On Being Disenfranchised

My youngest son’s preschool is serving as a polling station today.  At both drop off and pick up I was asked if I was there to vote and both times I explained that, sadly no, as an immigrant I was not entitled to vote.  This is a difficult thing for me.

My Gran was intensely, fervently, obsessively political.  She had stridently held opinions on every subject and she was politically active in trying to change the things she believed needed to be changed.  Some of my happiest childhood memories of time spent with her involve being at protests and on rallies.  I suppose, therefore, that I learned to be politically engaged at her knee.  My family taught me early on how important it was to actively participate in democracy, that to not cast a vote is to undermine the very principle of democracy, to inform yourself and to cast your vote accordingly.  People fought and died to earn me the right to vote and I should wield that right and be thankful for it.  In due course, I registered to vote as soon as I was old enough to do so and cast my first vote as soon as I was able.  In my entire adult life, I have only failed to vote once – in a local election because I was in hospital having a baby.  I think that might be a reasonable excuse, maybe even one my Gran would have permitted.

When my husband and I were discussing the pros and cons of moving from Scotland to America, therefore, one of the items on the list was the fact I would not be able to vote.  I would be abiding by and controlled by the laws of and paying the taxes to a country I had no electoral power in.  As a resident and especially as the mother of four children, I would have a stake in a country but would have no political voice.  That was a Big Deal for me.  It became part of my difficulty with feeling like a Non-Person upon arriving here.  Like my Gran, I have passionately held views and opinions, values and beliefs, and it is frustrating to not be able to invest those in moulding the future of a state and nation I am now raising my children in.  

I am very liberal and left wing.  I am a socialist who believes to the core of my being that the haves and the cans have a moral obligation and a social duty to support and protect those who have not and who can’t.  I am against capital punishment, for equal rights across the board, pro gun control … an endless list of issues on which my new homeland and I are somewhat out of synch.  Right now I have no ability to shape the laws in regard to any of these core issues.  When it comes down to brass tacks, I cannot even vote for the local dog catcher let alone who nominally represents me in Congress, the Senate or the White House.

If and when I take up US Citizenship, it will primarily be motivated by my desire to vote, to participate fully in the democratic process once more, to have my say in a country I now have an important stake in.  For now, however, I just have to hope that the winds of change and the franchise being taken up by each new generation might move things along in a direction that more accords with my stance on key issues.  On that note, today a Federal judge struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same sex marriage.  That I now live in a state that recognises marriage equality makes me very happy indeed and gives me hope in more ways than one.  Today, therefore, at least feels like an easier day on which to be disenfranchised. 

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.

Paypal makes me a non-person once more

Today I embarked on removing myself from various now irrelevant mailing lists, electronic and postal, and updating my details with websites I intend to continue to use.  Two of these were Ebay and Paypal.  Ebay was a breeze.  I changed my address from the UK to the US and they automatically switched all of my details to Ebay.com so I have been able to transfer my buying and selling ratings across the Atlantic.  However, given that I had changed my details with Ebay, I was then prompted to change my details with Paypal.  That’s when the hijinks started.

Paypal is doing its level best to remind me that I am a non-person.  Unlike with Ebay, I cannot simply transfer my account across the Atlantic.  It’s financial and the movement of money across borders is strictly controlled so it is logical and I accepted that.  A lot of searching the help section enabled me to uncover the jiggery-pokery required to do what I needed to do: I had to close my UK account and then open a new US account.  Simple.  Except I have a not insubstantial balance on my UK Paypal account since I was paid for various personal possessions we sold in the UK using Paypal.  If I closed my account prior to opening the US one then all that virtual money would disappear.  I, therefore, contacted Paypal to learn specifically what someone in my circumstances should do.  They permitted me to briefly have two accounts in my name so long as they were linked to different email addresses so that I could transfer the balance.  So I changed the email address of the UK account and registered a new US account.  Which is when the whole plan ran aground.

As per my blog entry of a few days ago, I have no independent access to our joint finances courtesy of my present status as an SSNless immigrant.  Yes, I do repeat myself when I’m in soap box rant mode.  So, of course, Paypal required me to enter a linked credit or debit card to the account.  I have neither.  Actually I do have a debit card for my joint bank account but I have not been able to register it because I do not, as yet, have an SSN.  So I could not link a debit card to the account – at least not one with a US billing address since I do still have a UK bank account at present.  Nor could I add a credit card because my lack of SSN (and, let’s face it, non-existent credit score for the US despite a stonking credit score in the UK) means I am not eligible to apply for one.  So the process stalled.

Of course, my incomplete new Paypal account can still accept balance transfers so I duly shifted the balance from the old to the new accounts … whereupon it disappeared into the electronic ether.  I now have zero balance on either account, though it is very possible I am just being impatient and it will appear.  Meanwhile every time I log on to check said balance transfer,  Paypal prompts me to add not just a credit or debit card but also my social security number.  Keep on rubbing the salt in, Paypal.  E-commerce a la Kafka.

Some friends have advised me that it is possible for me to obtain a pre-paid credit card.  In effect I shove some money on to a swipe card which I can then use as if it was a regular debit card.  I think I am going to take the plunge and get one in the hope that I can add it to my Paypal and other online retail sites and it might just make my life that bit easier and time-efficient too.  I will still be a non-person but at least I will be a functioning non-person.

Non-Person

I don’t intend for this blog to be on a “living the dream” theme or for it to only showcase sunshine and lollipops.  I want this blog to truly reflect my experience as an immigrant to the US and, let’s face it, not every day is going to be a gentle breeze with prevailing unicorn farts.  Getting to the US was a tough slog and I, therefore, fully anticipated part of the slog to continue.  This, therefore, is my first post that’s a bit Eeyore gloomy.

I have arrived in the US as a Legal Permanent Resident.  (My children have become US citizens upon arrival as they are now the children of a resident US citizen parent.)  We took the Direct Consular Filing route through immigration meaning that we were processed through the US Embassy in London which theoretically makes for a smoother, easier journey.  Certainly we found it to be pretty straightforward – demanding, of course, expensive definitely, but with no glitches or surprises.  I, therefore, am now entitled to a green card and social security number, both of which I applied for in advance as part of the process the children and I undertook.  Meanwhile, however, I am in limbo waiting for these documents to turn up.  Because until I have those documents in my possession, I am a bit of a non-person.

So much here is dependent on having a social security number that there are barriers everywhere preventing me making progress because of my lack of SSN at this given moment in time.  My husband and I have a joint US bank account yet I cannot access cash from an ATM or use my debit card because I have been unable to register it without an SSN.  This is my biggest deal.  From having been able to pay for things independently, I am now in the position of having to ask my husband for money.  Of course, it is our money so I am not quite a kept woman receiving pin money but, nevertheless, my psyche is out of sorts because I am having to exist on little bits of cash here and there and really think about every dollar and cent that is in my purse.  It will be a bit of a celebratory moment for me when I finally have independent access to my own money.

There is an election in the US on 5 November.  I have voted in every single election in which I was eligible to vote (with the exception of one local election I missed because of being in labour – valid excuse I think) because exercising my democratic right to vote is very important to me.  The franchise was fought and won by people who in some instances literally gave their lives in the cause of making their countries truly democratic.  I am also politically aware and have strong opinions.  Now, of course, I am living in a country where I am not entitled to vote.  I am disenfranchised.  Right now that does not feel like such a massive deal but if I think of the future and continuing to have a political stake in a country (because I live here and am raising my children here) while having no political voice here that, again, reminds me of my non-person status.  The right to vote may well be the thing that drives me to seek citizenship at some juncture.

This all comes on top of a baseline feeling of regression.  In Scotland, I was a fully fledged adult, able to operate fully and independently, understanding all the systems, routine and structures of everyday life.  Here I don’t even have a sound grasp of basic things like volume measurements and I am very slow at making change because, of course, I am trained to add up cash in different denominations.  Whereas I could drive in the UK almost on autopilot, here I am having to concentrate at each junction, stop sign and traffic light because the rules are different.  All those little differences that make me have to stop and think and figure things out make me feel as if I have regressed from adulthood to being a teenager again, just embarking on an independent life.  It’s quite a discombobulating feeling.

Of course, these woes are all short term.  At some point in the not too distant future I will receive my green card and SSN and can be a fully functioning adult here.  But, nevertheless, it was important to record this gripe here on this blog for the sake of truth because I am sure ever so often being an immigrant will suck.