July 5 2020
RENEWING MY PERMANENCYby Lillu (Zega Aydelehum) Tesfa
It took me a while to realize that the 00 in the expiration date of my Permanent US Residency (a.k.a Green) Card actually meant 2000 and not zero-zero, as in "it will never expire." So, shoot me. I was fresh out of school and too wrapped up in learning the fine art of padding my resume for university to ponder too deeply why they would put a non-expiring expiration date on my permanent residency card. Besides, I thought Permanent meant...well, PERMANENT, you know, as in FOREVER. Combine the 00 with Permanent and...anyway, I belabor the point.
It all started with a dream. No, not the Martin Luther King kinda dream where "...all Jews, gentiles, Christians and Legal Immigrants (who pay their taxes fully and on time - mostly because they haven't yet mastered the miracle of itemized deductions, who believe in buying Japanese cars made in Ohio, and who barbecue zilzil Tibs on the 4th of July) are treated equally...," but one of those more-real-than-reality dreams where you wake up shaking and in a panic. In the dream, my green card has just expired and INS troopers are storming my apartment Elian Gonzales style, looking to forcibly eject me into the Atlantic, expecting me to swim all the way back home - no inner tube, no shark-fighting dolphins, no Cuban fishermen coming to my rescue....
The first thing I did after I rubbed my eyes into focus (and checked my closet for an armed INS man) was to hunt up my green card. There it lay on my desk, held securely in place by a pencil cup in which I kept two minnie staff flags - both green-gold-red and embossed with the Lion of Judah. I picked it up, dusted it off and peered at the expiration date. It read: 08-10-00. I looked at my wall calendar: Friday, August 4, 2000 - can I have a group ooffoy! please?
My sense of relief was fleeting. As anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting up with an INS clerk would know, I anticipated going in for the process of renewing my permanency with all the pleasure of visiting a dentist...for a wisdom tooth extraction...a root canal...and gum surgery. Let's just say I wasn't fighting off the demons of pleasure. So, like the certified procrastinator I am, I waited until the day before E-Day (Ejection Day), before I dragged myself in to the nearest INS office in Arlington, Virginia.
Their hours of operation, you get to find out after a 15-minute drone of "...and if you'd like to...please press 31..." is from 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM. I got there at 10:15 AM, appropriate form filled out, my soon-to-expire green card and my 2 $10 green card photos (yes, this is a Capitalist nation, after all) all tucked into a manilla envelope, ready to be produced with flourish for the Garfield-eyed, life-is-oh-so-interesting clerk behind window number 5.
I never got there.
The turbaned clerk at the Information window told me that I had to wait in what looked like an unbelievably short line to get to the little machine that printed out the "now serving X" tickets. I thought: Hey, maybe they've upgraded this whole thing from the lest- you- forget- where- you- came- from third-world experience to the digital age. I got in line with a smile and waited. And waited. The line was not moving. Was I wrong about the digital age? Should I pull out my dime novel and start reading to pass the time? Should I ask the German guy in front of me how long he'd been waiting? My eyes wandered to the listless people in the waiting area. I wondered smugly if they were in for the long haul, not the 20 to 30 minutes maximum I was sure it was going to take me to get my renewal. I read and re-read the sign on the wall: YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE TREATED WITH RESPECT. I read the supervisor's name printed in smaller font right below and wondered if I should memorize his telephone number - just in case.
Just then, a security/information guy came in and addressed the German guy and me. Had we not seen the "This Section Closed" sign upon entry? Uh...No. Did we have an appointment or a referral card? Blink...blink... Then I gathered my wits about me and stammered something about turban-man at window one who'd said I should stand in this line. Oh, no, no, baby... (Baby!?)... you need to go down to Room 102. Room 102? On my way out, I gave turban-man the best gilmiCHa I could muster on short-notice. I thought about the RIGHT TO BE TREATED WITH RESPECT notice and wondered if turban-man's supervisor would be interested in my complaints.
In the elevator, I ran into a fellow African woman. We smiled at each other in mute understanding - we were both dancing to the same tune.
In Room 102, there was a line of about 25 people and only one clerk. She had that I-used-to-be-a-postal-worker-in-my-other-life vivacity about her. I joined the line and prepared to wait. It took me only 45 minutes to reach her. It took her all of 10 seconds to tell me, without once looking at me, that I had to go to their other office in Alexandria. Didn't I know they had moved their Permanent Residency Card Renewal Processing Office? Of course I did. Naturally, I knew. I just waited 45 minutes for a closer look at your goatee...and it's a real shame your doctor wasn't able to file down those little horns right above your temple, I said...in my head. Out loud, I thanked her with that inbred Ethiopian politeness I have not been able to shake, even after 20 years of eating burgers and dropping my consonants.
It was nearly 1:00 PM by the time I got to the other office, located near a post office. I wondered idly if the INS clerks switched places with postal workers in shifts. This branch of the INS was a wide open room with very few people. In fact, in this office, there were many more clerks than wanna-be-residents. As you walk in, there is a wall of step-by-step instructions. I followed them to the letter and then went to the clerk behind the information desk. Oh, no, she said, I know nothin' about renewing green cards. I only do new ones. You gotta talk to Gabriel. Gabriel! Hey, where's Gabriel!
Gabriel, it turns out, is an Abesha who didn't dabble in either Amharic (even though he spoke English with a betraying accent) or "hook-ups." He was, however, polite enough and helpful. He told me exactly what to do and gave me a new form to fill out. The one I had already filled out, he said, was the old form. To my novice eyes, they looked identical, but by now you've learned that no one wins an argument with the INS (can we all say: ELIAN?) so I filled out the form ...again...word for word...copying what I had on the other (older) form. I handed it in to him.
You have photos? Yes. Your old card? Yes? Check for $110? Whachu talkin' about Willis? $110!? Hey, said Gabriel, it's cheap enough to get your green card, don't you think? But, I already have my green card. It's not a license. Why do I have to renew it to begin with? Gabriel smiled. Look on the bright side, he said. You have to pay $250 when you get your citizenship. Hey, that's if. IF. Not when. Besides, at least I get to vote as a citizen. What do I get as a born-again permanent resident? Shouldn't my "taxation without representation" dollars take care of my forced renewal? Blink...blink...
Gabriel pointed me to a separate waiting area. Will this take long? I asked him. Just a few minutes, he reassured me. It was now 1:15 PM. By 1:45 PM, I had to acknowledged to myself that Gabriel's notion of a few minutes differed ever so slightly from mine. At 2:00 PM, I ventured to the information desk, polite mask back on, and asked how much longer I should expect to wait. I was told that the clerk (the one clerk out of the 15 or so horsing about) was out to lunch. I thought, hey, perhaps I could start my own version of Hell Hole Diaries: This Side of the Ocean, while I waited.
The guy came back from lunch 15 minutes late. No one reprimanded him. No one pointed to us, the poor slobs waiting on hard chairs for his return, and screamed at him on our behalf. The guy was obviously a retiree, a Korean man who hunted-and-pecked my information into his computer while he said only the necessary phrases in English: come with me; you have old green card?; where your application form; and [the zinger] you have copy of green card?
Copy of green card? No, you have my green card. See? Right there.
No, no! I need copy. Both sides. You go to post office nextdoor.
By this time, you could have de-fibbed someone's heart with the heat and electricity sparking off my ears. It took me a little while, but I managed to stretch my lips into a wonderful facsimile of a smile. Sure, I said. I'll be right back.
He finished processing my renewal and said: you wait now; my supervisor must sign.
Wait? Oh, you mean, w-a-i-t. Well, there's a skill I haven't practiced in a while. Sure, I'll wait. Just for a few minutes, or will I have time to find a husband, get married, bear and raise my children before your supervisor scratches out an X for my $110!?
As it turned out (by golly, by gum, by gosh!) the same clerk who'd told me that the clerk I needed to see was out to lunch turned out to be the supervisor who had to sign off on the paperwork. The phrase "going-postal" suddenly had personal meaning for me. It flashed before my eyes in big red letters. I let myself contemplate the merits of joining the NRA. I felt my intestinal grip on my sanity slip dangerously. But, to mitigate it all, I smiled at her - a big Ben-Amir-boy, 13-months-of-sunshine poster, you-can't-break-me! smile - and complemented her on the nice earth-tone colors of the scarf she wore with such elan.
She thanked me, signed my papers and gave me back my old green card with a shiny new sticker on it with a new expiration date for my permanent residency. The good news is that they will mail (there is a God!) my new green card to me in 3 to 6 months. The bad news is that I'll have to do this dance again in 2010. Unlike childbirth, you don't forget this pain.