Tag Archives: US Immigration

USCIS Round Eight… Green Card Interview

Round OneRound TwoRound ThreeRound FourRound FiveRound Six, Round Seven

Before I left my office I asked my boss, “Any last minute advice?”

“Don’t get mad at the interview. Try to separate everything that has happened and the interview itself.”

Probably wise advice.

As we were driving to the interview P echoed my boss’s sentiments, “Try not to say too much.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, you like to say too much sometimes, give too much background, and tell the whole story. Let’s just keep it simple. This person doesn’t need to know the whole saga. We don’t need to complicate things.”

I guess that was true too.

We got to the Lawrence office, walked through the metal detector, and up to the counter where a man with small glasses and a plaid shirt was sitting at reception (I thought back to my comment to Extension 7654 Man about the woman with gray hair, and wondered if she was the regular person or a substitute. Maybe he thought I was telling a story?) I told the reception guy, “We had an appointment for 9am, but it was rescheduled for 1pm today, here is our original notice.”

He looked at the schedule and said, “Yep, rescheduled, please have a seat around the corner in the waiting room and the agent that will help you will call your name.” He started walking away with the interview notice in his hand and I called out, “Do we need that? Will we get it back? Should we have a photocopy?”

“No, it goes in your file and the agent uses it. You no longer need it.”

“Okay.” I said, and wondered if I was asking too many questions, or if I looked anxious or suspicious. I didn’t want anything to screw up our chances.

P and I sat in the waiting area. There were several others already there, including a college-aged-looking Asian man dressed in a black suit.

“Some people are really dressed up, huh?” P said, looking down at the informal collared shirt and gray sweater he threw on in the morning. I was wearing pants and a shorter kurta top with pote and sweater, something I threw on thinking I was just going to the office for the day.

We waited about half an hour. Every time an “agent” came to the door I held my breath to see if they would call “P P?”

Finally a large white woman with short brown hair called P, and we both got up and walked over to the door.

“Do you want both of us, or just one of us?” I asked.

“I’ll just bring you back first.” She said to me, “Then I’ll call P later. Please bring all your documents.”

I started worrying again. I was thinking too much about everything. I thought, Maybe they need to bring me back first because they found a problem with my record? I had to submit three years’ worth of tax paperwork as part of the application, maybe they found an exemption I did wrong a few years ago, or a misfiled piece of paperwork?

I walked back to the woman’s office and she had me raise my right hand and swear an oath that everything I was going to say was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. “Yes,” I responded, “Um, so help me god? Or, um, just yes?”

Breath C, chill out.

The woman smiled and opened the file. She asked to see my driver’s license, and asked me my name and address, verified my social security number and mine and P’s place of work, checking each answer off on my application with a red pen.

“I see you got married here and abroad?” she asked. I had included pictures of both our July 9th Nepali wedding and our July 10th American wedding as proof of our real marriage (instead of a fake marriage for immigration documents) in our Green Card application, but was careful to label everything on the 9th as a “cultural wedding” and everything on the 10th as a “legal wedding.”

“No—we got married only in the US, we did both Nepali and American ceremonies but both in Massachusetts. July 10th was our legal wedding where we signed our paperwork.”

The woman used her red pen to check something else off the application, “Ah yes, I see. So, how did you meet?”

We went to undergraduate together, and have known each other a long time.”

“And where was that?” she asked. I answered and she checked more things off the application with her pen.

“Did he propose marriage to you, or did you just get married one day?” This question made me nervous. As an international student advisor I know that F-1 student visas are non-immigrant intent, so I know if (technically) your intention to immigrate changes—such as proposing marriage to an American citizen— then you can’t really leave the country and come back in the same F-1 status. But our engagement was so long, P had traveled a few times. I took an oath, so I knew I couldn’t lie, but I was also worried this question would get us in trouble, and I knew if I said something different then the truth, if they asked P the same question and he answered it differently, then we would be in trouble anyway.

“He informally proposed in 2008 while on a cross-country road trip. We were in Arches National Park, Utah. But we were together for a long time after that without any concrete marriage plans until just recently.” Even though the “informal” part was stretching the truth a little, I hoped that this answered the question well enough. I felt my stomach doing flip flops.

Her: “Do you have any additional documents or proof of marriage you want to show me today?”

Me: “Everything I have in my own file is a photocopy of all the documentation in your file. We have a CD of wedding photos if you want to see it, and extra notarized copies of our marriage certificate, but otherwise you have everything. Do you need to see anything else?”

Her: “Do you have any extra passport photos of yourself for the immigration file?”

I didn’t even think of extra passport photos, but luckily when I got my picture taken for the original application I printed a few extras so I would have one for my Nepali visa, and additional pictures on hand just in case. I pulled out two photos and handed them over. Then I remembered why they needed photos of me… they used the only one I had attached to the application to put on P’s Advanced Parole. She didn’t say anything about that, and I didn’t either. I remembered P’s advice and bit my tongue.

“Thank you C, please wait here while I go get P.”

I sat for a few minutes while she went to the waiting room and returned with P. My stomach was still doing backflips as P sat down.

“Can you please tell me your name and address and verify your social security number?” She asked P, check marking things off our application with her red pen.

“Can you tell me your wife’s birthday?” Red check. Good boy.

“Where did you live before your current address? When did you move to your current address? Where did you live in 2006?” Red check, red check, red check.

“Are you working? Where are you working?” Two more red checks.

She asked P the long list of crazy questions that he already answered in his I-485 PR application, looking him in the eye as he answered, and checking them off as she went. The questions included things like:

Do you intend to engage in espionage in the United States?

Do you intend to engage in any activity that would attempt the control or overthrow of the US Government?

Have you ever ordered, incited, called for, committed, assisted, helped with, or otherwise participated in a) acts of torture or genocide, b) killing any person, c) engaging in any kind of sexual contact or relations with any person who was being forced or threatened? d) limited or denied any person’s ability to exercise religious beliefs?

Have you ever been a member of a vigilante unit, rebel group, guerrilla group or militia?

The list goes on, but it’s almost comical to hear these things asked of P, whose nature is so gentle. I also thought about people who might make an application to the US that do fall in these categories, like former child soldiers… do they say yes? What’s the follow up question?

Once the lady was satisfied with all her red check marks she smiled, shut the file and said, “I am recommending that your Permanent Residency application is approved. It will be approved from today, although you will not receive the card for up to 4 weeks in the mail. Two years from today you will have to file a renewal since an initial family based permanent residency application is conditional, then you can reapply for a ten year card. Three years from today, if you so wish, Mr. P, you will be eligible to apply for US citizenship.”

And just like that, everything was over. The application was approved.

She collected P’s I-94 card, his EAD work authorization that we received while in Nepal, and the stamped Advanced Parole document that created so much drama in the past month. She put all these things in his file, smiled again and stood up. “You are all set.” And lead us out of her office into the waiting area.

I felt so jovial in the car… such a huge release. I guess kind of like when a woman is giving birth— while in labor she feels so much pain, and thinks “this is crazy, never again, how can I do this?” but then once the baby is born, all the pain of the labor is nearly forgotten—if the mothers out there reading can forgive my comparison—I almost felt similar, like, I’m so happy we have the card, I don’t even care about all the other frustrations leading up to it now that we have it!

[Although, as my boss recommended, I plan to write a letter to the USCIS ombudsmen about this experience.]

We drove home; planning a celebratory dinner at a new restaurant in town (we still don’t have electricity from the storm anyway).

When I got back to the office my boss said, “So? Did you get it?”

“Yes! I feel so relieved!”

“And they stamped his passport with the temporary authorization until his card comes in the mail?”

My eyes grew wide, “I don’t think they did anything to his passport except take out the I-94 card.” I ran out to the car and pulled out P’s passport and flipped through every page. No new stamps. I showed the passport to my boss.

“Maybe they don’t do that anymore.” He tried to comfort me, “But if you think about it logically, they collected all his documents, right? His I-94 [which proved his legal entry into the US], his Advanced Parole [which also proved his legal entry and immigration status in the US], and his work permit. So right now on paper P has no legal status. He can’t prove to anyone he has Permanent Residency other than you saying, ‘USICS told us he does!’ until the card comes in the mail in up to 4 weeks, and with your luck, it will definitely be 4 weeks.”

The immigration lawyer we know at work was out on Monday, but we called him on Tuesday to double check. Apparently USCIS stopped stamping temporary Permanent Residency into passports a few years back because there was too much fraud, and that USCIS actually does leave you without any documented proof of your status until your Green Card comes in the mail. If P got a new job tomorrow, he couldn’t prove to the company that he is eligible to work, even though he is. My boss advised me not to have P tell his university that he has a Green Card until it comes in the mail, because they could potentially make him stop working and stop paying his research stipend until it comes.

My sister had other advice, “Just don’t go to Arizona.”

So—P is now a Permanent Resident in the United States, although we have to wait a little longer for documented proof.

I’ll let you know when it arrives.

USCIS Round Seven… “But I saw it with my own eyes!”

Round OneRound TwoRound ThreeRound FourRound FiveRound Six, Round Seven, Round Eight

Yesterday morning P and I woke up, got ready, and at 7:35 (I gave the USCIS office staff 5 minutes to get inside, take off their coats, get a cup of coffee and boot up their computers) I called the Lawrence USCIS Field Office.

When I called on Friday afternoon I heard a recording that stated their business hours were 7:30am-3:30pm Monday through Friday, so I figured that was why I got the recording (It was 3:31pm on Friday). However I got the same recording at 7:35 Monday morning. I slowed down and listened to the whole message and realized that it gave me 4 options: 1) if I had someone’s direct extension we could dial it and potentially reach a real human being, 2) if we had to schedule an appointment we could call the 1-800-misinformation number, 3) if we had information about something suspicious I could call a different number, or 4) if we don’t fit into any of these categories, tough luck.

After listening two or three times I realized that “Terry” from Friday afternoon did not give P a direct extension, so even though we had a phone number to this impenetrable office we were still stuck.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so in a stroke of crazed frustration/genius I said to P, “Let’s start dialing random extensions to see if we can get a real person.”

I first tried “0” for a potential operator (that works for some numbers) then I tried “1,” “11,” and “111” to see if that might get us into a phone tree, or perhaps give me an idea of the number of digits in an extension. After a few four digit combos I finally pressed “7654” and Hallelujah, the phone rang!

A man picked up the phone and said, “USCIS, how can I help you?”

What I probably should have done was ask for “Terry” from Friday, but instead I briefly launched into my story about how we had a Green Card interview scheduled for Oct 31st at 9am and we got a call at the very end of the day Friday October 28th saying that my husband’s immigration file had been “misplaced” and that our interview “might” have to be rescheduled.

“I’m not sure where this leaves us or what to do next!” I said, “We didn’t have an extension and got your number through random chance, but I was hoping you could help give us some insight.”

The man said he would check the system and put me on hold for five minutes. Then he came back on and said, “Our computers show that your husband’s immigration file was never at our office. The appointment will have to be rescheduled once we receive his file.”

Whoa, wait a minute, never in their office? I knew with 100% certainty that this was not true.

“But sir, I was at the Lawrence Office on October 11th with a different issue and I spoke to someone with my husband’s file. He had P’s file right in front of me, and we looked through it at the front desk together. I know it was there. I saw it with my own eyes.” (I kept repeating this last phrase, hoping it would make the man on the phone realize that his computer was wrong, but it probably just made me sound crazy.)

“I’m sorry ma’am, but our computers have no record of his file ever being here, I don’t know what to tell you.”

“But I know that’s wrong! I saw it with my own eyes!

He sighed and said, “I don’t know what to tell you, the computer says…”

“Okay… I understand that perhaps the file might not be there now, but it was there on October 11th. I just want to know maybe what happened to it. If it was sent back to the USCIS National Benefits Center, or if it has been misplaced within your office, or something.” I could tell I was starting to lose the guy on the phone, so I tried to think of every detail… “When I walked into the Lawrence office on October 11th, I went through the metal detector, and spoke to the woman with gray hair at the front desk and showed her the UPS tracking number sent to me by USCIS for what I thought was an envelope with an immigration document delivered erroneously to your office for my husband. The packaged was signed for by someone named O’Gorman. The front desk woman went and got that guy from the back, and he said the tracking number USCIS gave me was actually for a 15 pound box full of immigration files and he got a man who he described as the ‘Number 2 man in the office’ to come out and answer my questions. The ‘Number 2 man’ had my husband’s file with him and we looked at it together. If you find Mr. O’Gorman, or the ‘Number 2 man in the office’ I’m sure they will remember this incident since I think it’s relatively unusual. Do you know who the ‘Number 2 man in the office’ is?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “Can you describe him?”

“He was pretty non-descript. Medium height, brown hair, I don’t think he had a mustache, maybe glasses. I remember he had a small dark mark like an ‘x’ near his right thumb, like a tattoo or something, but maybe it was marker, I don’t know. That’s all I noticed about him was the mark on his right hand.”

“I don’t know anyone with a small tattoo on his hand.” He said.

“I don’t know his name!” I cursed myself for not asking him when I was there, or making note of more details, I pride myself on remember details. The more I tried to see his face, the more it looked blurry in my memory. “But find O’Gorman. I know his name, it was on the UPS tracking slip. He should be able to tell you.”

The guy told me to hold for a bit, and then he put me on hold—with cheesy elevator music in the background—for an hour.

Meanwhile P and I were getting ready. I was already late for work, and we debated between staying in the house and finishing the conversation (P’s vote—“What if they find it and we have to leave immediately for the interview?”) and heading out the door for work while still cradling my cell phone between my ear and my shoulder because the phone call wasn’t getting us anywhere and there was no point missing work if nothing would happen (my vote). As we started heading out the door I asked P to try and call Extension 7654 again  on his phone to see if someone would pick up the same line so we could figure out what was happening, but no one did.

When you are on hold for so long its tough, because you don’t know what is happening on the other end. I was simultaneously imagining a trio of high level staffers standing over the “on hold” phone having a serious conversation about the gravity of losing a file and brainstorming a solution, and  a bunch of staffers chatting “The Office” style around a water cooler with coffee mugs talking about the big snow storm over the weekend and giggling about Halloween costumes.

P and I got in the car and I dropped him at a coffee shop near his work while I borrowed his cell phone to try different extensions when he was inside buying tea (for him) and hot chocolate (for me). I started dialing numbers up and down from the extension that worked. No one was picking up the phone, although they were all ringing. Finally someone did pick up, a guy with an accent.

“Hello USCIS.”

“Hello, I’m sorry to bother you, I called an hour ago to extension 7654 with a question about our immigration interview that was set for today, but I have been on hold for an hour. Is there some way to know what is happening? Should I hang up? Could you check with that extension?”

The guy barked back at me, “We don’t answer immigration questions over the phone. You have to come to our office to find out information.”

“I understand.” I said, “But I have been on hold with your office for an hour. Someone was going to answer the question but disappeared…”

I said you have to come to our office. We do not answer questions over the phone!

“I understand but…”

Click.

He hung up on me! I wanted to cry again. I just wanted to know why I was on hold. Stupid bastards.

I hung up both P’s phone and my phone that had been listening to the same elevator music for an hour and cracked the crook in my neck.

P came back with my hot chocolate and I told him what happened. I said I’d keep calling the extension I had back every hour if I had to in order to figure out what was going on. P, always less emotional and considerably calmer than me, told me that we would sort it out, and not to worry. I dropped him and Sampson off at work and drove off toward my office.

We had a freak snow storm over the weekend that left 12 inches of snow, and knocked down a bunch of trees and tree branches. A fair chunk of the city was without power (ourselves included). As I drove across the city, it looked like a war zone. I dodged tree branches while dialing back the number and extension of the guy who had me on hold for an hour and left a message for him to call me back as soon he heard something (please, please!)

When I got in to the office my boss was curious to hear more about what had happened (being that we both work with USCIS as international student advisors). I explained and he chuckled saying, “It’s not funny, but you know, when you went to their office on October 11th I bet they pulled that box out of their normal processing queue and that’s why P’s file isn’t logged in to the computers, then when they put P’s file back, the box got wedged in a corner somewhere. I bet they have a bunch of files missing right now, because you messed up P’s file and all the others in the box too!”

“So do you think it is probably at the office?” I asked.

“I bet it is, they just don’t know where, and maybe they don’t realize they have it.”

Half an hour later P called saying he finally got back in touch with “Terry” from Friday and she said that they were trying to “track the package” and that it should be back in the office “in a few days.” P explained to her that he was having knee surgery on November 8th and the surgery was scheduled, in part, around the interview, and that if it was delayed too long it would be tough for him to come in with a cast, crutches, etc. He also explained that we called in the morning and were placed on hold for an hour.

“I’m terribly sorry that happened to you.” She said, “I don’t know why someone would put you on hold for an hour. And certainly, we can try to get you in before your surgery; you shouldn’t have to add that to your worries.”

I was getting ready to call back Mr. Extension 7654 when P called me back again, he said that “Terry” was able to (miraculously!) locate his file.

“You mean it was there the whole time?” I asked.

“I guess so.” He said, “They want us to come in today at 1pm for our interview.”

“Book it!” I said, and yelled out to my boss, “They found his file! I’m sorry I have to leave you, but we got to finish this!”

“I told you so!” my boss called back from the other room, “By all means go, let’s close the book on this issue.”

It was about 10:30 in the morning. I had to get home, get all the photocopies of our documents and application papers together, our passports, marriage certificate, wedding photos, anything that they could possibly ask for. I picked up P and off we drove for an hour to the Lawrence office…

And had we not been persistent pains-in-the-butt, our application might still be missing!

USCIS Round Six… Green Card File Apparently “Misplaced”

Round OneRound TwoRound ThreeRound FourRound FiveRound Six, Round Seven, Round Eight

For those of you following the “Great Green Card Saga of 2011,” USCIS surprised us with a new frustration right at the end of the day today.

As I noted before, P’s advanced parole was finally correctly delivered and I DHLed it to Nepal in time for him to catch his 10/19 evening flight out of KTM. I actually expected a big hassle at the airport when he went through the customs and immigration line on 10/20, but he breezed through with no issues. I thought that was a positive sign that our luck was changing. Why is it whenever I start to think things are going okay, I get whapped again by my bad-luck-juju?

P’s Green Card interview was set for October 31st at 9am at the same USCIS Field Office in Lawrence, Massachusetts that I drove to in Round Four. As a refresher, that was the time I went in search of a tracking number (that was wrong) which supposedly went to an envelope that held P’s advanced parole, but instead was the tracking number for a fifteen pound box that included P’s immigration file for his Green Card interview. I actually saw the file with my own eyes. The person from the office leafed through the file in front of me looking for P’s advanced parole. I could have reached out and touched it. I guess I should have grabbed it and run.

So anyway… we thought we were good to go. We are having a Bhai Tikka dinner tonight at our house, we planned to stay cozy inside for the weekend (our area is due for a snow storm on Saturday night!) and I had already taken half a day off of work on Monday morning so that P and I could drive the hour to Lawrence, do the interview, and hopefully be through this next set of hurdles.

But instead, a woman named Terry from the Lawrence office called P at 3:25pm on Friday afternoon to say, “We might have to reschedule your interview, we seem to have misplaced your permanent resident application file.”

Again, I’m utterly shocked. If I was as careless with my student records at my work, the Department of Homeland Security could take away the ability of my university to host international students.

“But my wife was there two weeks ago and she saw my file with her own eyes! Are you sure it’s missing?” P asked.

“We are unable to locate it at this time. We might have to cancel.”

He asked if I could call her back right away to explain how I had been there and seen the file, to see if it could help clear up the situation. She said that their office was closing in a few minutes, but said she would pick up the phone if we called right back, and she gave him the number.

He called me, explained the situation, and was on the phone for a grand total of 1 minute, I looked up the date I was at the office (October 11th) and P’s Alien # and called right back. The clock read 3:30pm exactly.

I got the office’s automated voicemail saying that it was closed for the day.

What the eff again!

So now we have to wait all weekend, call the office at 7:30 in the morning on Monday, and try to figure out what is going on/beg them to do the interview. I can’t believe they messed up again. And the extra stinky part is—P is having knee surgery on November 8th, so if they delay too much longer we will be trekking to Lawrence with crutches and a cast after the surgery.

As you can probably tell, I’m a bit upset with USCIS again. Happy Friday.

USCIS Round Five, a Document, another Photo Question, and a Departure…

Round OneRound TwoRound ThreeRound FourRound FiveRound Six, Round Seven, Round Eight

So for those of you following P’s USCIS document saga I’ve got good news… he should be departing any minute from Tribhuvan International Airport in KTM. To recap, click on the links above.

I last left you sobbing in my office and drinking a bottle of wine in Connecticut with friends for consolation after USCIS sent P’s documents to the wrong address, sent me the wrong tracking number, and delayed the process yet again. I was so upset, and unreasonable, I drove two hours south to R and S’s place for the night. Besides the obvious jetlag bringing tears to my eyes, I got stuck in a rut thinking about how each new document issuance from USCIS took at least 4-5 days, and the fastest document mailing to Nepal from the US was at least 4-5 days, so with their latest screw up we would probably have to change P’s return tickets again—at $200 a pop—with no definite end in sight. It felt like the document errors might continue on in an endless careless cycle, like the USCIS staffer was angry at me personally for involving congressional help, and wanted to see how many times he could eff with me until I totally lost it.

The morning after my “crazy freak out” I drove back up to my office in Massachusetts and was shocked to see an email from the congressional liaison. In her usual abbreviated style it said, “Hello, the UPS tracking # for package to [congressional liaison]/[congressman] [congressman’s office address] is: XXXXXXXXXXX for next day delivery.” It didn’t say anything else. I checked the tracking number and it was already on its way east from Missouri.

I’m not quite sure what the congressional liaison did or who she contacted or what she said but apparently it worked. There was no way that the documents that were “returned to sender” the day before had already made it back to the Missouri USCIS Service Center, so someone must have issued a new document on the spot and stuck it in the mail.

I certainly had my doubts that this round of documentation was actually going to work. I had been fooled three times before. So I waited patiently, and without getting my hopes up, until the following day, and checked the tracking number again. The website confirmed that the package was already on a truck for delivery in the correct city in Massachusetts. Well that’s a good start, I thought. At 10:20am I received a message from the congressional liaison’s blackberry that said, “Your documents are in my office, do you want to pick them up”—I tossed on my coat and fired back a message, “I’ll be there in ten minutes!” and ran out to my car.

She was in a meeting when I arrived at the office, but she saw me coming through the glass conference room window that faced the street. She greeted me in the hallway with her arms extended, a USCIS envelope in-hand. I hugged her and simultaneously ripped open the letter.

“That’s him, right? That’s his photo?” She asked.

“Yes!”

“And all the information is correct?”

I quickly skimmed the letter, and everything seemed in order. I thanked her again, and again, and probably a third time too, then I was back out the door and in my car, heading back to my office to call P in KTM.

P was on google chat when I got back to the office. He had been tracking the package too and messaged me as soon as he saw the delivery confirmation:

10:34 AM P: says it’s delivered

[he had to wait patiently for me to get back from the congressman’s office]

11:04 AM me: It is
I have it in my hand
I’m scanning it to you now
I was just going to call you

P: all good?

11:05 AM me: looks it
your info
your picture
there are 2 copies

P: phew!

me: I’m sending one and keeping one just in case

P: which pic
the one we sent later [Round Three]

me: I’m not sure which picture
you are wearing glasses
so I guess the later one, right?

P was asking about the picture on the document. When we first sent off his Green Card application packet we both went to a local photographer to get passport sized photos. When I applied for my first passport in 2002 I was able to wear my glasses, and since I wear my glasses every day I don’t think I look like myself in photos where I don’t have my glasses on. I remember arguing a bit with the photographer about whether or not I could wear my glasses in my passport photo, which would have been my preference, but he refused to take pictures of either of us in glasses, so all our original photos were sans spectacles.

If you remember back to Round Three, the USCIS official in Missouri absolutely insisted that the ONLY way to fix the document problem [my photo on P’s paperwork] that they screwed up was to send a brand new hardcopy passport photo overnight mail to their office—even though they had six passport photos of P in his green card application sitting on this guy’s desk at the Service Center. As we were in Nepal, the only way to do this was to take a picture in KTM, send it digitally to a friend in Massachusetts who would have to print it at a store, then take it to the congressman’s office for additional paperwork, then FedEx it overnight to Missouri. With the time difference between Nepal and the US and the document mailing time, the whole process took about two or three days.

P: what??
i did not wear glasses in any photo?

me: you definitely have glasses on

11:07 AM P: i never sent a picture with glasses on
are you sure?

[I double checked my email, and the digital passport photo P took in KTM and we sent to our friend, was indeed, without his glasses.]

me: you’re right
it isn’t the later picture

P: i don’t have glasses on even in the first picture

me: but it is definitely you [in the photo]
I don’t know where they got this photo from then

11:08 AM P: how can they have a photo with glasses on?
does not make sense

me: did you take a photo for your biometrics [part of green card application–Round One] with glasses on?
I don’t know how it happened
but it’s here
so I’m not asking questions
I’m putting it in a DHL envelope and sending it now

[meanwhile I scanned him a copy of the document]

11:09 AM P: yah
jeezus
don’t know how they go these pictures

me: did you have glasses on for biometrics?

P: maybe

11:10 AM me: so they probably got it from the system
when they screwed up the last time
I think they must have done an emergency reprint when the congressman’s office called super angry

P: think so

me: so sending the package through DHL the fastest method
you can track the package
once I have the tracking number I’ll give to you
11:11 AM alright

P: do they give us a time?
DHL?

me: when we send documents to our students in China
it usually takes 4 days
so if it goes today
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
that’s 6 days
it should be enough

P: ok

When my boss got back from his student recruitment trip in Turkey and Greece he wanted to hear all about P’s document saga. Probably the most embarrassing and maddening part of this whole plot is that I work in the immigration field. I might not work with Green Card Applications and Advanced Parole Documents on a daily basis, but I’m at least used to the lingo, and the agencies, and I know the people to call, and who not to call (or at least the number I shouldn’t have called in Round Two). I know I submitted all my paperwork correctly, and other than the request for expediting, which is not totally unusual either, I know I followed all the correct protocol and procedures. And still USCIS messed with me. I’m kind of in shock… and I mentioned this in a comment on one of the previous posts, but I realize just how scary the entire immigration process can be—as an American we kind of take the process for granted. I can’t imagine what it is like for people who don’t know the system, or the correct forms and terms, or who to turn to for help. Not to mention those who struggle with English. No wonder the system is so messed up! I’ve certainly been humbled!

I received an email from the immigration attorney who was offering advice during this process. On November 15 USCIS is having a teleconference discussion on issuing I-765 and I-131 (work and travel) documents. He encouraged me to participate in the teleconference and explain my story. My boss was saying that, in the very least, I should write a complaint to the USCIS ombudsmen or to AILA (American Immigration Lawyer Association).

Meanwhile I have people telling me to keep my mouth shut so that P and I don’t get in trouble and P doesn’t get stuck without paperwork as retaliation or punishment. The US system isn’t supposed to work that way, but when the system fails you, you feel so powerless. My mother even called me after I posted a frustrated facebook message after the mailing mishap, “USCIS messed up again! I’m so angry I could literally shoot someone!” and said, “Take that down! You want to get in trouble?” While my grandmother said, “I know you came back from Nepal with most of the luggage, but make sure P has at least one suitcase, if he travels that far without baggage he will look so suspicious!”

A final comment about the photo—my boss said that once an applicant takes their biometrics photo, there is always a digital passport photo in the immigration system. When USCIS insisted that the only way to fix the problem was by sending a new hardcopy photo, the USCIS officer was wrong. I’d like to think that maybe he was mistaken or misinformed, but it could be that they were buying time, or stalling, or just being malicious. I don’t know. Unfortunately the congressional liaison didn’t realize this. So—if any of you are ever in a similar situation… don’t send them an overnight delivery hardcopy passport photo. Send the required photos with your application, but anything else beyond biometrics is unnecessary! The digital photos are in the system!

So anyway, this is where the story hopefully concludes (for now). I didn’t want to say anything until P received the document in the mail [happened on Monday KTM time] and was ready to depart, least the bad-luck-juju that has been following me acted up again. He should be here Thursday night baring any crazy issues at Boston Logan Airport.

Our Green Card interview is on October 31st at the same USCIS Lawrence Field Office I drove to in Round Four. Wish us luck!

The Ups and Downs of USCIS

Round OneRound TwoRound ThreeRound FourRound FiveRound Six, Round Seven, Round Eight

Sorry, I couldn’t help but leave with a teaser before. Lots of stuff going on in the AmericaNepali Household behind the scenes…

P and I had hoped to travel to Nepal before the end of 2011.

The debate before we got married was that we wanted to travel for Dashain, thinking it would be really nice to be with P’s grandfather for our first married Dashain and very special to take our first married tikka from him. However with the timeframes of green card applications and travel documents (called “advanced parole” which allows a green card petitioner to travel abroad while an application for permanent residence is still pending), we didn’t think there would be enough time between filing the paperwork after our July wedding, and the festival in early October. The alternative was to have a secret “court marriage” a month or two in advance so we could start the green card paperwork early, and our marriage certificate would reflect a different legal date than when we held the ceremonies with our friends and families. That seemed like too much trouble to travel for a festival, so we laid our plans to rest and figured we would try to travel around Christmas time when I had more time off from work, in the hopes that his immigration paperwork would be settled by then.

But then an unexpected research/presentation opportunity came up for P, and an organization asked him to come to Nepal (and would pay for a ticket!) near the end of September… a week before Dashain.

Immediately I called an immigration attorney colleague (the same who gave me advice about the green card application) and asked how I could expedite P’s advanced parole application. He recommended two thing: move up P’s biometrics appointment (originally scheduled by USCIS for August 29th), and contact our local congressperson to pressure USCIS to speed along the application.

The biometrics (photograph, fingerprint) was the first key, because that triggers the FBI background check on an applicant, and nothing starts on a green card/advanced parole application before that.

We sent P to the Boston USCIS office armed with an invitation letter from the organization in Kathmandu, some airline reservations, and his USCIS notice for his biometrics appointment on Aug 29th. With all these documents the Boston USCIS office allowed him to take his biometrics on Aug 16th, so we could get the ball rolling.

On Aug 19th I contacted my local congressman’s office and was connected with his staffer who works with immigration issues. She asked me to write a cover letter explaining the situation and to send a fax with all of our USCIS receipt notices, his biometrics document with processing stamp, letter of invitation from Nepali organization, and travel itinerary.

For the next three and a half weeks I either called or emailed her office every other day (and eventually every day) to check on the application status, most days with absolutely no response at all. It didn’t help that Hurricane Irene blew through and caused damaged to areas in the Congressman’s district, and a week and a half later remnants of another tropical storm caused flooding in our city (water nearly up to the bottom of my car on my way to work!). She told me at one point that Hurricane Irene was taking up most of their energies that week, which I interpreted as, “You are low priority lady. Your husband will just have to travel at another time.”

Last week I figured it was do-or-die week, and by Friday the only response I had from the congressional liaison was, “Your husband’s application is sitting on a supervisor’s desk at the [USCIS] Missouri Service Center.”

I think it was doubly (triply?) infuriating because I also work with USCIS as part of my international student advisor job, and I just couldn’t FATHAM why this woman couldn’t find out more information. Or maybe I was just frustrated because I knew my fate was in her hands and I couldn’t do anything to change it, and she seemed so “distracted.”

My boss said that USCIS doesn’t like people thinking that congressional intervention helps. I guess it is annoying when congressional representatives start bugging the USCIS processing centers with application expedition requests. I get that. “But,” my boss continued, “P’s application wouldn’t be ‘on a supervisor’s desk’ had you not contacted the congressional liaison. I  think it is a good sign.”

Monday I emailed—no updates.

Tuesday I called—no updates.

By Tuesday night I was finally loosing hope. I actually drafted a long desperate sounding letter to email directly to the congressman–and emailed it too–but my email bounced back since I had the address wrong. There were only ten days left until the proposed departure date. It just didn’t seem possible that his paperwork would come through.

Then Wednesday, mid-morning, I received an email from the congressional staffer I had been harassing for almost a month, “Case MSC______________, Form I-131 was approved on 9/14/11. The applicant should receive their card in 2-3 weeks from USCIS.”

Hallelujah!

I jumped clear out of my seat at work and practically yodeled I was so excited. I called P right away and he, of course, didn’t pick up the phone, so I sent him a google chat.

9:39 AM me: MERRRRR
9:40 AM P: ?
me: IT WAS APPROVED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
P: what?
me: your advanced parole!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
P: how do you know
???
:)
????
9:41 AM me: [congressional staffer] just emailed me!!!!
P: forward the email???
seriously??
can’t believe it
i had lost hope

So now we are buying tickets to go to Nepal next Friday.

Now, if you were following closely, you noticed that the congressional representative said, “document will be mailed in 2-3 weeks.” Yes, this could be a potential logistical hurdle.

Since P has been officially approved for advanced parole he can leave the country without incident, but he will not be able to re-enter unless he has his advanced parole document in hand. We are hoping this document will arrive before we depart, but I’m not necessarily expecting it to. We will give our mail key to our friend D who will be on the lookout for his documents and will Fedex to Nepal when they arrive. P might have to change his ticket if there is a delay in his documents, but at this point, we have to travel and hope for the best.

But the moral of the story is, USCIS can make you want to tear your hair out, but sometimes things actually work out. K-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu, here I come!

The American Baby and the Indian Baby

After the Green Card post, NavajoKeti mentioned that her Nepali bf was born in the US so luckily they don’t need to deal with all these frustrating immigration hurdles, and it reminded me of a story.

One of our Indian friends is currently in the process of getting her Green Card. Out of the five people in her family, she was the last to make it to the Green Card/Citizenship chapter.

When her parents were a young married couple, her father came to the US as a graduate student. After some time her mother had a baby, her first child, my friend’s elder sister. Since her child was born in the US the baby was automatically an American citizen.

A few years after that, her mother was pregnant again. Perhaps being a bit nostalgic for home, she decided, “I already have my American baby, but I would really like to have an Indian baby.” So she traveled back to India to be with her family and have her second child, our friend. Due to her birth in India, our friend had Indian and only Indian citizenship. Once the baby was old enough to travel and had all the visa documents needed, our friend’s mother traveled back to America—American baby and Indian baby in tow.

Eventually her father finished his program/work in the United States and the entire family moved back to India, where several years later their final child, our friend’s younger brother, was born. A second Indian baby.

This is where my details in the story get a bit hazy, but somewhere along the line the family was able to apply for Green Cards (I think through her father’s work, even though they were still in India). At the time our friend was in college back in the US, and was already on an F-1 student visa. Even though her parents submitted the paperwork for her to be included on the family’s Green Card, she “timed out” of being able to apply with the family because she turned 21 and was no longer considered a “minor” and had to be put in a different  Green Card category (unmarried child, not a minor) with a much much longer wait. Her younger brother, as the younger child, didn’t “time out” and was able to get his Green Card along with his parents.

So now the family had 1 American Citizen, 3 Permanent Residents, and 1 Indian Baby.

Of course life in the US without citizenship or a Green Card feels more precarious. Certainly lots of people are in this category, but to know you could have had citizenship or potentially a Green Card probably feels a bit unfair (although I am certainly adlibbing her potential feelings). Instead she had to worry about applying for her F-1 student OPT work authorization in order to be eligible to work, finding a job that would be willing to sponsor an H1B work visa, and the stress of the economic crisis where people were losing jobs left and right—there are no “grace periods” with H1B, technically if you lose your job, you lose your H1B status immediately unless the company makes some sort of provision for you in your compensation package, and without status, you are illegal in the US or you have to leave the US immediately.

Luckily our “Indian baby” friend weathered all the storms, and relatively recently had a visa number for her Green Card become available after years and years of waiting. She has been able to start the process, which again could be lengthy, but at least she is in the queue.

It’s kind of interesting to think though that most of this stemmed from her mother’s nostalgic idea of having an “Indian baby.” I’m sure 30 years ago people didn’t necessarily think about immigration repercussions in the same way.

American Immigration, or Why We Aren’t Getting Married in Nepal

And while on tangents, here is a second one…

I’ve had the question on the blog before: Are you getting married in Nepal? And yesterday’s post should make it clear that we are not. But there is a reason for that too.

So as I’ve mentioned in the past, my day job (when I’m not secretly blogging during my lunch break or lulls in student appointments) is an international student advisor at a university in New England. I really love my job. I love working with and talking to people from around the world on a daily basis, I love helping them when they have problems or questions, and it is a lot of fun to be constantly learning new things about culture. It’s not so fun working with immigration regulations… although having a good knowledge of these tricky regs helps me to better serve my students when they come with questions. But… that means I really know what I should do immigration wise, and what I shouldn’t do, and that if I break the rules, I don’t have “ignorance is bliss” to fall back on if we are caught, and professionally I can’t affording getting in trouble with this topic.

I’ve read on some blog forums about people going to India and getting married, then coming back in to the US, and getting married at a later date. Occasionally these couples are graduate students. P is also a graduate student on an F-1 visa. Going to South Asia on an F-1, marrying an American spouse, then coming back in through US immigration and not declaring the change of status, and then later changing it once getting married in the US is technically an immigration violation.

An F-1 student visa is “non-immigrant intent” meaning IF your intension to immigrate to the US changes (such as marrying an American and planning to stay here—unless you make it crystal clear that you both don’t intend to stay, but will return to South Asia and not apply for permanent residency) and you leave the country and re-enter, you have violated your F-1 status. (Similarly the most common visa rejection reason is Section 214(b) of the US Immigration and Nationality Act– that you do not have enough ties to your home country, or that you have not overcome a presumption that you are using the visa to immigrate or work illegally in the United States.)

Violation of F-1 status is an offense that could potentially have your SEVIS record at your university terminated and have you sent back to your home country. If you are taking this regulation exactly by the book with a strict interpretation—even being engaged and traveling internationally and coming back in could be a violation of your status. Certainly the last thing you should do is waive an engagement or wedding ring in an immigration official’s face at the port of entry (even though you will be in two separate immigration lines anyway—the American national in the US passport/green card line, the foreign spouse in the non-US passport line).

The other potential problem is coming back into the US and marrying here and initiating the paperwork for a Change of Status from F-1 to Permanent Residency (Green Card). If the time is short (between your foreign spouse’s entry and the US wedding/paperwork) the US gov’t can potentially give you trouble when processing your Change of Status info because they can question your spouses, “intention to immigrate” when they last entered the country close to your wedding date. Do they always give trouble, probably not, but the potential is there.

If a foreign national plans to marry an American then technically (if we are going “by the book” here) they should come into the US on a K-1 (fiancé) visa. However then your partner could potentially be stuck outside the country for months waiting for the paperwork to clear before they could enter and marry. It is a perpetual frustration… US immigration rules make things so challenging, that it encourages people to break the rules.

On the flip side… you get married in the US first, then plan to go to Nepal… after you marry here you would have to initiate that same Change of Status paperwork and at least get “Advanced Parole” (travel papers) before you leave the US. That could be one month to several months (or more depending on the country, spouse name, etc) to receive that paperwork. So either way, you can’t do a wedding in the US and abroad within a few days of each other legally.

From what I hear, in the past you could get married at a court house and walk across the street to a US gov’t immigration center and get your Green Card the same day. But long gone are those days.

Anyway, besides the silly desire to want anniversary dates close to one another for memory and consistency purposes, my main worry was that if we did the wedding in the US first, and too much time passed before we were able to make it to Nepal, then people might feel… well… the wedding is over now, so much time has passed, let’s just leave the Nepali part. We can have a party to introduce you to relatives, but no point in doing the rituals.

I didn’t want the Nepali ceremony to go by the way-side because immigration and timing just couldn’t add up. Plus I was certain that few, if any, of my relatives would come to Nepal. My sisters, probably, but my parents, particularly my dad, definitely not. I thought it would be good to expose them to P’s culture while I had the chance.

So… this is why both weddings are in the US. P and I hope to travel to Nepal before the end of 2011—either during Dashain or December depending on immigration paperwork and time off from work, and perhaps we will have a gathering of family in Nepal as a wedding party, but at least the main events will have been taken care of by then, and no immigration rules would have been flagrantly broken in the making of our marriage.

Alright, I’ll take a break from wedding posts for a little while to give you all a breather :)

“Nepal’s Stalled Revolution”

There was an interesting article in the NY Times today– I wanted to share. It reminded me of a conversation I had at work the other day with an immigration lawyer my boss and  I had dinner with. I bolded the parts I found most interesting…

(Full text below)

Op Ed By Manjushree Thapa

I was at a dinner party in Kathmandu when a journalist friend looked at her cell phone and made a joyous announcement: “Mubarak’s gone!”

“Really?”

“He left Cairo for Sharm el-Sheikh. The army’s taken charge,” she said. No one at that Feb. 11 party, neither the foreign-educated Nepalis nor the expatriates who call Nepal home, had any connection to Egypt. Yet the victory felt personal. A bottle of wine appeared and we toasted Egypt.

As protests spread in Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and Libya, what is emerging as the “Arab Spring” continues to resonate here. Just five years ago, the world was watching Nepal as it now watches the Mideast and we had our dreams of democracy.

“I don’t know why, but I love to see people revolting against their leaders,” Jhalak Subedi, a magazine editor, wrote on Facebook.

“We Nepalis, we grew up with political movements,” he explained over a cup of coffee. He had came of age amid student politics, was even jailed in 1990 for his activism. “Despite all our movements, we still haven’t been able to have the kind of change our hearts are set on,” he said. “I think that’s why we feel so happy when we see change taking place elsewhere.”

We also approach world events seeking correspondences between our history and that of others. India’s struggle for freedom from British rule inspired Nepal’s first democratic movement in 1950. Forty years later, our second democratic movement was energized by events farther off: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

Our third and most recent movement took place in 2006, when democratic political parties and Maoist rebels united against King Gyanendra Shah, ending a 10-year civil war. Millions of Nepalis participated in nonviolent demonstrations in a show of support. Nineteen days after that, the king relinquished power; two years later, a newly elected Constituent Assembly abolished the 240-year-old monarchy with a near-unanimous vote. With the democratic political parties and the Maoists vowing to work together peacefully, a “new Nepal” felt attainable.

Five years later, it still has not taken shape.

Instead, we have learned that it is easier to start a revolution than to finish one. Overthrowing the monarchy was difficult, but institutionalizing democracy is harder still.

Our democratic parties are inexperienced, deferring to “big brother” India on all matters political. But India has backed an inflexible policy of containing the Maoists. And the Maoists have also been unwilling to compromise, holding on to their 19,000-troop army and their paramilitary group, the Young Communist League, and refusing to turn into just another political party.

The result has been a bitter polarization between hard-liners of democratic and Maoist persuasion.

The May deadline set for finishing our new constitution is less than 100 days away, but the document remains in rough draft. The will to complete it — among the democratic political parties and the Maoists, as well as in India — appears to be wholly lacking.

And now Kathmandu is rife with rumors that the Constituent Assembly — the country’s only elected body — will be dissolved through a military-backed “democratic coup.” Equally dismal scenarios in the public imagination are a return to civil war, the escalation of localized conflicts or the rise of the criminal underworld.

Whether or not the worst comes to pass, it is clear by now that the democratic political parties and the Maoists prefer to prioritize their own struggle for power. They have left it to us to find our place in the world.

This, we increasingly do by leaving. Unable to earn a living wage at home, up to 1,000 Nepalis are estimated to leave the country every day to work as migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere in the Middle East and the Far East, often under very exploitative conditions. As many as six million Nepalis live in India, and hundreds of thousands more have migrated to the developed world. In London and New York and Toronto, Nepali is now spoken on the streets.

“Those who could lead a new movement — you could call it the Facebook generation — have left the country,” says Mr. Subedi.

And there is no single tyrant against whom to direct a movement. What we have in Nepal is a “ganjaagol,” a mire.

“The thing about movements,” Mr. Subedi says, “is that at a certain point, the ordinary person experiences power. Beforehand and afterwards, nobody pays him any attention. But at a certain point, the ordinary person feels his own power.

“That feeling,” he says, narrowing his eyes. “That feeling … .”

He does not complete his sentence, but we both know what he means. So many Nepalis have experienced this giddy sense that change is possible.

For now, we watch others in the Arab world feel their power. We wish them well, and worry for their safety, and share in their victories.

They inspire us. They make us feel wistful, and also a bit envious.

Int’l Students and Customs and Border Protection

Sorry—it seems like the past few days have been “share what C is reading” time on the blog, but I can’t help myself.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article on Customs and Border Protection (CBP) called Far From Border, U.S. Detains Foreign Students. Out of frustration, and as an international  student advisor, I wanted to share it (since the Chronicle is only available for a short time to viewers without a subscription to the site I’m going to copy and paste the text below. No copyright violations intended.)

I also wanted to post it because it discussed one CBP “hotspot” as being upstate New York, my home area, and several of the cases where students and professors have been harassed are around Postam, NY, which is just down the road from my alma mater. I remember seeing several CBP roadblocks set up on “Route 11” (the only “highway” on the western edge of northern New York State) when driving up to my university and back. As an American, I never had a problem, and I think the time or two I might have been stopped with P we had his paperwork. In particular I remember a dark skinned Indian professor from the Global Studies department at my school being bothered by the CBP on several occasions, once he was even carted off to a holding cell while the university scrambled to produce his paperwork.

I find this treatment of internationals despicable. I understand the need to “secure the borders” however harassing students and professors in this way is not the solution. As a lawyer cited in the article states, “It seems an insane policy to be arresting scientists, artists, professors, and students who have done everything properly and do a great job for our country.”

As a precaution I tell my students to keep photocopies of their I-94 card and passport photo ID folded up in their wallet. Although it isn’t the original documentation, it is some sort of proof of the original documentation, and might help if they are ever stopped—or at least it is better than nothing. According to the article:

Customs and Border Protection also maintains that it can set up roadblocks—it prefers the term “temporary permanent checkpoints” for legal reasons—and question people on trains and buses or at transportation stations anywhere within 100 air miles of a U.S. border or seacoast. This broadly defined border zone encompasses most of the nation’s major cities and the entirety of several states, including Florida, Michigan, Hawaii, Delaware, New Jersey, and five of the six New England states. The American Civil Liberties Union—concerned about the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections against arbitrary searches and seizures—has called it the “Constitution-Free Zone.”

Our Irish friend was traveling with his visiting parents up in New Hampshire over the summer and was stopped at one of CBP’s “roadblocks.” He didn’t have his passport, I-94 card, or I-20 documents on him, and the officer threatened to fine him $500! Luckily he was able to talk his way out of it… had he been of a non-European origin, he might not have fared so well. Ironically—later in the fall he was carrying his passport on him, and it was destroyed accidently by water— he had to apply for a new Irish passport, and go through the visa process again while home in Dublin for Christmas. He nearly missed his return flight due to consulate scheduling conflicts. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

I think my favorite example of CBP ridiculousness in the article was this:

A Potsdam student was briefly detained last summer while doing turtle research with her professor in a local swamp. “Border Patrol was there asking for documents,” Ms. Parker-Goeke says. “She’s in a swamp—she doesn’t have her documents.” The professor was able to persuade the agents to call the university to clear up the student’s status.

Sigh, anyway… As many of you, your partners, or your partner’s family, etc, might be international students in the US, I figured I’d share the article:

Far From Canada, U.S. Detains Foreign Students by Colin Woodward
(originally posted January 9, in the online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education).

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers check passengers' citizenship on a bus in Rochester, N.Y., more than 75 miles from Canada. Some college officials whose students have been stopped believe the customs agency has more resources than it knows what to do with.

Six miles north of the University of Maine’s flagship campus, on the only real highway in these parts, students and professors traveling south might encounter a surprise: a roadblock manned by armed Border Patrol agents, backed by drug-sniffing dogs, state policemen, and county sheriff’s deputies.

Although the Canadian border is nearly 100 miles behind them—and Bangor, Maine’s second-largest city, just 15 miles ahead—motorists are queried about their citizenship and immigration status. Those who raise an agent’s suspicions are sent to an adjacent weigh station for further questioning and, sometimes, searches. Any foreign students or scholars unable to produce all of their original documentation are detained and could be arrested.

Thus far, nobody from the University of Maine has actually been arrested at this ephemeral checkpoint, which usually appears near the start of the academic year, when migrant laborers happen to be leaving eastern Maine’s blueberry fields. One student had to wait at the roadblock until university authorities had satisfied agents that the individual was in the country legally, university officials say.

But elsewhere on the northern border, foreign students and scholars experience fear and uncertainty every time they leave campus, pick up a friend at the bus station, or board a domestic train or flight, even when they have all their documents with them.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has greatly increased its manpower along the northern border, allowing for more-frequent use of roving patrols or surprise checkpoints on buses, trains, and highways far from the border itself. Students who failed to carry their original documents have been delayed and fined, apprehended even when they’re just a few miles from campus.

“We used to tell students: When you get here, put your passport and I-90 form away so you don’t lose it, because you don’t need anything special when you travel around the country,” says Thy Yang, director of international programs at Michigan Technological University, located a few miles from the shores of Lake Superior. “Now we tell them to carry it at all times.”

She adds, “Some students have gotten citations and a $75 fine for not carrying their documents, and they weren’t happy about it. We told them it could have been worse.”

For a broad category of students and scholars, even having one’s documents in hand and in order offers no guarantee against being arrested and locked up in a detention facility hundreds of miles away. University officials and immigration attorneys interviewed by The Chronicle told of nearly two dozen incidents in which students or scholars were inappropriately detained at domestic stops by customs officers. Most were in the midst of the lengthy but not uncommon process of changing their immigration status and had followed all the rules. Others were apparently detained because the agents were unaware that while a student’s visa might have expired, his or her permission to study in the country had not. All were in the country legally under the rules set forth by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which, like Customs and Border Protection, is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

“Border Patrol sometimes interprets immigration regulations differently than Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services do,” says Ellen A. Dussourd, director of international student and scholar services at the University at Buffalo. “This causes a lot of difficulty for international student and scholar offices when they need to advise their international students and scholars about travel in the U.S.”

Frank A. Novak, an immigration lawyer at Harter Secrest & Emery, a law firm in Rochester, N.Y., says students and scholars typically run afoul of the customs agency when changing status from a nonimmigrant student or work visa (such as F-1, H1B, or O-1) to an immigrant one, perhaps because they have married a U.S. national or been offered a permanent job. They apply before their visa expires and receive permission to work, live, and travel until their application is processed, which may take years. “Inherent in the policy is that your old [nonimmigrant] status will expire,” he says, but customs officers sees this as grounds to arrest them.

“These people are following all the rules, but the government-enforcement authorities are detaining them and really wreaking havoc on their lives and scaring the heck out of them,” says Mr. Novak, whose clients have included foreign scholars so treated. “It seems an insane policy to be arresting scientists, artists, professors, and students who have done everything properly and do a great job for our country.”

‘Temporary Permanent’

Customs and Border Protection officials did not make themselves available for an interview, despite repeated requests. A written statement ignored questions on the topic, instead providing general commentary on the purpose of internal checkpoints. “CBP Border Patrol agents conduct these types of operations periodically in key locations that serve as conduits for human and narcotics smuggling,” the statement said. “These operations serve as a vital component to our overall border security efforts and help sustain security efforts implemented in recent years.”

Customs and Border Protection also maintains that it can set up roadblocks—it prefers the term “temporary permanent checkpoints” for legal reasons—and question people on trains and buses or at transportation stations anywhere within 100 air miles of a U.S. border or seacoast. This broadly defined border zone encompasses most of the nation’s major cities and the entirety of several states, including Florida, Michigan, Hawaii, Delaware, New Jersey, and five of the six New England states. The American Civil Liberties Union—concerned about the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections against arbitrary searches and seizures—has called it the “Constitution-Free Zone.”

Officials of several universities located within 100 miles of the Canadian frontier told The Chronicle that their foreign students and faculty have experienced few serious problems as a result of the checkpoints, though they now tell students to carry their original documents with them at all times. The institutions include the University of Maine at Orono, University of Vermont, Wayne State University, Michigan Tech, and Western Washington University.

“You’ll always have a quirk here and there or an error now and then, but for the most part, things are working pretty well at the border, and we don’t have any troubles away from the border at all,” says Linda Seatts, director of Wayne State’s Office of International Students and Scholars. “We’re just elated about that.”

In upstate New York, it’s a different story. For reasons that remain unclear, Customs and Border Protection has had an aggressive presence away from the immediate border, especially around the northern city of Potsdam or in central New York cities like Rochester and Syracuse, which are relatively far from the nearest border crossings. Area residents say Border Patrol officers maintain a near-constant presence at Rochester’s bus station and frequently question passengers at the airport. They regularly board domestic Amtrak trains passing through the area en route from Chicago to New York, where they shine flashlights in sleeping passengers’ faces.

“We’ve had hundreds of students questioned and stopped and inconvenienced, and perhaps a dozen students, scholars, or family members who’ve been detained or jailed,” says Cary M. Jensen, director of the International Services Office at the University of Rochester. “For international visitors who see people boarding trains, pulling people off, asking for documents, it feels a lot like East Germany did when I visited in 1980.”

Foreign students and scholars are often reticent to speak with reporters, but college officials and immigration attorneys in the region described several hair-raising examples of what they regard as inappropriate and worrisome detentions of members of their community in the past four years. These include:

  • A Pakistani undergraduate at the University of Rochester was pulled off a Trailways bus to Albany in 2007, who thought carrying his student photo ID was sufficient for a short domestic trip. Mr. Jensen says the student was held for two weeks at a detention facility before he and his family could appear before a judge and prove they were in the country legally, with an asylum application pending.
  • A Chinese student at the State University of New York at Potsdam’s Crane School of Music was seized on a domestic Adirondack Trailways bus for lack of original immigration documents. He was released after a few hours, but a few days later agents came to campus, arrested him, and locked him up for three weeks at a detention facility several hours away, where inmates nicknamed him Smart Boy. Although the student’s change-of-status paperwork was in order—and was approved while he was in detention—he missed the start of classes and had to leave the institution. “He was very scared, and by the end of it, his whole demeanor had changed,” says Potsdam’s international-programs coordinator, Bethany A. Parker-Goeke. “He ended up leaving the country. His parents wouldn’t let him go back to the U.S.”
  • A University of Rochester doctoral student bound for a conference at Cornell University was taken from a bus and detained for hours at a police station even though he had all his documentation and was in legal status. Mr. Jensen says the Border Patrol agent didn’t understand the student’s paperwork, although it was typical for someone who had changed from a two-year master’s degree to a seven-year doctoral program. “We helped clear it up, but he missed the conference,” Mr. Jensen recalls.
  • A scholar at an undisclosed institution in Rochester was arrested at the airport while on his way to visit his wife, a student at an institution out of state. Both had H1B visas, had applied for permanent residence status, and had permission from Citizenship and Immigration Services to live, work, and travel while their applications were adjudicated, according to their attorney, Mr. Novak. But Customs and Border Protection officers “treated him like a criminal and threw him in the clink. The wife didn’t dare come to pay the bond to get him out because they would throw her in jail, too.”
  • A Potsdam student was briefly detained last summer while doing turtle research with her professor in a local swamp. “Border Patrol was there asking for documents,” Ms. Parker-Goeke says. “She’s in a swamp—she doesn’t have her documents.” The professor was able to persuade the agents to call the university to clear up the student’s status.

“I have concerns for people who are legally here and making a great contribution but could get stuck in the system,” says Brendan P. O’Brien, director of the International Students and Scholars Office at Cornell University. Recently a foreign visiting-faculty member at the university missed a conference in Chicago because customs agents didn’t understand his change-of-status papers. “What’s happening is more than just a minor inconvenience.”

Too Many Resources?

It’s unclear why the situation in upstate New York is more serious than in other parts of the country, including areas with high border traffic volumes, like Detroit and northeastern Washington State. Some university officials and immigration lawyers suspect that Customs and Border Protection’s Rochester station has been given more resources than it knows what to do with, reportedly expanding from seven to 27 agents since May 2008. There are no ports of entry in its jurisdiction, which lacks a land boundary with Canada.

“Basically they have nothing to do, so they’ve come up with a really easy way to arrest a lot of people through internal enforcement,” says Nancy Morawetz, of the New York University School of Law, who has represented individuals caught up in the sweeps and procured arrest information from Customs and Border Protection via the Freedom of Information Act. The records have shown that less than 1 percent of those arrested on buses and trains in the Rochester area had entered the country within the past three days, and that none of them could be shown to have entered from Canada, she says. “I think that data is incredibly powerful,” Ms. Morawetz says, “because it shows that all this aggravation and hardship has essentially nothing to do with the Border Patrol mission” of securing the border.

“In a country where 5 percent of the population lacks status, it’s not hard to pick up bodies by going into any crowded station and asking people where they were born,” she says. “This isn’t about securing our borders. It’s about making life as uncomfortable as possible for those out of status and not caring how it makes foreign students or professionals feel.”

Customs and Border Protection headquarters did not make anyone available to discuss the programmatic purpose of the sweeps and checkpoints, and its written statement said only that it “performed in direct support of immediate border-enforcement efforts and as a means of preventing smuggling organizations from exploiting existing transportation hubs to travel to the interior of the United States.” An official who could speak for the situation in upstate New York did not keep a scheduled telephone interview.

The operations officer at the Swanton, Vt., sector office, Mark Henry, said it didn’t set up highway checkpoints to use excessive manpower. “We set them up based on intelligence,” he said. “Naturally our first concern is with terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, but we’re an all-threats agency, so it can be related to narcotics trafficking and all kinds of law enforcement.”

Some near-border institutions refused to discuss the effects of highway stops and roving patrols on their foreign students. The Swanton office of Customs and Border Protection occasionally sets up roadblocks on Interstate 91 in White River Junction, Vt., a few miles from Dartmouth College’s campus, but a spokesperson for the college, Sarah A. Memmi, said it would not “contribute to your story.” Similarly, officials at the international office of the University of North Dakota said the institution did not wish to comment on the situation in its region.

“Ever since 9/11, nobody wants to be painted as being indifferent to the terrorist threat, so schools advise people to avoid saying anything that might paint the institution as undermining counterterrorism enforcement,” said Victor Johnson, senior public-policy adviser at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “That’s part of the reason we don’t hear that much about it.”

Fortunately, institutions report that foreign enrollments haven’t been affected, with several seeing substantial increases in recent years. The Rochester Institute of Technology, for instance, has seen 50-percent growth in its foreign enrollment since 2005, according to its director of international student services, Jeffrey W. Cox. “We’ve been active in preparing them for whatever they might encounter,” he said. Its advice: “When you leave the suburb of Henrietta,” where RIT is located, “always have your documents with you.”

“The F-1 Student Visa Process Explained”

Today at work I’m doing the annual “Cultural Adjustment Check-In” with my international freshmen. We reshow the Youtube videos from international orientation on culture shock and cultural adjustment, and see where students are in “phase II–or ‘what am I doing here?!'” and their coping strategies and questions (plus we give them lots of pizza).

I decided to show one of my favorite “Piled Higher and Deeper” PHD comicsThe F-1 Student Visa Process Explained.” As most of your significant others (or perhaps you the reader) are (or were at one point)  international students I figured you could appreciate it:

You can see the original at the link above if this looks a little blurry