had come to chase them up.  I have to admit I was already starting to feel volcanic ire at the thought they might have dispatched it to the wrong address.  Again.

Instead, when Mr Pict phoned up USCIS to find out where the Green Card was, he was not-so-politely informed that he should never have been told it would be issued that quickly.  That issuing a replacement would take six months.  Six.  Whole.  Months.  As in half a year.  As in over a year from when my son first entered the country.  Ridiculous, no?  He was told that USCIS are still working on processing Green Card approvals from August 2013.  The kids and I were all approved in August 2013.  The rest of us got our Green Cards in January.  How on earth can they still be processing Green Cards from August when we are now almost in June?

We are, therefore, going to have to find some other means of proving our oldest son’s status as a resident in America so that we can progress with things like applying for US passports.  That will be a whole lot more bureaucracy.  And no doubt more ineptitude, mess and stress.

One day this saga has to end after all.  Doesn’t it?

Blasted Biometrics

In bringing my blog up to date with all of our travels and some of the more relevant excerpts from my art journal pages, I got so caught up in the happy, positive stuff that I completely forgot to write an update on our ongoing tussle with USCIS over our oldest son’s Green Card.

I won’t bore my readers by rehashing the whole abysmal saga again but suffice to say we were already reaching the limits of mental exhaustion with USCIS’s attitude towards the missing Green Card when, lo and behold, a letter arrived into our mailbox informing us that our son was legally obliged to attend an appointment at the nearest office in order to have his biometrics taken.  Tolerance threshold breached.

I had to undergo the whole biometrics thing in order to enter the US as a permanent resident but our four children did not because they were and still are under the age of 14.  But suddenly, because USCIS sent out the Green Cards to the wrong postal address and because one of those envelopes was subsequently lost, they felt it was important to put our oldest son through the biometrics process.  The date in the later was a fortnight hence and on a weekday afternoon which meant missing an afternoon of school and my husband having to take an afternoon off work in order to take our son to the appointment – as I had to be home for the other three children.

The appointment was last Friday at 2pm.  Husband and son set off in the car with all the paperwork and documentation required.  At 1.45pm, my husband texted me to say that the whole operation was complete and they were heading home.  When they arrived at the office, they found a massive but empty room filled with chairs for a couple of hundred people but occupied by just a hand full.  There were more people manning the desks than there were people to process.  Consequently, they were taken early for the appointment.  My husband was required to fill out documents that fundamentally replicated all of the paperwork USCIS already had in their possession and that my husband had taken with him to the appointment.  Form-filling for the merry heck of it, in other words.  The biometrics bit of the appointment was so swift it was a blink and miss affair.

My husband enquired about the procedure for applying for a refund – given that we have now paid TWICE for our child to be issued with a Green Card and that the loss of the original card was due to a fault on USCIS’s part.  He was informed that there was no procedure for that and that this was the sole procedure for obtaining a replacement for a lost card.  No negotiations, no deviations, no exceptions.  We are not talking about small change here either.  We are left feeling as if we have been hustled.

I am now so pessimistic and cynical about the bureaucracy of USCIS that I am steeling myself for the next glitch in the process.  Perhaps they will send the Green Card out to a different random address this time and we can pay yet more money and attend yet more appointments, forever stuck in an endless loop of ineffectiveness.  But perhaps the Green Card will finally reach us and we can begin the process of applying for American passports for our four sons, thus effectively and officially putting their immigrant status behind them. 

And that will probably be a whole other bureaucratic mess for us to look forward to.

The Green Card Saga Continues

Almost exactly a month ago I wrote about a stressful bureaucratic mess regarding the difficulties we were having in getting USCIS to issue a replacement Green Card for our oldest son.  The email version of locking horns was getting us precisely nowhere so we decided to send off the required form with the requested extortionate fee but with a cover letter outlining our position and politely requesting that, with USCIS having admitted culpability, they not process the cheque.  It was the longest of long shots but they had us over a barrel and we needed the Green Card.

So we were not surprised but were still disappointed when a few days ago we got a letter from USCIS telling us that they were processing our request and had taken the fee.  I felt an odd balance of being enraged and resigned at the same time.  What is even more infuriating is that they informed us they might require our oldest son to attend an appointment to have his biometrics taken.  Since all of our children are under 14, this was not a requirement for their immigration.  The children were issued with visas and Green Cards without biometrics.  I am perplexed, therefore, as to why they have now decided that he needs to undergo this.  He will no doubt have to miss a day of school – perhaps all the kids will if the location of the appointment is too far away – and we will incur additional expenses and fees.  Yet the lack of a Green Card is entirely the fault of USCIS.

Lest we forget, my children are actually now technically and legally US Citizens.  Now that they and their USC parent are resident in America, they have that status.  We just have to formalise it by applying for passports for each of the boys.  So we are going through this ordeal to secure our oldest’s Permanent Resident status even though legally he now has the right to be here as a US citizen.

If we have to jump through any more flaming hoops to obtain his Green Card I will be spitting feathers.

Cyclical Ranting

Depending on how much of my blog you have read, you may or may not know that I repetitively encounter a problem with getting various organisations and departments to recognise me as a valid person.  I refer to it as my non-person status because somehow, despite legally, fiscally and financially sharing everything equally, my husband’s status as a US citizen makes him more of a person than I am.  This is another rant on this theme.  I somehow doubt it will be the last.

When we opened our US bank account, I could not activate my card because I did not have an Social Security number.  Then, when the SSN arrived and I phoned up to activate my card, I was interrogated because they insisted on further proof of my identity.  So my husband got to just push some buttons to confirm his debit card number and SSN without even speaking to an actual human whereas I had to answer questions about what was the dollar amount of my husband’s salary, when exactly was our bank account opened and so on and so forth.  And then we got into the whole “driving licence” hoo-ha where they just don’t comprehend that I cannot use a US driving licence to verify my identity because I am an immigrant who has only just arrived on American shores.  It must have taken over a dozen questions and answers for them to activate my card in the end.  That’s a big difference from punching some numbers in on a phone, the privilege of the USC.

I reported recently that the same debit cards had been revoked by our bank because we had happened to shop at Target during the period of their security breech.  After a week of whittling down my cash reserves, the debit cards finally arrived this morning.  With the reluctance that comes from that familiar sense of foreboding, I picked up the phone to activate the card.  I punched in my card number and was asked to punch in the last four digits of my SSN.  I did so.  I was asked to re-enter the SSN numbers.  Repeatedly.  By the fourth attempt, even the stupid robot system had decided enough was enough and put me through to a human – but not before making me listen to the most noisy hold music ever because it sounded like the feedback from an amp at a rock concert.

De.  Ja.  Vu.

Could I confirm my full name was the easy kick off point.  Then we were onto the usual bumf about passport numbers (not good enough evidence of my identity since it’s a UK passport number), my husband’s payroll details and the exact salary amount (which I have still failed to commit to memory because, you know, I have better things for my brain to focus on right now than the exact amount, to the cent, that his employer deposits in our account each month), various other questions about the joint account holder and – yes, siree, that favourite query of mine – the number on my US driver’s licence.  Groundhog Day conversation.

Seriously.  They have previously verified my identity to their satisfaction in order to activate the previous debit card but they want me to go through the same stuff all over again.  Trying to withhold sarcasm and annoyance from my voice, with moderate success, through gritted teeth I explained that, as my accent indicated, I was not American, had already indicated I was not American given our discussion about my passport, had in fact only been in America since October, and strangely enough did not yet had a chance to obtain a full US driver’s licence.

On hold again.  With the eardrum shredding feedback noise.

And then, just like that, I was told the cards were now activated and have a nice day.  No explanation for the sudden change of heart, no logic to my authorisation suddenly being approved, just that they were now activated.  Bureaucracy here is frustrating and fickle.

Driving and being driven up the wall

I got my UK driving licence at the age of 17 – the minimum legal driving age there – and I somehow managed to pass not only first time but with an entirely clean test sheet.

I had had no more than ten formal lessons, a few trips around industrial estates with my Dad to practice maneouvres and my Grandad had made me do stunt driving a la Starsky and Hutch, like reversing around a series of cones, even though that was never going to form any part of any test.  But still my instructor thought I was going to fail.  Luckily this was in the age before separate theory tests.  I still have no capacity for memorising statistics and numbers.  There was never a chance I would be able to accurately recall all those stopping distances.  Had there been a written test back then, I am sure I would have failed it at least once.  But back then knowledge was assessed as part of the practical test so I didn’t let it vex me so much.

My instructor decided it would be best if I did not sit the test at the nearest centre because I was constantly driving to where I thought I should go rather than where I was being told to go.  I was just too familiar with the roads there.  So instead it was decided that I would sit my test and the next closest testing centre which was a much smaller town.  I soon sussed out that there were really only two routes I could ever be taken on my test since only those two routes would permit all of the components of the test to take place.  I, therefore, set out to memorise every details of those routes even down to how many turns of the wheel were required to reverse perfectly around each corner.  Still my instructor was sure I was going to fail and that the test was just going to be a learning exercise.  That may have been because his attempts at getting me to do an emergency stop always resulted in me gradually rolling to a stop that could have mowed down several grannies.  I just couldn’t seem to get myself to reflexively respond to a faked emergency.  A tap of a newspaper on the dashboard was not a nonagenarian stepping off the kerb after all.

It transpired, however, that my driving examiner was a talker.  As soon as he got in the car, he asked me about my fairly rare surname.  He was able to geographically pinpoint my paternal family origins – Aberdeenshire – because of it and told me that he was also from Aberdeen.  And so followed a test that was really just a monologue from him about Aberdeen and travelling in Scotland and places he had lived with the occasional interruption for him to say, “Turn left ahead” or “do a three-point turn here”.  I am pretty confident that most of the time he was not paying full, focused attention to my driving.  He asked me to park up and I knew that was the driving element over and that I was now going to be asked some questions to assess my knowledge.  As soon as he held up a picture of a triangle with a cow silhouette in it and asked me what this sign meant, I knew I had passed.  All the questions I was asked were very basic, the most challenging one being what colour the cat’s eyes are on a slip road.  He informed me that I had passed.  Phew!  But it was when he showed the paperwork to my instructor that he and I were both dumbstruck because there was not a single fault recorded.  It was a flawless test.  Except that I know it wasn’t a flawless test: I just had an examiner who was so busy gabbing that he had not noticed my minor errors (though none of those would have led to a fail).

So that was how I passed my first driving test and became a qualified driver: no specific theory test and a hyper-loquacious examiner.

Now I am in the process of undergoing my attempt to become a fully qualified driver in the US.

Since I finally – finally! – have all of the documentation I need, today I went to the driving centre to obtain my learner’s permit.  I thought all I was doing was obtaining the equivalent of a UK provisional license – a permission slip to start learning to drive, the first hurdle in becoming a fully-fledged, licensed driver.  

Then came the bombshell that to even obtain the learner’s permit I had to take the Knowledge test.

Gulp!

I have not read the Pennsylvania Driver’s Manual.  I have flicked through it and I looked up some specific things to ensure I was not breaking the law in the meantime (since I am legally driving using my UK licence and international licence).  I have not, however, studied it in any way.  The pass rate is 80% with 18 questions.  I had that sinking feeling.

I was directed to a little booth containing a touch screen.  I poked a button and my test began.  Multiple choice questions appeared on the screen, I made a selection, confirmed that selection and then the screen would indicate correct (green for go!) or incorrect (red for “You are never going to drive in this country ever, you dimwit!”).

And I was getting green after green.  How was this possible?  Partly it was luck I’m sure.  A rash of questions involving statistics would have scuppered me for sure.  I was finding I could answer them without much brain-ache by dint of over two decades’ driving experience and simple common sense.  I did get two questions wrong: one because I guessed the wrong level of fine for a drink-driving offence (I wrongly erred on the side of harshness) and one because the question and potential answers were so riddled with American terms I could not stitch them together into something coherent to allow me to comprehend what was being asked of me.  So I guessed and got it wrong.  That was the penultimate question.  I got the last one right and a screen appeared congratulating me for passing.

Really?  I passed? Phew!

It didn’t all go as smoothly though.  Being me and my luck there had to be a glitch.  That ruddy lost hyphen struck again!  My SSN was one of the critical components of my permit application and, of course, in their wisdom the Department of Social Security had failed to insert a hyphen in my surname. It transpires there is also not a hyphen in my surname as it appears on my green card.  I am scheduling in some primal screaming just to vent my frustration over this lapse in punctuation.  Neither of these documents, therefore, exactly and precisely correspond to my passport, which records my surname accurately.  There was some humming and hawing, some referring to superiors, and finally they decided that the SSN was the over-riding supporting document and that, therefore, my driving permit was going to have to be issued sans hyphen.

The Curse of the Lost Hyphen strikes again.

Slowly but surely US bureaucracy is eroding my identity.

But my quest to have a US driving licence is progressing.

Giveth and taketh.

Lost Hyphen

Now that my green card has arrived, there are certain things I can progress.  Among the most urgent is obtaining a US driver’s licence.  The combination of my UK licence and an international licence permits me to drive in the US for up to a year from my arrival as a legal permanent resident.  Theoretically, therefore, I have ample time to obtain my licence.  However, even getting to the point of a test takes several steps and I also need to allow some time for possible fails and retakes.  I passed my UK driving test first time after just ten lessons but that was in the days before driving theory tests.  I’m not so confident this time around, especially since my brain is addled with knowledge of another country’s rules and regulations.

The first stage in this particular process is obtaining a learner’s permit and in order to get my mitts on one of those there are several things I need to do.  One of those was undergoing a medical, which I did a couple of weeks ago; the other thing I have to do is present a whole series of documents that prove my identity and status.  The green card was one such piece of documentation but I also need proofs of address.  Since my husband moved out to the US in advance of the rest of us, obviously everything is in his name.  I am only named on the lease.  So this morning we decided to get my name added to the electricity bill, since a utility bill is a recognised proof of address for the purpose of obtaining a learner’s permit.

My husband spoke on the phone first and explained that he wanted my name added to the account and that he was authorising such a change.  The phone then had to be handed to me, which is reasonable enough.  I provided my information.  It was all going swimmingly and smoothly.  Then I had to give my social security number.  I have only had an SSN for a few weeks and do not have a memory for numbers so I had not committed it to memory but I found it within a matter of minutes so we could proceed.  I was then asked to clarify how my name was recorded on the SSN.  We have a double-barreled surname.  We use a hyphen; my surname on the SSN card was hyphenless.  Instead of a hyphen there was a space.  This was not good enough verification apparently.  Our surname is unusual.  In fact it is so rare that only the six members of the Pict family have this surname.  But the fact that the hyphen was missing from my SSN registration meant the electricity company wanted additional evidence of my identity.  Labyrinthine bureaucracy again.

I was asked for the details of my driver’s licence.  I tried not to utter an irked guffaw down the phone as I patiently explained that I had only been in the US for two and a half months and had not yet obtained a US driver’s license.  So now, in order to be added to the bill, I have to present two forms of photo identification at their offices in Philadelphia.  Thankfully they will accept my UK driver’s licence as one of these, the other being my passport.  Jumping through stupid hoops again.  What was the point in my husband authorising my name being added to the bill if his authority meant nothing in the absence of a hyphen?  And why did the Social Security Department take it upon themselves to drop the hyphen from our surname?  My husband’s SSN has the surname with the hyphen so it’s not that the printing machine cannot produce them.  Someone has apparently taken it upon themselves to abduct the hyphen for no particular reason.  Just a whim.  And it doesn’t bother me at all on a personal level except that now I am going to have this mismatch between how my surname appears on everything else and how it appears on the ruddy SSN and the Green Card.  Of course there is also the serpent eating its own tail hassle of always being asked for the driver’s licence as my photo ID every single time I try to progress a step further in my quest to obtain said US driving licence.

Company checklists don’t allow for exceptions, divergence from the norm or apparently lost hyphens.  That’s today’s vent.

Green Cards

You don’t have to have had any involvement with US immigration to know that possession of a green card is your portal to legal residency in America.  Even if you have not picked it up from proper general knowledge then the hideous movie with Gerard Depardieu will  have taught you that.  As we took the Direct Consular Filing route through immigration, we applied for the Green Cards and Social Security Numbers in one fell swoop and were given a three month outside estimate for their arrival.  Until then my life has been in stasis as there are various things I have been unable to progress without both documents.

So my green card finally arrived in today’s mail.  That should be cause for celebration.  Unfortunately the positive of receiving my green card was undermined by the fact it was accompanied by green cards for three of my sons.  Three.  Not four.

As happened with the SSN, my 10 year old has been missed out.

It is now becoming apparent that our oldest son’s immigration paperwork has been lost in the mix somewhere as it is too much of a coincidence that he has been missed out twice.  When my husband went to the Social Security Office in Philadelphia (because we have no closer office and every time I phoned I was put through endless push button menus just to be unceremoniously hung up on each and every time) they had no record of our 10 year old having been processed for an SSN.  Thankfully he had gone with all the relevant immigration paperwork and supporting documentation so they agreed to process and issue an SSN for him.  Just an annoying glitch, we thought.  A one-off anomaly.  But, no, it is now evident that that was just part of a larger glitch.  Despite the intensive bureaucracy of USCIS, somewhere along the line our oldest son’s immigration packet has been misplaced, misfiled or just plain lost.

So now I am going to get to spend a day speaking to numerous USCIS personnel until I get put through to one who can actually assist me and see if we can get to the bottom of why he has been missed out.

But not today.

I am too stressed out for other reasons do deal with that whole shebang calmly today.

And once we get all of this green card mess sorted out, we will be able to apply for US passports for each of our four sons.  I can’t wait to see what glitches we encounter then.