Coming to America Mostly Legally

So I’m an American citizen.  Born one, in the heartland of America, rah rah rah.  But a few days before I left for Georgia, I realized I couldn’t find that elusive blue book that proved it.  I did the perfunctory search of places where I stash important things, but no passport.  (Although I did unexpectedly find my brother’s birth certificate. I should get that back to him.)

This was about five days till take off.  I told myself not to panic. It has to be somewhere in the apartment.  The apartment isn’t even that big.  It’s just a matter of being systematic.  Well, the problem is, the apartment isn’t that big, but I have a lot of stuff.  I have hundreds, maybe thousands?, of books, and boxes upon boxes of art materials and photographs and old school materials and pieces of rocks and shells and industrial debris I’ve have in stages of transformation into jewelery.  I have many piles of homework that students never picked up, augmented by London Reviews of Books which, I swear, I will get around to reading.  In short, there were a lot of places for a passport to hide.

But I was systematic.  At T-4 days, I scoured my bedroom, the most sparsely cluttered room.  Afterall, passports love hiding in underwear drawers, but apparently not this one.  But that’s where I was sure it was, so I emptied my dresser, took out the drawers, sure I’d see that golden stamp grinning at me, flattened against the inside of the backboard.  No.  I found some t-shirt I’d forgotten I owned as well as the “odd socks” box that was hiding back behind my dresser.  I’ve long since embraced that odd socks also deserve to be worn, so it was sort of like getting ten new pairs of socks.  But no passport.

T-3 and I’m panicky.  I start on the common space, where all the book shelves and filing cabinents are, combing through piles of papers, magazines, letters I need to respond too, finding lots of cool stuff, but no passport.  I call home.  I never travel with my passport when I go to St. Louis, but I’d been home a few weeks before, and at a loss for leads, started wondering if I maybe accidently brought my passport with me, then accidently dropped it somewhere in my parents’ house.  Yes, that could happen.  For sure.  If that’s what happened, they have a day to nose around the house and still express it to me in time.  Exhale, yes, it’ll be fine.

In our family, there basically three spots for important things.  A folder on the shelf in the breakfast room (second from the top), the junk drawer in the kitchen (more of a former bastion of importantish stuff, but still worth checking) and on top of the microwave.  The microwave is key. My hope lay in the microwave.

My mother, who is the most capable and on the ball person ever, the consummate problem-solver, was at a conference and out of town.  My dad is also good at problem solving and wildly organized and level headed. I explained the situation.  My dad kept telling me that losing a passport just wasn’t “like me,” which was comforting.  I’m not a passport-loser!  That means it will show up.  Of course, as soon as I explained the dilemma to my dad, he went to the microwave.  Those moments, between telling him, “I’m flying to Georgia is 72 hours and don’t have a passport” and his arrival at the microwave were pregnant with naïve hope.  All important things have a magnetic pull to the microwave.  It’s the Delphic energy center of our household, planted in the middle of the kitchen, offering just enough surface area for birthday checks, wedding bands, bank statements of traveling children, and, in years past, the occasional retainer or mouth guard or signed permission slip. I became convinced my passport had escaped to its natural habitat, to be with another passport and a pair of my sister’s earrings and that photo of my brother from fifteen years ago that we keep meaning to scan.

It wasn’t.  A moment of silence.  “Dad, you’re sure it’s not on the microwave?!” Bear in mind that I’ve never consciously brought my passport to STL in the past four years. It was still a real disappointment.  I told Dad where the other hot spots in the house were, and he promised to check those and then have Mom look when she was back as well.  I am in my mid-late 20’s, and I still feel that if Mom and Dad are on the task force, it’ll be fine.  But for the time being, there was still no passport.

At this point, I started to think outside of the box.  I’d been convinced that I would find the passport somewhere, so I didn’t want to report it lost, and I also didn’t think I could get an emergency passport in time.  Passport websites are so sneaky, there are rarely phone numbers, you just have to apply online for an appointment.  Nothing was available for before I left and each page insisted there was a seven day minimum for even expedited passports. Plus, I hated the idea of paying exorbitantly to bribe the government to process my passport in two days just because my apartment has eaten it.

 

I had an alternative.  I also have an Irish passport.  My maternal grandparents immigrated from Ireland, and under semi-recentish legislation, it’s pretty easy for first and second generation Irish folk to get Irish citizenship.  Part of the whole save-and-repopulate Ireland project of the EU.  I’d filed for the passport a few years ago, back when things were a little brighter in Ireland, and I figured that if my academic life didn’t go as planned, I could rock out some humble but enjoyable existence in a state-supported society.

At T-2, I started arranging to travel as an Irishwoman.  I called my airline to make sure the passport number I’d entered to purchase my ticket wasn’t binding.  Nope.  I checked Georgian travel/immigration rules for the Irish: you can stay up to 360 days without a visa. Nice.  The only problem, of course, would be getting back into America.  I was optimistic, on the Irish Consulate website it says that the Irish travel visa free to the US, so no worries.  Everything would be fine.  My boyfriend, who has a much deeper distrust of border police and generally folks in uniforms, admonished me to be careful.  If I enter as an Irish person, they’ll want me to leave within 90 days as an Irish person.  “They’re really going to come find me?! I’ll explain the missing passport…” But he was much less optimistic about the INS and their sense of humor for a little international-travel-gone-amuck story.  Which made me nervous.

Luckily enough, around this time, two friends of mine, both dual citizens (one US-EU, on South Africa-EU) assured me that people travel back and forth on all kinds of passports.  No one checks, no one cares, you can come in as one nationality and leave as another.  Just make sure to have some kind of passport.  This was more fitting to my sensibilities.  Plus, I was like, really, who thinks a young Irish lady is the immigration problem? (Well, right now, let’s not get into the past 150 years).  I’ll cruise on through, no problem.

And for the most part, that’s what happened.  I went through Newark security as an Irish lady, for the first time, and was a bit bashful when two consecutive security guards commented on my citizenship, “Ireland, great!” “Oh cool, you’re from Ireland.”  One of them asked me if I’d liked America.  I was marginally honest, “Oh lots, I’ve spent a bunch of time here.”  I should have said less, so that they couldn’t hear my non-Irish accent.  I felt a bit like an imposter.

Then I had a layover in Poland, which was super weird, because for all intensive purposes, my passport is the same as a Poles.  We’re brothers in some EU project of modernity.  So strange.  No problems arriving in Georgia, although the border lady combed through my passport thrice because there wasn’t a single stamp in it.  There are probably not that many people who come to Georgia without a single trace of any other travel.

And I was set! I had arrived in Georgia as an Irishwoman and I wouldn’t have to deal with the problem for another two months, when I tried to reenter.  A few times, I needed my passport in Georgia, or had to list my citizenship on something, and it became more and more fun to write “IRELAND.”  Everyone loves the Irish.  Everyone.  The Irish don’t try to police the world, or culturally or economically colonize weaker states.  The Irish like to drink, and are pious.  The Irish tell jokes and write novels and plays and sing songs that are uniquely suitable for use in both nurseries and bars.  I liked being Irish.  I also liked my Irish passport more than my blue one.  My blue passport features an awkward, dorky sixteen year old version of myself.  My spiffy new burgundy baby has a golden harp on the cover and the mysterious Gaelic written throughout it.  Plus, they require that you use a black and white photo, and since I specialize in doing a blank stare when photographed, it looks like I’m some 1920’s Irish girl, getting photographed for the first time for her big trip on the boat or something.  Yes. Beats awkward teen shots anyday.

So that was the plus side.

 

While in Georgia, I’d joked with my friends about the passport mix up, and more than one of them recommended that I just reapply for a US travel passport in Georgia.  Like my boyfriend, they were wary of the idea of just sauntering into the US as a tourist and then trying to morph into a citizen.  Plus, it’d be easier to get one in Georgia, and the embassy was only a cab ride away.  I hemmed, hawed, and decided it’d be just as wise to get it over with. I filled out dozens of online forms, but the problem with those dang automated systems is that there’s no room for the uniqueness of your situation!  Naturally, there was no provision in the form for filling out that you had lost your passport in the States, but needed a replacement in Georgia.  I tried to indicate that my passport had been lost in Georgia, so that it would stop re-routing me to the DC office, but it wouldn’t let me cancel my passport (which I had to do before trying to meet with a US representative) and simultaneously get a Georgian appointment.  It was all confusing, and in the end, I made an appointment under false pretenses, got the Georgian appointment, maybe canceled my old passport (still unclear), but missed the appointment after all. We were traveling, and I tried to rebook the appointment, but didn’t realize the only way to reschedule an appointment was to retain a confirmation number from the application window which I had long since closed. Oops.  I also just didn’t care at this point, and was becoming convinced that I could just make it to the States fine.  I am a member of the EU!  We are comrades in democratic values and economic meltdowns!

One of my American friends in Tbilisi, who kinda knows how everything everywhere works, advised me that I may need to apply for some sort of online visa.  Huh?  He was pretty sure of this, but I looked on the Irish website, and it looked like I was in the clear.  90 days, no need for a visa. I assured him otherwise and then lived my footloose and fancy free Irish life till it was time to depart.

So international flights leave Tbilisi between 3 and 5 am.  Yeah, not so fun.  I’d stayed up pretty late the night before, gotten up early, and then just stayed awake the whole next day and night until we caught a cab at 2:45am for our 4:40am flight.  I was not feeling spiffy.  My boyfriend, who was with me on the same flight, was fighting terrible food poisoning or something, so he was doing much, much worse.  We were not at our best.

We flew from Tbilisi to Warsaw and once in Warsaw, we had a six hour layover.  We just laid out our stuff on the floor of the airport and slept.  I had stolen (ahem, borrowed) a pillow from the previous flight, which kind of made sleeping on the floor better.  It was also carpeted, which is nice.  I’ve slept on linoleaum airport floors and they are way less comfortable.  Plus, the Warsaw airport is super not-sketchy.  And I was among my EU brethren.  What could go wrong?

After a two hour nap or so, I couldn’t sleep anymore, and did the duty free stroll, pacing the terminal, looking at stuff that’s still a rip off even if its duty free, and debating spending too much money on a single coffee.  Then I hear an announcement.  All passengers traveling to NYC from Tbilisi must check in at the LOT desk.  Weird.

I go get my ticket and passport and my boyfriend’s as well, who is most laying in a semi-daze on the ground.  I head to the transit info desk and hand the LOT (the airline) lady our passports and boarding pass.  She clicks away and then looks at me.

“ESTA?”

“Hmmm?”

“Do you have your ESTA?”

I didn’t know what she was trying to say, I thought maybe “esta” was how Poles say “stay”, like how the Spanish have problems with word initial S+consonants (fork and espoon, anyone?)…

“Yes, I have somewhere to stay.”

“No…you have green card?”

“Oh, no.”

“A visa? A work permit?”

“Um, no.”

“You must have.”

“Uh, no, I didn’t think so…”

“Where do you live?”

“In New York.”

“How?”

“Well, I’m American.”

“Where is your passport?”

“Um, I lost it, so I just used this one…”

There is something so decadent and ridiculous to tell someone that you are switching between passports.  As if, oh, I can’t find my favority jeans, so I’m wearing these ones in the meantime.

“Do you have any proof that you are an American?”  She’s already rolling her eyes to her fellow employees.  I get out my social security card.  She calls a supervisor.  I hear her trying to explain this dinky blue square of paper.  It has no picture on it.  Its not even laminated.  How is this security? She hangs up the phone.

“Sorry miss, I’m canceling your ticket.  You have to exit the airport, reenter and apply for an ESTA in our main office in the airport, and then check in again for the flight.  You will be reissued a ticket when you have entrance clearance.  The USA will not allow us to issue you a ticket without an ESTA or a green card.”

“Sorry, what is an ESTA?”

“It’s the form for entering the US.  It’s online.” She said online slowly, as if to let it really sink in how easy this could have all been.

Dang!  My friend was right!  There is a sneaky online visa-like thing you have to do! I half-heartedly tell her that there was no mention of this on the Irish website.  Like she cares. Plus, maybe there was.  But I bet it was written in Irish.  For true Irishpeople.

I go relay the news to the sick boyfriend. He sits up and stares as me sadly.  I assure him everything will be fine.

I leave the terminal.  I go through passport control and the guy asks where I’m staying in Poland.  I explain that I’m coming right back.  I need a visa to go to America, I’m just going to grab it and come back.  He almost laughs and waves me through. I leave the airport.  It’s a beautiful day in Warsaw.  Reenter airport and commence search for LOT office.  Hmmm, ends up its in a different terminal.  My flight leaves in an hour and forty five minutes.  Minor anxiety sets in.

The LOT office is manned by two very Polish looking Poles. They’re both in their 50’s, friendly, and remarkably accommodating.  They sit me down behind their desk and pull up the ESTA application.  They warn me it will cost fourteen dollars.  I just nod.

The application is quite easy, but again, it asks for country of residence.  Just put America? But then I look funny.  But I don’t live in Ireland.  What if there are problems at Immigration and they ask why I lied?  I enter “USA” for country of residence.  The whole thing is pretty straight forward info plus a couple of mandatory security questions:

Am I a drug addict?  Do I have any mental or physical disorders?

Have I been arrested or convicted for an offense of crime involving moral turpitude? [!!?]

Have I ever taken a child from an American who had legal custody of said child? 

Have I every been involved in espionage or sabotage, terrorist activities or genocide? Was I involved, between 1933 and 1945, with the persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or any of their allies? 

I (honestly!) click “no” to all and wait.  Within two minutes my ESTA is approved and processed.  The friendly Poles print it out for me and then graciously let me know that normally people do this before they get to the airport, because it can actually take up to 72 hours to process.  I smile apologetically and thank them.

The rest of Warsaw was pure luck.  There was no line to check in, no line at security, no line at passport control.  I triumphantly return to the LOT transit representative with my ESTA.  Within half an hour, we’re boarding and I’m confident that now I’ll fly through immigration, armed with all necessary paperwork.

 

Nine and a half hours in the sky and we’re in New York.  The BF and I split to go through Immigration, he gets into the US passport line and I head for “Visitors.” (Should I go into the “Permanent Resident” line?  No, no, no, I’m here as a visitor!  My ESTA form tells me that it’s impossible to change my immigration status after I enter as a visitor.  That’s fine, within 90 days I’ll just get a new passport, go to Canada and reenter as an American. Worse case scenario…)

The lines are pretty short for visitors and I hop into the line that that queue-usher points me to.  Then I reevaluate.  My border officer doesn’t look friendly.  Maybe I should get into a different line with someone more smiley.  I’m about to turn around and look for a sweet, grandmotherly type border officer when a round-faced elderly woman gets in line behind me and starts talking.  She recognizes me from the flight from Warsaw, she’s nervous; she’s only speaking to me in Polish.  I want to tell her I can’t speak Polish, even though I too am in the “Visitor” line.  She keeps talking.  She grabs my arm.  I smile and start to desperately hope it’ll be my turn soon. She’s been talking a couple minutes.  It’s too late to say I can’t understand her.  I smile and try to murmur Polish sounds.  It’s my turn. Phew.

The border guard is a 30-something black woman with no smile.  I try to “good afternoon” her, but she just asks for my passport without looking up.

“Why are you coming to America?”

“Um, well, I’m going to stay here for a visit, to um…”

“Why are you coming and how long are you staying?”

Oh, screw it.

“Well, I actually live in America…”

“Excuuuuuse me?” She turned and gave me a real stink eye.

I should have switched lines!  I should have just extricated myself from the Polish woman and run!

“Yes, see, I’m actually an American, but I lost my American passport, so I, um, I’m traveling on my Irish passport.  See, I have an ESTA.”

“You can’t be in this line if you are an American.  You can’t just come into America as a visitor if you’re an American.”

My ESTA droops in my hand.

“Ah, I didn’t realize that.  See, I thought it would be alright to just travel here on this.”

“Do you have any proof that you’re an American?”

I show her that my Irish passport lists my place of birth as the USA and hand her my Social Security card.

She raises her eyebrows at me.

“You’re not allowed to be a dual citizen.  It’s not allowed in America.  It’s forbidden, so we can’t recognize this. You can’t be an American if you’re also Irish.”

Now I was really surprised.  I was 99.99% sure we do have dual citizens.  Hell, we let our own citizens JOIN THE ISRAELI ARMY.  I can’t just visit as an Irish woman? Instead, I focused and tried to be non-confrontational.  You must play cool, don’t offend sassy border police.  You can’t win with snark. Nor with acting like you know more about American policy than her.

“So, sorry, what should I do?” That seems harmless enough.

“You can’t enter America as something else if you’re already an American.” Exasperated sigh and she gives me this incredulous look that seems to say, “Girl, you are about to be in big trouble.” She actually says, “I’ll be back.”

She disappears with my passport and social security card.  I think of the boyfriend’s distrust of this whole endevaour, his tales of crossing the Syrian-Turkish border in Kurdistan.  This is not Kurdistan!  Can they interrogate me?  Deport me?  To where? Ireland? Georgia? Oh, Georgia would be nice…

After five minutes the woman returns.  She won’t speak to me, won’t look at me.  She stamps my passport, doesn’t even look at my ESTA.  Nor does she even pick up the immigration form I’d also had to fill out that includes my exit form for legally leaving the US as a visitor.  She just hands me back my passport and Social Security card.  Apparently, her supervisor did know that dual citizenship is allowed.  Victory!

Two hours later, I was back in my apartment in NYC.  I’ll deal with applying for my new American passport soon enough. In the meantime, consider this your guide to single-passport, dual-citizenly travel.  Sometimes things just work out.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Coming to America Mostly Legally

  1. Valerie

    You have one heck of a guardian angel!

  2. Mom

    Such a great story, glad you captured it while all the facial expressions were fresh on your mind. Thanks for the laugh.

  3. Bridget

    you rock, Britt! can you help me next time i travel with my 3 dual citizen offspring and visa-holding spouse? lots of forms to fill out!

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