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Today was supposed to be a day that I did a boring task no one likes. I got up a little earlier than normal, so I’d have enough time to do my hair and add a little makeup because right after dropping off my son at daycare, I’d be headed to my mundane, possibly time consuming task.
What task you ask? Renewing my driver's license.
Renewing my License
Even though I hated having to do it, there is a huge part of me that breathed a sigh of relief because this mundane task in the past was arduous and stressful. You see, I’m a naturalized United States citizen and before, when I’d had to get or renew a driver’s license, there were all these other steps, forms and things that had to be done. Funny enough, I was recently featured by another blogger on my story of relocating from Jamaica to the U.S., but in that blog post, I focused on what it was like adjusting to a new place. This post is not nearly so happy or optimistic.
If I'm being honest, during that time, whenever I had to do anything involving the government, I was stressed the night before and unable to sleep because the entire process was so long, drawn out and difficult, but not this time.
Today, I was a citizen and I had even checked carefully on the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) website to ensure things would go smoothly. It said that if there had been no change in name or address and if I was a citizen, I simply needed to report with my current license. Even though I could have done the renewal online, I decided to invest the time to have everything squared away quickly and get my temporary license immediately.
So, like I said, I woke up a little earlier, put on a little makeup, dropped off my little one and started the 15 minute drive to the DDS facility.
Once, I got there I was pleasantly surprised, the paper forms and clipboards were gone. I was directed to a computer where I filled out my application form. Next, I went to a machine where I received a ticket with a letter and numbers. As I walked to find a seat, my ticket was called.
Hmm, impressive. I went to the counter, handed my ticket to the customer service agent along with my driver’s license and marveled at how much more efficient the DDS was compared to my previous visits. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was a citizen now.
That’s when I realized that my agent had started speaking to the agent right next to her and I heard the word citizen mentioned. I tried to focus on the words they were speaking and realized she had said, “She checked that she’s a citizen, but she’s not.”
Not a Citizen
I couldn’t even stop myself. Before I knew it, I was answering. “I checked that I’m a citizen because I am. I have been since 2015. I had to go to the Social Security Office and DDS after becoming a citizen to update all this information. Is there a problem?”
“Ma’am, according to our records, you’re a permanent resident. I need to call this in.”
At this point, she went to get a phone and continued to speak to the agent next to her. On my end, I was becoming flustered. The flow of emotions and memories of over 18 years of being an immigrant and of years spent dealing with immigration, citizenship, immigration officers, a detention room, a strip search and airport issues swam to the surface.
Then, I started thinking of the 4 years after marriage dealing with huge financial expense, not being able to work, fingerprinting, eye scans, driving to interviews and testing. This was all supposed to be done. We did all the right things, I passed the test, and I’m a citizen now. I somehow started to feel like the same scared teenager, who was alone without her family, wondering what she had done wrong, wondering why she was being treated that way.
As my internal struggle raged, they continued their conversation. I finally mustered up the nerve to ask, “What do I need to do at this point?”
“Well, do you have any documentation you can bring in?”
“Yes, I have everything you can imagine. What do you need? Passport, Naturalization certificate…? My question trailed off as she said, “Passport.”
“Ok.” I felt defeated. We had gone through countless hours, days, months and years of the immigration process to get to the point where I was a citizen and here, 4 years after I had been granted citizenship, I was having to go through more hoops.
As I got in the car, my fingers dialed automatically.
“You were right. I should have brought my passport. Why is this happening again? They say I’m not a citizen. The computer screen said that I wasn’t, even though we did everything they told us, even though I updated everything. I have to go home to get my passport and then come back.”
My husband just said, “Babe, I'm sorry. I think you should go ahead and try to take care of this today to make sure that it doesn’t get more out of control.”
“I’m headed home now. I’ll keep you posted.”
Welcome Back to the U.S.
As I hung up, I could feel the tears brimming at the surface. I remember distinctly coming back from visiting my family in Jamaica as an undergraduate one Christmas. Everything at the Jamaican airport, Norman Manley international, went well. Everything was fine until I got to the Atlanta airport. I was accustomed to the eye scan, fingerprinting, checking my luggage and detailed questions about every aspect of the trip, but this time I was asked to leave the customs line and follow them to a room.
It was cold. There was nothing on the walls except for a flag and a picture of the president. The room had an awful red/orange color on the walls. It had several rows of chairs, and this is where I was directed. Looking around the room, I could see another section of the room with a glass window and a separate smaller room. A female officer came to get me, escorted me there and then proceeded to do a more detailed search. That’s as much as I’m willing to say about that, so I can keep the tears at bay. Finished, I was taken back to have a seat and I saw that my luggage was now in the room as well.
I remember thinking how worried my parents would be. I always called them as soon as I landed, so that they knew I had made it safely, and so they wouldn’t worry. No one told me anything. I overheard them saying something about student visa documentation and some other words I couldn’t quite make out. I summoned the courage to ask one of the officers walking by if she could tell me why I was in the room and she replied that there were two international student identification numbers coming up when they searched for me and that was indicative of some type of problem.
I asked quietly, “Has anyone contacted my school? My international student adviser always tells us to call her, no matter when, if there’s a problem.” Actually, she made a point of meeting with us before we traveled to walk us through the forms, print out what was needed and make sure we had everything in order.
I fished in the bag I always carried with my passport and other documentation and gave them the letter she had typed, where she had her cell phone number printed as well.
It was taking everything in me not to cry, but I just wanted to leave this place. I wanted to go back to my dorm room, climb to my bed on the top bunk and cry.
Mercifully, they got a hold of Christy, my international student adviser, and they figured out that somehow when she had renewed my international work permit (so I could work on campus in our college library and at our fitness center) my old number hadn’t been kicked out of the system, so there were two numbers that came up when they searched for my name.
No one knew why it hadn’t flagged when I left the country, but they handed me my luggage and told me I could go. No apology, no anything, just that I could go.
I cried the entire ride back in the shuttle from the airport and for a long time in my room, until I fell asleep.
By now, I had made it home and gone to where we kept our important documents. I grabbed the passport and headed back to the car. I had to keep moving and not think too much or I’d become too emotional.
Back in the car, the memories continued to take over me. I didn’t travel internationally for a while after being “detained” and when I did it was with my husband. I thought that things would be better. I was married and was a permanent resident and my husband was with me.
Marriage Renewal Present
Yeah, no such luck. Departing from the U.S. was fine. It was again the re-entry that was an issue. We were separated into different lines and it took much longer for me to clear customs with the additional eye scan, fingerprinting and questions.
My husband, unfortunately, got to see how different traveling experiences were for me and he was powerless to help.
We had thought things were already difficult, but clearly we were mistaken. Immediately after being married, I couldn’t work, my husband had to prove he could support me financially, on his own, so I wouldn’t become a burden to the state or country. We weathered those storms. We understood that precautions had to be taken for the safety of everyone. I used to joke with my husband that he must really love me to keep going through all the hoops and expenses the immigration process entailed. He would always just wave me off and help me start filling out the new forms we’d received.
Becoming an American Citizen
Finally after two years of marriage and being a permanent resident, we were able to start the process of my immigration to the United States. We were finally able to begin the paperwork to becoming an American citizen. If we thought things had been difficult before, we were sorely mistaken. I had to get character witness letters from my employer, fill out applications that were several pages long and pay large sums of money. There was more. We had to drive to Atlanta for fingerprinting, eye scans and interviews. It felt like a never ending barrage of “things”.
I was finally back at the DDS. I walked in armed with my United States passport and went to the machine again to get another ticket. Like last time, my number was called before I even had a chance to sit. To the credit of the ladies there today, they worked very efficiently. I walked over to the new customer service agent, this time with a lot of baggage rumbling around in my head.
“Good morning, I was here before and went home to get my passport.” I handed my license, social security card, ticket and passport to her.
She smiled nicely at me and then asked me if I could wait a moment. She left and I heard her say, “She has a passport. I’m new. I can’t do this.”
I heard them asking her in the distance, “Is it a U.S. passport?”
“Well, then you can do it.”
She came back to me and started typing on her computer. Another agent came with her. As they continued to talk I asked, “Why is this happening? I brought all this in before? Why does it still say I’m not a citizen?”
The agent who had walked back with her got a confused look on her face.
We’re so Sorry
“Ma’am, we’re so sorry. I’m not sure, but when you brought this in before, it should have been called in, so that we could make the necessary changes in our system.”
She said that while dialing. She gave the person on the other end of the phone my name, some identification numbers and hung up.
Then they did some punching on the computer and told me everything was fixed. Apparently, there had been signs that things were awry, but I didn’t know enough to realize them. I had only worried about the part before becoming a citizen. I never imagined there would be more once I was a citizen. For example, at the top of the driver's license I had brought in today was the phrase Limited Term, which meant that I wasn’t a citizen. Someone, when I had come to the DDS before, had skipped steps and as a result of their error, I got a front seat trip back to all the hurt I'd felt going through the process of immigrating to the United States.
They kept apologizing, but I was back in my head by then.
Steps to Citizenship
I made trips to Atlanta, on my own, to check all the boxes and studied for a citizenship test that most natural born Americans would probably not be able to pass. It got to the point where I had a huge binder filled with everything I knew was needed: marriage certificate, photos, bank statements, letters of recommendation and more. I even had to go to Atlanta with my husband and be interviewed together to prove that our relationship and marriage was real.
After that, I had to go back on my own to take the citizenship test over United States history. Can you tell me when the constitution was signed and which amendment covers the right for women to vote? I can. The test covers facts from the very beginning of the United States to present day facts, related to the government. Thank the Lord I was teaching fourth grade Social Studies, at the time, and already had most of that information committed to memory.
Mercifully, after that final test, which I passed, I was told I was a citizen. I was sworn in, given a certificate and had pictures taken. My family even threw me a citizenship party. Foolishly, after that process, I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking it was finally over.
“Ma’am, here’s your temporary license. Thank you for being so nice, even though you had to go through that.”
“It wasn’t your fault. Thank you."
“I hope your day gets better."
Before my husband could say anything, when I called him back, I said, “It’s done now. They fixed it. I’m going home. I can’t understand how this happened. I did everything they told me to. I came back after becoming a citizen and provided all the documentation.”
“I know, I know, but at least it’s finished now.”
After all these years, I've lost the ability to believe that this will ever be finished.
Now, it makes sense why when I reported to my polling station to vote, they wouldn’t allow me to until I went home and came back with my passport.
In those encounters, no one had explained that my driver's license had something on it that designated that I wasn’t a citizen and there's no information in any of the immigration literature that tells you what to look out for after becoming a citizen.
This entire journey has been challenging. It has been filled with mistakes, unnecessary difficulties, poor communication and in many cases unkindness and a lack of human decency. Today, I just have one more question to ask, “When will I finally be a citizen?”
If you are in the process of immigrating to the United States, here are my recommendations:
1. I highly recommend getting an immigration lawyer. I did not because I honestly underestimated the process and I regret it.